Design Thinking to Finance Skyscapers

In her comment to my post on the recent HBR article on design thinking, my friend HK writes, “What the article is missing is some concrete examples — what do designers do at strategic phases of projects, when the problems they’re solving aren’t explicit design problems?” She goes on to describe three of her own examples.

I suspect it’s both very hard and very easy to show examples. Very hard because applying creativity to what are normally analytical activities is a design problem in itself. I’ve found that inventing even rudimentary tools is hard. It’s reinventing how we’ve done business for hundreds of years, and it’s going to take years to build a more creative practice as reliable as our current methods.

But finding examples of design thinking applied to business problems is also easy, there are examples all around us. Financial deals can be quite complex and structuring one requires creativity. I was reminded of this last night while reading Adam Gopnik’s Through the Children’s Gate, stories about living in New York. In one scene he tours midtown Manhattan with a property tycoon…

It was a cold, crisp fall day, and as we looked at all the great glass skyscrapers of Park Avenue — the Seagram Building and Lever House and the Citicorp Center — he unraveled for me the complicated secrets of their financing and construction: how this one depended on a federal bond, and this one on a legendary thirteen-year lease with a balloon payment, and this one on the unreal (and unprofitable) munificence of a single liquor baron and his daughter…

We can imagine the sort of creativity needed to solve a problem like financing a building costing hundreds of millions of dollars involving several parties, credit instruments, commitments over time, tax structure, and so on. I’d like to know if anyone in finance is studying these deals as creative activities to help us understand how to design them better (and if traditional designers will be interested in this sort of design!).

1 comment

  1. Victor said: “Very hard because applying creativity to what are normally analytical activities is a design problem in itself.”

    I absolutely agree with this — and frankly, struggle with it in my work all the time. It’s quite rare for someone in a more analytical field to stop at the beginning of a project and think, “what would happen if I did something completely different this time? What would happen if I threw the framework away and started fresh?”

    However, I wonder if this is less an issue of applying design thinking, and more of an issue of simple creativity. I think the two go hand-in-hand, but I’m not sure they’re the same thing.

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