Design Thinking: Integrating Innovation, Customer Experience, and Brand Value
THE IMPORTANCE OF INTEGRATED THINKING
When our publisher suggested that I put together a book about design thinking, I wondered aloud: Hasn’t someone already done this? Well, evidently no one has, at least not in the sense of the current meaning. The publisher asked when I first encountered the idea of design thinking. He was surprised when I answered that it was about thirty years ago, when I was a young designer at CAMP7, one of the leading manufacturers of down sleeping bags and mountaineering gear at that time.
Years ago, state-of-the-art clothing for skiers and mountain climbers consisted of cotton long johns, wool sweaters, puffy down jackets, and a cotton/poly 60/40 outer layer that shed wind but not water. I was the head of design and development at CAMP7, and one day an engineer from 3M contacted me to discuss a new microfiber he was working with. We got to talking about clothing for outdoor sports, and he asked me if I knew why down keeps people warm. I realized that I did not. I thought it was something about those little puffy down “pods,” the more loft in them the better, but I finally had to admit that down equaled warmth to us in the industry, and in a way we basically thought of it as some kind of magic. But the 3M engineer knew much more than I did, and he explained that the “magic” was due to the combination of teeny-tiny nodes, which protrude from teensy-tiny barbules, which stem from the little tiny branches, which protrude from a single pod of down, which creates a tremendous amount of surface area, yet is invisible to the human eye. He even showed me microscopic photography of this. That day, the realm of scientific research arrived on the doorstep of the design of ski-wear and mountaineering gear.
This new microfiber the engineer had brought with him was something he had developed while working on a project to invent better brushes for commercial floor scrubbers: a synthetic material with maximum surface area for more scrubbing friction. He gave me a few sample yards of material and asked if I could make some outdoor gear out of it. So we made clothing and sleeping bags, used them in the Colorado mountains, and found they kept us warm, even in wet snowy conditions. It turns out that the greater surface area stops air movement due to friction, and thus helps prevent heat loss. The engineer invited me to 3M headquarters, where they photographed our current products and our new prototypes using a form of photography they had just developed called thermography. With thermography, it was possible to see exactly where heat was being lost. We all got very excited about this.
Not long afterwards, I started a research collaboration with the University of Colorado’s physiology department to study heat loss in cold-weather conditions. I discovered that there was very little existing research about how and why people lose heat when exercising in severely cold weather. We recruited students to exercise in a very large walk-in meat freezer on campus by working out on stationary bikes and treadmills in front of large fans simulating wind chill—really difficult conditions. We tested new prototype synthetic materials and variations of product designs against the traditional wool, cotton, and down. The results amazed us. For the first time, we were able to provide scientific evidence of how certain synthetic materials, such as polypropylene and polyolefin, when developed as a microfiber, wick moisture away from the body and in doing so keep people warmer as they exercise in freezing temperatures than traditional natural materials do. The 3M prototype material, a microfiber polypropylene, was later named Thinsulate.
We also tested another prototype material, which had a waterproof and breathable synthetic membrane, but allowed more moisture transfer and actually kept our test students warmer in action. This material was later named Gore-Tex.
In the coming year, CAMP7 was the first company in the world to make skiwear from Thinsulate and combine Thinsulate with Gore-Tex, and to be able to prove that these worked better than the century-old “status quo” materials. One reason we were relatively fast to market was because our CFO was also an avid skier and wanted to be involved with the testing. So, while we evaluated various designs, he considered potential business opportunity scenarios with us. Although our rough prototype clothing was rather “patchwork,” it worked very well. Soon we added western-style GoreTex shoulder yokes over the prototype Thinsulate ski jackets, and these worked well even in wet, snowy conditions. We gave prototype samples to our friends. They used them on climbing expeditions. This soon got the attention of the U.S. Nordic ski team, which trained in the area. The team members tested our prototypes, helped refine the components into a layered system, and then used our radical new clothing in the Winter Olympics.
The point of the story is that our innovation was successful, better products came to market, and people were more satisfied because a few open-minded designers teamed with some thoughtful engineers and with users who liked to experiment, developed and tested very rough prototypes, discovered flaws and reworked quickly, and included business analysis during the development process. I call this design thinking, and it was very successful. This was my first job, and it taught me quite early in my career some principles that have stayed with me to this day.
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