We created a framework of principles that ensure anything we tackle is firmly based on the needs of society, the wellbeing of our environment and sufficient financial return to ensure sustainability.

Principles overview slide
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The word purpose is being given a flogging by advertising media right now. I’ve seen staggeringly inappropriate use, but remind myself that the industry will move on and the word will be soon forgotten, at least by them.

What does purpose really mean? And how does it bring us closer to being who we want to be and creating the products, services and systems that support rather than steal from our future. We often find ourselves quite confused when we try to connect the outputs of organisations to their stated purpose while we do not see this fault in ourselves. Call it purpose creep.

Take the example of a city council and the argument as to whether it should or shouldn’t provide social housing. What does a city council’s ‘constitution’ enable it to cover? If it does cover social housing there is no issue, if it doesn’t what are they doing in this business.

Most readers will recall a time when they researched for a business to perform a job only to be told that they don’t do that anymore, or that isn’t quite what we do. So why is it so difficult to nail it?

So what does purpose mean in the context of design?

It is important to start with understanding why there is a need to address a problem before spending money and time developing an idea.

Purpose sets the tone for a deep dive into what a company stands for.

Commonly, people come to the design process with performed ideas that they will rigorously defend. It is important to be able to let go, step back, and consider not only what but how, why, and when, in regard to designing a solution and collectively understanding your purpose.

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Your design team, if thoughtfully curated, are your initial resource for insight and experience. 

So many traditional design teams assume they have the ability to identify a problem themselves and create the best solution, and in most cases, the world they inhabit could be quite different from the world of the people they are designing for.

Their training and work experience has more than likely led to them achieving similar income and status, leaving them unable to fully explore an idea from different perspectives. 

Design commonly takes or develops ideas and tests them on a diverse audience. Opportunities are wasted not investing time in the formation of an insightful team from the outset. 

Once a design team has been fleshed out and openness established, gaps in lived experience will become obvious.

We recently ran a pilot project that was designed to address the lack of opportunity for neurodiverse people to practice their valuable skills in work. Our co-design process ensured that those who support and those who employ jobseekers into organisations were well-matched by people from the neurodiverse community. Real, workable insights emerged.

Here in New Zealand, we pride ourselves on dealing with emergencies. We don’t seem to be good at long-term thinking or looking more closely at the real makeup of our society, and that is reflected in expensive efforts that miss their intended mark. 

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We like to explore the less obvious skills people bring to the design conversation; the interests, passions, concerns and frustrations that people have experienced in their lives. Unless we know more about the people we are working with, this vital knowledge is not accessible.

Many of us have come from a time when it was required to ‘leave yourselves at the door’ when coming to work. Businesses didn’t want to know about you, and they had already prescribed the work you had to do, no challenges to set processes were permitted. We believe, to even frame a problem or a challenge requires multiple insights and time. The enormous processing power of different thinkers at the table, if given permission, can bring valuable external context for ideas.

We’ve all experienced, especially in the product world, solutions to problems that don’t exist in the minds of the user and customers. Find solutions rather than first exploring the need often lands us in trouble. And we are always in a hurry. Evidence would point to the fact that we are more prepared to clean up our mistakes than we are to invest in clearer thinking at the outset.

The beginning of a project is the cheapest place to invest time and the most satisfying if we can integrate that into our regular practice. We need to slow down in order to speed up.

Illustration of a balloon in the sky


Ideas they say are cheap, but generating lots of them is an important first part of discovering a solution.…the inspiration for my interest in change for good, came 40 years ago when all my senses were opened to a foreign environment. I saw that we were trashing the planet and ignoring the rights of people. My first attempt at changing the status quo was rushed, clumsy, and not effective because I was relying on my own reaction to what I saw. It would take a number of years for me to figure out that we need multiple views of a challenge to inform a good design process. 

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Context is a constantly shifting thing. What might be true today, this week, this month may be completely redundant by the time you launch a product. An honest appraisal of the time it is going to take to land the product is critical. 

The key to effective design is being constantly aware of context. Do we have alignment Whether it be a physical supply chain or simply the lack of common understanding among parties in a distributed team. So much of what we face today has to be solved in this gap. 

We once heard of a company that determined their secretary should ring customers to ask them what they wanted. This might work for business-to-business clients, but when it comes to business-to-customer, it can be fraught. Most of us, if asked what we want, could not possibly answer in any useful way. So if you’re looking for insight, we suggest you don’t rely on one person. 

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Letting Go

The phrase ‘letting go’ conjures up a lot of different images. But in the sense we use it here, our design process insists that you are able to set aside personal ownership of your ideas.

It’s a tall order, particularly when an organsaition is hierarchical, and the top dog has had an idea in the shower that he or she has come to present and defend at all costs. Few of us can aspire to being both the generator and the successful deliverer of an idea. These are usually separate skills.

The skill of being open relies heavily on the culture of an organisation. This can be a stumbling block to good design practice if it is not addressed, and expectations set, and the freedom to raise alternative views made explicit.

The design process provides the perfect opportunity to disagree, once you have set and agreed to the organisation’s purpose and understand the value of diverse ideas.

Illustration of a group of gardeners tending to a giant flower

Alignment with Purpose

Awareness that the end result of our efforts must align with our initial purpose is a challenge, because all through the journey we are generating insights. It is so tempting to be captured by an insight that takes us in an entirely new direction. Ideas like this must be captured and filed for future reference and review through the model. 

What our process is designed to do, is to position you to strengthen the flow of creative ideas, and review them for appropriateness for your organisation and your customer’s needs. 

The more you do this, the faster you can travel. Familiarity with, and trust in the process, will ensure your product services or systems are fully aligned to your stated purpose in the eyes of your team, your market, or your stakeholders. 

Illustration of a person holding a carrot and a peeler

Getting Started

If you’re still with us through this brief series of articles, you may wonder what inspires us to take a critical look at what and how we design for our changing world.

Much of the world has come a long way in terms of a design journey. A lot has been said, and even more written about, as we have attempted to define and redefine the role of design in modern business. We call this Design Thinking.

Our interest is in what design could achieve in New Zealand without detracting from what has been accomplished.

New Zealand has a history of being unwittingly subjected to user testing; from drugs to technologies. Why are we so passive?

We would like to see New Zealand itself user test a new way of thinking. Thinking not only about how we want to live, but about how we can thrive by setting a standard we can all aspire to.

These are big words for a small organisation to be parlaying about. However, I, and the wonderful people I work with, are growing more aware every day about the tough survival journey ahead if we don’t confront the true power of design – now.

We observe that New Zealanders demand a lot. We want every comfort that is available from around the globe, but we also want to be here for the long term. We want our legacy to live on in our children, and that our children have the same right to thrive, as we had. What if we regarded our children’s future right to survive in the same way that we desire to set aside some financial inheritance for our children- if that is within our means?

What would that future look like?

The process of design is not asking us to do without the things we need. It is asking us to think about our needs of today, in balance with the needs of future generations. Just as you might postpone an expensive holiday to enable you to set aside a nest egg for your children.

In summary, design demands us to consider the needs of others, whilst addressing our own needs, recognising that failure to do so may be catastrophic. It’s in this vein that we started thinking about whose needs design was meeting, not just now, but in the future.

What we have put together here is a simple guide, realising that the more questions we ask, the deeper we are able to go.

Over the past 30 years, our journey is a reflection of this itself. The deeper we’ve gone, the more we’ve listened, the more we’ve observed, both in others and ourselves, the more work there is to be done, but start we must.

It is our hope that through engagement with us, you will surface the questions that are relevant to you and your organisation. We will provide the framework to get you started, and leave you to call us if you need help on your journey.

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