Design Thinking for planning communications

Inspiration Jam Alexandra Groß Gerhard Hellmeister Design Thinking Humanoid

An interview with Alexandra Groß and Gerhard Hellmeister

Fink & Fuchs has been working on a number of communication concepts based on Design Thinking for two years now. Here, various analytical methods, questioning and creative techniques that take the companies’ respective communication issues into account are put to structured used. Fink & Fuchs now uses these methodologies to operate in the very complex world of communication in which PR, advertising and marketing merge.

In March 2016, Fink & Fuchs will be launching a series of workshops for communication professionals who are interested in learning how to integrate Design Thinking into their own communication plans and creative processes very quickly and easily.

Alexandra Groß, a Board member at Fink & Fuchs, and Gerhard Hellmeister, the founder of innoWorks, have developed this workshop concept together. Both provide insights into this not so unusual symbiosis in our double interview.

Mr. Hellmeister, you have been a consultant on Design Thinking processes for solving various problems for companies and organizations for many years. What’s so appealing about this creative process?

Gerhard Hellmeister: It seems to me as if we are living in a time when we often have answers, but find that the questions have radically changed or increased in terms of complexity. The whole “refugee debate” makes this clear.

This applies to both social issues as well as the challenges companies face. Design Thinking is more than just a creative method. What was perhaps originally developed to be an innovative method for products and services at Stanford is becoming a frame of reference for organizational and social change. At its core is the application of a new level of cooperation and communication. Particularly companies with classical and well-organized structures encounter limits with their innovative capacity. Design Thinking challenges familiar ways of thinking and can be a “transmission belt” of sorts for companies, even when it comes to making radical changes.

This structured process puts the emphasis on the customer himself and thus the person. Isn’t that automatically the case when new products and services are to be invented?

Gerhard Hellmeister: Companies that believe they know their customers’ needs and still rely solely on their own surveys and focus groups are actually more threatened in terms of their basic substance. The iPhone was not invented by conducting customer surveys, but rather by consistently analyzing people’s needs. The technical development came only afterwards. Understanding and creating positive customer experiences is therefore one of the most critical success factors, especially in relatively mature markets and industries with particularly strong competition.

More and more customers are willing to pay for the feelings and not just for a tangible product or a functional service. This transition from a purely product and service-oriented economy towards a more experience-oriented economy also shapes their communication with the customer.

Individual experiences are very complex. Psychological research has shown that the emergence of positive emotions has something to do with the satisfaction of certain basic needs such as connectedness, meaning, competence, stimulation and security.

Alexandra, what convinced Fink & Fuchs to use Design Thinking to plan communication campaigns?

Alexandra Groß: We have been working together with innoWorks very successfully on redesigning our work methodology for several years. And time and time again, this involved Design Thinking. We finally had an initial group of employees take part in a 3-day Design Thinking Workshop. In essence, it was all about rapid methods in the creative process and our customers’ customers, who received a different status in the communications planning process. The first sounds pretty banal, but in actual practice it is not.

Gerhard Hellmeister: There are actually two points. On the one hand, I consider the classic way that agencies operate: briefing/re-briefing, analysis, presentation … perhaps even garnished by a workshop to be outdated. The results are often dissatisfied customers and a lot of lost time. The work culture needs to evolve and the working structure needs to more and more move toward agile project groups. Design Thinking and other agile methods such as Scrum are ideally suited to raise the ways in which agencies work, but also together with their customers, to a more productive level. The effects are more satisfied customers with innovative and tailor-made communication concepts and less frustration at the agencies. Put briefly, Design Thinking is the thinking pattern that can help agencies to “reinvent” themselves.

Secondly, the transformation and thus communication needs in companies are currently changing tremendously. The digital transformation and consistent focus on the customer combined with the pressure of having to compete with the innovative strength of start-ups puts communication and co-creation in the center. Communication and media agencies definitely have their skills here, which, in the ideal case, could lead to new business models.

But don’t communicators automatically focus on the customer when developing communication campaigns?

Alexandra Groß: I think that the classic advertising agencies in particular are much further in this regard. Unfortunately, it is all too often current practice that the communications department or agency is not called upon until after a product has been developed and brought to market. At the latest, when we start with an extensive target group analysis, we determine from time to time that the product was developed without actually thinking about the target audience.

Gerhard Hellmeister: … and the supposed target audiences were never asked. Structured interviews that provide important input for an agile planning process are an essential component of Design Thinking. I have also experienced that the original product had nothing to do with the real needs of the customers that come out in an interview.

Alexandra Groß: The main difference with other creative methods and processes is that the human being is put at the center of the method. The product itself and the company take a step back to start with. That is the important change of perspective that communicators must go through.

How can we imagine such a creative process à la Design Thinking in communications planning?

Alexandra Groß: We call our approach Human Centered Communication. The starting point and focus are always the buyers and the users. Design Thinking helps us to put ourselves in people’s living environments better. After all, products and communication campaigns are developed for them. We do not distinguish between B2C and B2B offerings either. Design Thinking does not provide a new set of tools. On the contrary. Familiar methods such as Touchpoint Analysis, persona for specifying target audiences, interview series, the Flip-Flop Method, prototyping, storyboarding, to name just a few, are put to use from entirely new perspectives.

In short, we ask from the very beginning how we can reach out to people and best meet their needs by sending the right message and taking the best route. The watering can principle has definitely been replaced by Design Thinking.

Gerhard Hellmeister: A lot of empathy is needed. Only those who really manage to empathize with the target audience and understand it with Design Thinking will be able to find the best solution. Another condition that I would like to mention is that Design Thinking allows all paths to a goal. This is system-immanent. The whole process is agile and subject to constant changes. Here, it is all the more important to involve decision-makers in the process results and continuously perform a target balance between corporate and communication goals.

What is the ideal composition in this process?

Gerhard Hellmeister: The more different the people and skills, the better. Really good things can happen when the various areas and disciplines come together in the innovation process.

Alexandra Groß: The struggle to achieve the best result is an unusual and very strenuous approach to the creative process. The more diversely the participants look at a problem and evaluate it, the more diverse the results will be. Unfortunately, we often don’t have the time. Creative processes happen mostly in passing. They are not allowed to take up much time and obtaining a quick consensus is important. No wonder that changing perspective comes up short.

What can we do to remain agile and open to different perspectives and integrate this into our own working environment?

Gerhard Hellmeister: Travel! If possible to countries whose culture we least understood. Or take a different route to work tomorrow.

Alexandra Groß: Or visit our workshop series that innoWorks and Fink & Fuchs will be offering as an open seminar in March 2016. We want to show how easily Design Thinking can be integrated into the communication plan – based on very specific examples.


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