Last week, I was fortunate enough to attend a joint conference of the APME, ASNE and APPM held at Stanford. Some of the most important people in journalism were on hand, including top editors from the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and National Geographic.
While I enjoyed the usual panel discussions and opportunities to meet with peers, the highlight for me was a chance to peek into the university’s famed d.school.
The school, more formally known as the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design within the university’s Engineering school, was founded 10 years ago. It was and remains a recognition that modern real-world problems require complex solutions that pair talented individuals across disciplines. How important is the concept? Melinda Gates, one of the world’s leading philanthropists, has said that “design thinking” is the most important innovation in years.
So what is it and what does it have to do with running a newsroom? I didn’t really know, either. …
At its base, design thinking is a human-centered focus coupled with a teachable process that rewards creative thinking. It’s not some pie-in-the-sky New Age thing. There are concrete steps that begin with empathizing with your audience and end with testing solutions – sometimes to problems you didn’t know you had before the process began. These are Big Ideas. Ideas about how to re-imagine your beat structure to deliver what readers want. Ideas about new digital presentations that catapult you onto the leading edge. Ideas about news delivery that may not even include reporters or print or … Design-thinking requires you to start fresh.
About three-dozen conference attendees were able to catch a glimpse of that process during a workshop held Oct. 16. Journalists and d.school instructors Justin Ferrell and Tran Ha led the discussion. Ferrell is a former designer at The Washington Post and Ha came to the d.school after a stint as editor and general manager of Chicago’s RedEye. Both bring extensive work in media and that lends credibility to their process.
The pair gave editors exercises designed to stoke creative fires, such as sketching the person in the next seat and designing a better carry-on travel bag. The answers weren’t important; the process was.
“How willing are you to try something you are not good at?” Ferrell asked. “If you want to create something unique in the world, you have to take a personal risk.”
As counter-intuitive as it sounds, design thinkers suggest that part of the problem inherent in reinventing the journalism business model is that experienced editors know too much. They tend to think of solutions that are only incrementally better than what exists rather than disruptions that change the game.
Design school founder David Kelley spoke during the opening night of the conference. He emphasized that creativity unleashed in service of the audience is the idea.
“I don’t think you have a choice but to innovate,” he told a crowded room of editors. “You have to have an experiment or two going all the time.”
Kelley noted that Google experiments sometimes come to nothing. He might have also pointed out that successful social experiments Instagram and Snapchat were born at the d.school. That’s no accident.
“The secret to our method is empathy for the person you are trying to serve,” he said. “That’s it.”
This will not be the last time you hear about design thinking and its potential for our newsrooms.