A Letter to New Design Practitioners

By Ric Edinberg (MDes 2004)


At ID, students learn to lead organizational change, innovate in large organizations, and integrate concepts and inventions as members of cross-functional, diverse teams. With exploreID: Design Leaders on Thursday, April 4, Ric Edinberg (MDes 2004), managing partner of Insitum, discusses the importance of developing these aptitudes with ID dean Denis Weil (MDes 2001). Find other exploreID events here.


Eventually, the design is YOU

When first I started doing this kind of work (human-centered design) — having freshly graduated from IIT Institute of Design (ID) — it was almost a new century, and I felt a sense of reinvention. I had acquired a plethora of knowledge and a lot of new skills that promised to take me into new terrains and challenges. I was thrilled and terrified and only partially prepared for what was to come.

I started consulting as a sole practitioner for clients who needed design researchers. I viewed my job as a way to be professionally curious and insightful about very specific topics like researching shopping behaviors for rice cake in retail, or turning Levi’s jeans labeling into a wayfinding system from store aisle to pant label.

This was how I stumbled onto a real need, and it led me to becoming very busy for the next eight years. I did plenty of design research on CPG research projects, consumer electronics, and what I thought were some “wickedly complicated” healthcare projects, which included following specimen samples around hospitals to understand collection systems. I did ethnographic studies on families medicating their kids with ADHD.

This work was indeed “wickedly complicated,” but little did I realize that was just the warm-up. It wasn’t until I started the INSITUM Chicago office — about 10 years ago now — that the true meaning of complexity became clear.

The learning curve was steep.

In the movie The Matrix, Keanu Reeves gets an upgrade via directly porting in to a computer to instantly learn Kung Fu, among other things. Perhaps this is coming, but for now we have to learn in real time, sometimes painfully, through lived experiences.

Our first project was a collaboration with a respected peer, and we were looking at how companies used a suite of market data and digital tools to obtain, organize, understand, and transform information into knowledge in order to figure out how it all flowed through large organizations. My hard skills, even my ambition, really didn’t take me that far into the deep end of this project, but one saving grace I had learned at ID did help me: I had learned how to learn. Quickly.

You are never finished learning

The skills I acquired in graduate school certainly have had a long shelf life, and have taken me through many sets of challenges — of that there is no doubt. I am still grateful for the patience and depth of my ID professors who helped essentially to rewire my mind.

Ultimately, as the markets change, new skills become important, too. I can point to a lot of softer skills I learned that also helped me professionally: true collaboration, designing deeper ways to listen to people, as well as practicing ways to communicate what is essential to share knowledge or direction with others. However, continuous learning is on the top of this list for me.

For many years I was a solo design researcher, and it wasn’t until later that I ran my own teams. I was a good interviewer; I had great recall; I got organized (not really a natural trait of mine); and my abilities to craft insights seemed to regularly satisfy my clients. Times change though, and when I opened the office, there were even more new things to learn. I had to transform my thinking from running a design research team to building a company with offerings, accounting, dependable resources, (and how does this new sales thing work?), and why do we have to write so many proposals to get a project? There was a lot of learning going on all of the time.

Fast forward a decade — I am a partner at Insitum, and we continually evolve from lessons learned combined with our anticipation of future needs. “I” am now a “we,” with 200+ awesome designer/researchers who passionately rise to address every new challenge of this new era.

To stay on the top in our field, we have listened to market needs and responded by developing nine distinct practices (we continually learn how to respond). All of them have a common root in human-centered research, which we call Strategic Research at Insitum. We don’t believe research is an end in and of itself, so we often connect research to designed “things” ranging from Products to Brands to Services and Digital Transformation. We also have two sectors we focus on, both interesting in their own right: Healthcare and Social Innovation. These different areas of focus help us to grow our capabilities and focus on the most urgent problem types.

There is one additional practice that we call Organizing for Innovation.

Complexity is the new normal: ‘Organizing for Innovation’ takes it up a notch

We have always provided some amount of training for our clients (many of my partners and some of our staff also teach at the university level), but we’ve seen an emergent organizational need in recent years to help clients set up, practice, and deliver innovation at an organizational level. In response to this, we have developed Organizing for Innovation.

Many of our clients are companies trying to find ways to operationalize this on a global scale. Working at this scale represents a huge effort, incredible vision and trust, often across very different locations with separate cultures and business units. Not all employees are aligned, or agree on how or why they should be changing, so it can get quite interesting, and very, very complex.

When we help our clients set up their organizations for innovation, we do not do so to the exclusion of everything else. To do this sustainably, we know we need to include internal company areas like people, processes, tools/technologies, and strategies. This need has been increasing over time and has emerged as a critical capability that companies require to compete in their markets. Organizing for Innovation has shown us the “next level” meaning of complexity.

I wish I could say there is a reliable, repeatable process for setting up innovation practices, something that works every time. In reality, each company is different, and has its own unique set of challenges and capabilities. We address these differences for each unique situation. We turn our skills as design researchers toward the inside of the company, cataloging capabilities, processes and needs in order to understand the current state. We help leaders define and align on a future vision and strategy for where innovation may take them. We define new processes, often taking into consideration many of the older methods and behaviors and integrating them. In this way, many who have seen this “transformation” before (often many times) see this new process as familiar and are much more likely to adopt it.

In essence we help leaders create bridges to get to this new state with its new ways of working, as it’s rarely easy for anyone to make this kind of radical change.

Of course, our other research and design work is ongoing, complex, and still important. I highlight Organizing for Innovation because it’s big, messy, political, and sometimes very frustrating work, but also rewarding as it promises to transform the company. It requires additional skills from design research, though it also includes them. It requires industrial scale patience, empathy, mentoring, translating, and a good dose of diplomacy. It also requires constant learning.

From our point of view, it’s as much statesmanship and power brokering (Ben Franklin) as it is design and innovation process (Charles and Ray Eames). And it’s worth doing both.

Similar to the digital transformation that is disrupting many industries, Organizing for Innovation is poised to be a massive disruptor to change the way many organizations are structured and operate. By comparison, Digital Transformation has been enabled by great advances in technological capability. But with Organizing for Innovation, we are limited only by the social and behavioral limits of how we imagine we should be organized to conduct our work. It takes our core design skills, but it also takes a lot more.

When we give ourselves permission to really figure out these new models of organizing, we will see massive rewards in human potential being realized. This disruption is not being held back by technology constraints. What is beautiful about this set of challenges is that we are only limited by our own confined sets of cultural norms and legacy ideals. And as designers, we seem to continually evolve what it means to be designing in this age.