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Creativity is the bedrock of Public Relations. Practitioners are expected to generate fresh ideas constantly for story angles and campaigns that result in genuine business transformation for clients. Businesses and other organizations place a lot of premium on creativity when hiring PR agencies. But unfortunately, most PR teams and firms don’t seem to measure up to this expectation.

According to a five year summary of Holmes Report’s Creativity in PR Study presented at Euprera 2017 Congress, titled: The War for Ideas: Five Years of Creativity in PR Study, PR firms don’t understand creativity or have processes to develop and capture it. The report stated that HR is not well connected to drive creative practices, and diversity of thoughts, which is essential to creativity, is a big challenge. These betray a gross lack of structure for harnessing creativity in the PR industry. I am therefore convinced that the way forward is to incorporate design thinking into PR processes to fill this yawning gap.

What Exactly Is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is a social approach to creativity and innovation drawn from the way designers work to generate fresh ideas for product and service developments, and to solve or resolve complex and wicked social issues.

Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO, a design consultancy, in his book, Change by Design defines it as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from designers’ toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology and the requirements for business success.”

What this means is that designers put the people they are designing for as the center of focus in their work. Whether they are developing a new product or service or improving an existing one, designers don’t just think of the model or the aesthetics first; they look at the overall user experience. And they begin by seeking to understand what the end users want and how they want it. TheYy work to understand their needs, thoughts, emotions and motivations. They look at why they behave the way they do, all in a bid to develop products or services that give the end users utmost satisfaction and put money in the pockets of the organizations they work for.

Design thinking emphasizes collaboration, co-creation, inclusiveness and engagement of stakeholders or end users’ feedback to unlock creative and innovative ideas and deliver solutions that meet the needs of end-users. PR needs this approach in order to continuously generate streams at creative ideas which the work requires.  

When It All Began

I believe that Design Thinking started at the same period/time design became a professional practice. Some scholars think the use of the term came with Peter Rowe’s 1987 book with the same title. Others are of the opinion that the concept emerged when people outside the design field got interested in the designer’s approach to work and started to adopt it in their work as well.

Stefanie Di Russo, a designer whose skills span Graphic Design, User-experience Design, Service Design, Behavioural and Strategic Design, belongs to the later school of thought. In her research work, Understanding the Behaviour of Design Thinking in Complex Environment,  she argues that design thinking is not a practice, but a new perspective for fields outside of the design industry wanting to capitalize on its innovative potential.

The current popularity of Design Thinking in management cycles can be traced to the works of IDEO, a design consultancy and the Stanford Design School. These institutions have made it their business to encourage large organizations to adopt Design Thinking as a method for tackling complex and wicked problems. Today, leading global businesses such as Alphabet, Nike, IBM, Airbnb, Ford and a host of others are using Design Thinking framework to generate creative ideas to innovate and stay on top of their games.

Design Thinking Process

Creativity neither falls from the sky, nor is it accomplished by the presence of intent. Creativity is always the result of a structured process. Here, we’ll look at a five-step process that designers use to unlock creative ideas and innovation in their businesses.

Step One: Empathize

The reason Design Thinking is sometimes called a human-centered approach to creativity and innovation is because the process starts with seeking to understand the end-users of a product or service before they are developed.

Designers try to understand how end-users do things with the product or service they intend to develop or improve. They try to understand their physical and emotional needs, how they see the world, how they interact with the organization that makes the product or provides the services, and what makes meaning to them. They set aside personal assumptions about what is best for the customers and try to understand all the issues from their perspective. The insights gained in this process of empathizing are then brought to the table to guide the development of products or services that meet the needs of the end-users.

Designers use observation, interviews and other research methods to gain these insights. Methods that enable them to interact directly with end-users are most preferred; for it allows them to read their emotions and have a deeper understanding of their needs, hopes, desires and aspirations.

Step Two: Define

It is at this level that the insights gained when observing and interviewing end-users are combined to determine what problems or challenges the end-users face. It is here that the observations are critically analyzed and synthesized in order to frame the problem identified clearly. It is only when a problem is framed clearly that the designer can begin to gather ideas that may lead to its resolution.

Step Three: Ideate

This is when designers begin to generate solution-oriented ideas to resolve the problem identified. Here, brainstorming is the name of the game. Design thinking stresses the need to involve multi-disciplinary teams to bring varied perspectives. It recognizes the fact that bringing diverse voices into the process can spark different and, sometimes, wild ideas that may contain the solutions sought. It also encourages team members to think outside the box and generate as many ideas as possible. As a rule, no idea is ignored because any idea can sprout a brilliant solution to the problem or challenge.

Step Four: Prototype

At this stage, a rough draft of the solutions is made. The whole idea behind prototype is to bring the solutions to life by providing inexpensive, scaled-down versions of them. A prototype could take a physical form. It could also take the form of a role-playing activity or even a storyboard.

For designers, creating a prototype is a way to interact with end users directly to learn more about how they feel about the product or service. It is an experiment to identify the best possible solution to the problem identified. It helps to determine what works and what doesn’t work from the end users’ standpoint.

Step Five: Test

Test is about soliciting direct feedback from end-users using the products they have developed from the prototype considered as the best solution at the prototype stage. Tests create room for refreshment of the product to meet the needs of the end-user.

Just as there are many ways to catch a rat, so are there many Design Thinking approaches. The 5-step process I have shared in this article was created by Stanford Design School. The steps are not meant to be followed sequentially because Design Thinking is non-linear in nature. In practice, the process is carried out in a more flexible manner.

The Design Thinking process provides a reliable framework for creativity and innovation. You do not need to take the five steps. All you can do is to apply the principles to the PR process, and you would have created a free flowing fountain of creative ideas for your PR campaigns and for resolving complex and wicked social issue you may be called upon to address.

Design Thinking And Creativity

Are you one of those who believe that to be creative is to be artistic and that’s all? Then, you may be wondering how Design Thinking brings creativity. Creativity is about thinking outside the box to generate ideas that solve problems, especially difficult ones. In the context of Public Relations, creativity is unrestrained use of the imaginations to arrive at big, bold, novel or original ideas that are used to solve relationship problems for an organization.

Every step in the Design Thinking process has locked within it the seeds of creative ideas. It promotes the use of divergent and convergent thinking to generate as many solution-based ideas as possible before narrowing them down to what you consider to be the best for solving a problem. Design Thinking simply tells you to run with your imaginations as far away as you can go, pick the ideas that come your way and test them for their usefulness.

Knowledge, insights and experiences gained at the empathy stage can mutate and recombine into a new original creative solution. A creative idea can result from a combination of wild, unrelated and mundane ideas during brainstorming sessions. Even brainstorming rules are hotbeds for creativity. Brainstorming rules such as Defer Judgment: encourages taking of risks and making mistakes, which can result in exceptional and innovative ideas; Build on the ideas of others: promotes a mix of different ideas building up to something new and original; and One Conversation at a Time: gives everybody in the team a chance to express their ideas such that no idea is lost. Go for quantity: promotes the mutation and recombination of several ideas to form something new and Encourage wild ideas leads to the generation of stupid, crazy, unrealistic and even dangerous ideas which could offer hooks to bold, new creative ideas.

The Prototype and testing phases are not exempt from generating new creative ideas.  Feedbacks from end-users can stimulate a whole new way of looking at a problem and prompt brand new ideas in the process. Design Thinking process is loaded with opportunities for new ideas.

The Designer’s Mindset Is Key

Since Design Thinking is about approaching management problems the same way designers approach design problems, the PR practitioner must adopt the designer’s mindset in order to succeed in integrating Design Thinking into the PR process.

Designers reframe problems. They go beyond the obvious to see what lies behind. They are driven by the urge to create something new and fascinating. It is characteristic of them to challenge the norm. Designers are big picture thinkers. They try to understand a system by trying to see its large scale patterns and the interconnections of the various elements that make it up. They don’t run away from ambiguities, rather they court them, and their attitude towards constraints and failure is always optimistic. Designers are intuitive and future oriented. You’ll hardly find a designer who is not an integrative thinker. In his book, The Oppossable Mind, Roger Martin defines Integrative Thinking as “the ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and, instead of choosing one at the expense of the other generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas…”

Thinking like a designer can transform the way you develop and execute PR programmes. It can also transform the way you work with stakeholders and clients.

Building Design Thinking Into PR Teams

Perhaps the best way to create a structure for creativity and innovation to flourish in PR teams is to create a Design Thinking culture. It is the key to a sustained design thinking-based practice. But creating and building such a culture is not as easy as you think. Simply organizing Design Thinking workshops and asking team members to imbibe the principles of Design Thinking cannot do the magic. The process has to be thorough enough to dredge the values of Design Thinking into the consciousness of individual members and the very fabric of the team.

I will suggest you take the following four steps:

  • Secure the support of your leaders. Design Thinking may not be expensive to incorporate into a PR team, but the leadership of your organization should know your plans. After all, you may not want to be asked so many questions when you are conducting customers or stakeholders’ feedback sessions or training team members on the values of Design Thinking. Besides, you can’t rule out the fact that you’ll need money for it.
  • Cultivate Design Thinking Values. Every member of the team should know what Design Thinking is, how it works, and the benefits it brings to the team. They should also know the principles of Design Thinking and how to integrate them into the PR process.

It takes training to do this. The training should cover Design Thinking methodologies, how to carry out research and construct user personas, and conduct feedback sessions.

  • Create room for creative confidence. Open IDEO, an open innovation online platform defines creative confidence as “having the freedom and courage to fail/take creative risks, and the knowledge that all of the ideas you create have value.” Team members cannot build creative confidence where leaders fail to embrace failure as an integral part of Design Thinking process. Team members should know that they are not putting their careers at risk by getting involved in Design Thinking. In fact, embracing failure is another way of cultivating Design Thinking values in the PR team.
  • Spread the Word

Ensure HR, Marketing, IT and other departments are carried along. Best practice is to carry out Design Thinking awareness training that cuts across the organization, and follow it up with a deeper session for departments that PR works with constantly to achieve its goals.

Successfully building Design Thinking into your PR team should not be a big challenge when you follow these steps. A design-centric culture is a great differentiator, and it is worth the effort.           

Applying Design Thinking In The PR Process

The popular process for carrying out Public Relations work is made up of four steps: Research, Planning, Implementation and Evaluation. All other models are drawn from this. Applying Design Thinking to the process means embedding its principles into each step of the process.

At the level of Research, remember that obtaining cold data and statistics negates empathy. Data obtained through methods other than direct engagement with target audience is cold. Direct interviews and group sessions are great ways to engage your audience.

It is also important to immerse yourself in your target’s environment to share their experiences first hand. This is where observation comes in as a method of research to use.

Define clearly what your research is about just like the way Problem is defined in the second stage of the Design Thinking process. Your clients/organization and your targets need to understand the reason for your research effort; that is, the problem you are using the research to solve so as to secure their co-operation. The third stage of Design Thinking process is Ideate. This stage is about brainstorming and generating as many solution-based ideas as possible. It emphasizes collaboration, inclusion and co-creation. One way you can activate these principles in your research is announce your research intention on your online communities. This can throw up several suggestions and ideas on how you can go about it. And you can be certain that your research will benefit immensely from it.

Prototype and testing stages of Design Thinking are about bringing your ideas to life, building and testing them to select the best solution to end-users’ problems. Perhaps, the best way to do this in research is to create a pilot research initiative and check out the reactions of your target. For instance, the way you ask questions in interviews determines your audience’s reaction. Prototyping here means that you structure your interview questions and use them on the pilot group and adjust them based on the audience’s reaction.

It is not news that the era of siloed approach to Public Relations planning is over. Wicked problems which PR professionals are often called upon to resolve or contribute to resolving do not lend themselves to such an approach. More so, stakeholders are now stronger and are more demanding to be heard. And integrated communication is now the best way of solving some PR problems.

Integrating Design Thinking means involving other teams such as, HR, IT, Marketing, and sometimes, external shareholder representatives. Design Thinking emphasizes the involvement of multi-disciplinary teams, especially at the stage of ideation. This is what wets the process with creative juices.

You can bring Design Thinking into the implementation stage by ensuring that your contents are created with the needs of your target audience in mind. What do they want to know about? What are their pain points? Whether you are using video, info-graphics, articles or any other communication tool, these are some of the things to address, and you can be sure you will evoke their emotions, win their attention and get them to act as intended.

Evaluation is research at the end of a PR programme. You want to know whether you met the objectives you set out to achieve at the beginning of the programme or not. Avoid cold data. Get in front of your target audience; empathize in order to understand exactly what they feel. That’s how to apply Design Thinking at the evaluation stage.

Design thinking is the rave of the moment. This is because it works magic. The principles of Design Thinking are driving tremendous success for today’s best businesses by giving them more capacity to innovate. Design Thinking gives the structure for creativity. This is what PR needs now to stamp it its authority in the communication firmament.