Earlier this year The Guardian underwent a rebrand introducing a new font, masthead and a tabloid format.  Design thinking has not only helped them change their funding model and boost revenue but also to adapt their culture and engage on an emotional level with their readers. Here Alex Breuer, Executive Creative Director and Tara Herman, Executive Editor, Design tell us how.

How does design thinking benefit an organisation?

I guess an easy way to begin to understand the value of design thinking is by exploring what it is. It is a problem-solving strategy whose focus is to get people to break out of the natural patterns that develop in all of us as we accumulate common knowledge and are manifest in repeated behaviour and decisions based on that accumulated knowledge. It used to be de rigueur to call it ‘thinking outside the box’. More practically it is a methodology used by designers to solve complex problems and find desirable solutions. It revolves around a deep interest in developing an understanding of the people for whom we’re designing products or services. It helps us observe and develop empathy with our customers. It is a process of questioning: questioning the problem, questioning assumptions, and questioning the implications. It is extremely useful in tackling problems that are ill-defined or unknown, by re-framing the problem in human-centric ways, developing ideas, and adopting a practical approach in prototyping and testing. At its best, it is also an iterative and agile process of ongoing experimentation: sketching, prototyping, testing and trying out concepts and ideas.

A wonderful catalyst for change and evolution

There are several ways of viewing the benefits of design thinking within an organisation. As a process it is a wonderful catalyst for change and evolution. Internally it is a great way of building collaboration between oft-siloed teams, to create a space for the productive sharing of ideas and building of innovative solutions that have the broadest possible support at their inception. It is a process that translates the sometimes disparate languages that different parts of an organisation use to communicate into a single clear narrative that everyone can understand. At The Guardian many of the challenges are now tackled from the start with cross-functional teams. Each part of the business is invested in discovering and deploying the solution – from the lofty heights of strategy to the coal face of customer transaction flows. Within these teams each now has a much-improved respect and understanding of the range of skills and how each brings great value to the organisation.

Successful design thinking

A practical example of the success of design thinking at The Guardian has been the evolution of the navigation on the website. You will observe that the current rendering is headed by five key sections or ‘pillars’. Prior to this the top layer consisted of a much larger list that reflected the internal structure of the newsroom and the traditional departments within the journalistic function. Through a process of design thinking we discovered that it was much more simple and powerful to reflect the broader understanding and needs of the readers by reducing this layer to a smaller set of sections. The result was a remarkable increase in traffic to these pillars. We had simplified that first onward journey of discovery by describing it in terms that were easy to understand at that first moment of contact and need.

How does design thinking help to increase an organisation’s productivity?

My experience is that, at its best, the experience of design thinking-lead collaborations across an organisation also serve to improve constructive dialogue as future challenges arrive. Design thinking can also help create the right environment for real and much broader understanding of the voice of the customer. It helps move beyond the monologue of research and, if incorporating prototyping and testing, begins an ongoing process of dialogue with current and potential customers. It helps shift the dial when undertaking innovation and discovery from the bias of instinctive thinking to the inclusivity of empathetic thinking.

How can design thinking deliver value to customers?

The methodology and paths to discovery defined by using design thinking as an approach pivot around an understanding of the customers’ needs and motivations. Design and design thinking has at its heart the motivation to solve problems. Sometimes this can be a simplification of a complex journey people need to regularly take, a physical journey, an ecommerce journey or a journey through ideas. It can be about solving problems of time and choice.

Understanding the emotional value you bring

Time is one of the most valuable commodities for people. Understanding how design can speed up customer’s ability to make choices or informed decisions is of huge value. Often the variety and range of the products and services we offer can be daunting and discourage making a choice. At The Guardian we have done extensive discovery work and testing to understand how we can simplify or prioritise the choices we show to our customers when it comes to the range of subscription or membership products we offer. We used design thinking to try and place ourselves in the customer “moment”, or in fact, the range of customer moments. Design thinking helps distill the options down to those that bring the most value to the most people in that moment, and helps prioritise presentation for that moment, and eschews complexity that serves only marginal options.

Now with a brand like The Guardian this begins way before the moment of purchase. The value we bring starts with emotional engagement. The earliest stages of design thinking are about understanding the emotional value you bring. If you sell chairs you understand the customer doesn’t worry about a chair being a mean of supporting weight, that’s a given: you understand you are providing a place to rest, to think, to feel at home. Our design thinking begins with the understanding that ‘the news’ and our journalism is not simply about knowing stuff, it is about feeling secure, feeling you are the person you want to be, about feeling empowered to make change in your world. This is the value that draws people to have the kind of strong emotional relationship with the brand that draws them to make a financial commitment or contribution.

With asking for contributions to support our journalism, we address our readers directly, acknowledging the need for developing new revenue sources for media organisations, that we answer to no proprietor, and making sure they don’t feel that any contribution is too little. We found that our pitch worked best alongside our journalism – it is most natural for readers after they had read a story to be asked to contribute, and also only fair to ask then as well, instead of putting up barriers in front of their content.

Another consideration is location with different payment methods, currencies and languages around the world and we need to make it easy for readers to act and be in control once they’ve decided to contribute. They decide how much, how often and how to pay, which means they have to make several decisions on top of paying. We have gotten obsessive over the process, to try to make it as intuitive as possible.

In the last three years we have received financial support from more than 1 million readers around the world, proving that this model of being funded by our readers through voluntary contributions, subscriptions to the Guardian, the Observer and Guardian Weekly, membership or as part of our patrons programme is working.

When implementing design thinking in an organisation, what is crucial to think of to get the buy-in from the staff?

The most crucial thing is to communicate the process in a language they understand. Much of the value of process can be shrouded in the language of the seasoned practitioner. It is really important to outline the process and define the process in the context of real problems not theoretical ones. To be colloquial rather than technical. All good designers learn to communicate their ideas in the language of the consumer and not of the practitioner. To demonstrate the empathy of the solution. If you show that design thinking is a tool that can be used by all and that those leading the process are there to guide and support rather than impose, you should be able to get the rest of the organisation to feel they are empowered as collaborators through the process.

How can an organisation use design thinking to implement culture change within the organisation?

The biggest barrier to culture change is that most people feel anxiety and resistance to change that is imposed upon them. People don’t feel invested in the process that leads to the change and so fear the consequences to their daily patterns and working practices. They resist ideas for which they have not been party to the formulation. The processes and practices of design thinking should be wholly collaborative. They should give a voice to a breadth of opinion from across the organisation, and they allow space for the wider organisation to take part in defining the moment of change. Now, even though not all ideas that emerge will move forward, everyone should at least be reassured that they have been considered and constructively explored to such an extent that the value of what does define the culture change is understood to be of greater priority.

The redesign that heralded our move to tabloid and the marketing campaigns that accompanied it were guided by the clear statement of The Guardian’s purpose by our editor Katharine Viner. It made seismic change easier to envisage, discuss, problem-solve and rally around within the financial and format constraints. The tabloid won numerous design awards, and our reader-centric design thinking crucially made it easier to listen where it counts. And later, in response to feedback that made it clear there was a strong emotional connection to the blue masthead, we listened and reinstated it.

How can design thinking help tackle process and productivity issues?

Design thinking at its best should be a central process that runs through the whole of an organisation. It should be collaborative and inclusive across different functions. The assumption is that design thinking is only about the product that comes out at the end, or that it is about the practicalities of the actual design, but it is in fact a methodology of analysis. First an analysis the status quo within an organisation, across disciplines, then an analysis and understanding of customers (internal and external). This should help synthesise challenges both with the products and the processes involved in creating and presenting it. With these realised, the solutions for these challenges should have broad buy-in and so help overcome many of the moments of impasse and inefficiency that come from misunderstanding, slow productivity and can lead to disruptive circular discussions around process.

Read the case study

As part of our 2018 Design Economy research, we produced a case study on The Guardian's use of design in practice.

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