‘What’s with this thing called Design-thinking, and in video ?’

You can learn how to make 12 different styles of video or one extremely well in the coming weeks. Your choice?

September looms, the turnstiles of academia prepare to revolve in new cohorts to Serge Prokofiev’s 1937: The Montagues and the Capulets performed here enchantingly by the National Youth Orchestra Of Canada. [NB. You have to play this, even if you do not intend to read the rest of the piece.]

Pedagogy is set to pap practice. Relentlessly, we’re being reminded visuals eat text for breakfast — at least in this millennium. That television journalism and design book with dog ears that’s been referenced ad infinitum, your turn now.

But in the last decade in particular, twenty years in general, and five years specifically, there’s been a gargantuan costive problem refluxing inside the walls of learning and world of work.

Confronted by different names, lean, agile, or design thinking, we’re in the mist of a paradox reality framed by The Persistence of Memory (1931) from Salvador Dali’s painting of plastic malleable time.

To one constituency it is the holy grail — an inevitability of change. Wisdom of crowds. Quick and nimble, always on the move, trumps staid and stable. To another it is the quest, the end goal of operations you must achieve if you are to survive. And then there’s you screaming ‘What’s the fuss about?’

Akpa le tome gake menya tsi fe vevie nyenyeo. A fish is the last to acknowledge the existence of water, is an (Ewe) proverb from Ghana — where I grew up.

If you’re a child of digital, born into it with your digits permanently across platforms, or have become an adept practitioner via trial and error — something entrepreneurial freelancers acknowledge in order to pay the mortgage — you have no memory of anything else than a prototypical form of design thinking and agile productions.

The label is officially attributed to Professor David Kelly and Tim Brown of design agency IDEO, in 2001. Design thinking according to Kelly :

Utilizes elements from the designer’s toolkit like empathy and experimentation to arrive at innovative solutions. By using design thinking, you make decisions based on what future customers really want instead of relying only on historical data or making risky bets based on instinct instead of evidence.

To get a sense of the breathlessness of IDEO’s statement is to understand a world that once somehow operated differently, which is where adroit digital natives and successful freelance multifarious journalists/content provider’s balk.

There was an era, not too long ago, when the approach to innovation was less emphasised around what staff in organisations felt and the consumer had any input, it was more what a small band of ‘experts’ knew what was right about the product based on their history, emboldened by ‘If it’s not broken why fix it’.

Tim Brown was pushing for a break from design solo practices, as he states: “I try to champion the interdisciplinary, multi-faceted nature of design”.

This approach, perhaps, now is as difficult to reconcile as a world without the Internet. Hence, whilst successful digital natives roll their eyes at a cacophony of terms e.g. ‘Water what!’ muttering er ‘doh’, if you’re pre-native, there is a likelihood:

  • You’re trying to wrap your head about agile, design thinking and an interminable array of labels e.g. waterfall, velocity and hype cycle.
  • You’re not yet convinced of their veracity.

Other characteristics emerged from Brown’s precis of a new philosophy alongside musings from the brilliant Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger’s Cluetrain Manifesto, as well as a slew of iterative and adaptive manifestos.

Nascent Video Design Thinking — 2001

In 2001, having purchased my first Mac with a whopping 8gb hard drive for $2500 ( I took a flight to NY to purchase it), and reflecting on myriad productions that were exec-driven over a decade I begun to consider more seriously how video would work in the digital age. Video was increasingly less about generic production, but about design, particularly for those of us who’d jumped into web design. I picked up various international awards, featured in publications like the Economist, and in 2007 placed the ideas I’d been ruminating over for some time into a manifesto.

Its decrees would underpin philosophies I shared with Apple, Nato where we would take students into Nato’s war games in northern Europe and the Financial Times to name a few. The videojournalist Manifesto and its 50 pinnings hasn’t aged too badly.

Agile, and lean productions as it’s known today, however, is more widely illustrated by a meeting of Software engineers in Utah’s Snowbird Ski Resort, where they drafted the Agile Manifesto. Here, the spotlight on design thinking versus the organisational stakeholder’s design was placed in sharp relief. Some of their prescient references included:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

In this excerpt below the late Steve Jobs captures this new mood that envelopes all of the above when asked a question around product review.

This interplay is an allegory for the once bullet proof transaction between traditionalist old brick companies e.g. universities and their digital cohorts. One knows how it should be, the other sees how it can.

The once iron clad system is gilded by Ford’s production belt, modules, silos and hierarchies. One component must lead to another and must be completed before the next chain commences. There is a reliance on full documentation, on outcomes, rather than journeys which therefore do not allow for the fun and fear of experimentation and hence the possibilities of failure.

That Google, Facebook, IBM etc. and a raft of software companies, could as their ethos embrace play areas, provide downtime for personal work and bring together different teams, is still anathema to several tertiary institutions and managers centrally focused on product and the company.

As Ed Catmul, President of Pixar, one of the world’s most successful film companies, has expressed ‘If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake. You are being driven by the desire to avoid it’, because failure is a consequence of doing something new.

Agile, lean or design thinking isn’t without an achilles. How do you know what the consumer wants? How much feedback constitutes a critical mass to warrant attention? It is not the panacea to success from FB’s Angela Lee Duckworth’s 42m viewed presentation on success.

And while design books might go to pains to illustrate exact workflow or product cycles, much of these processes are inherently cognitive amongst digital natives when you set them a problem, or are grown in companies e.g. American Express through trials. Meanwhile, it’s not uncommon for academics and experts to provide a litany of labels to maintain their dominion over the process.

An example of recent agile behaviour I have been involved in can be exemplified by two incidents in the last year.

Exhibit 1. Bass Culture

A colleague of mine Mykaell Riley, a prodigious producer with a string of hits underneath his belt that include Bjork’s Venus as a Boy, was a month away from his £500,00o research project being launched at Regent’s cinema, London. He had meetings with specific stakeholders over funds to create a video and perhaps other paraphernalia — all of which required stringent justifications. Time was running short and the funds or personnel were neither forthcoming.

We met, chatted and took another route. Firstly there was a redesign of his invite. Second, consideration of a card attendants could take away to remind them of the night. Thirdly, a video made in four days that would underpin the innovative approach adopted in his research that used drones and mobile phone productions.

All three were being worked upon at a same time on a near-zero production budget — as proof too of design thinking we were consulting with stake holders all steps of the way for their feedback.

Exhibit 2 TVC Powerful List

More recently, we’ve undertaken a project whose conception took less than a month and involved convening up more than 50 of the UK’s most talented people. Meetings were held to visualise the journey. And as the ideas were being birthed, they were being tested swiftly, as other parts of the workflow cycle we’re being enacted upon e.g. getting the publishers to help us play with output. All the while this project was being pursued, my co-producer, myself and the rest of the team were running multiple projects concurrently. Latterly Sir Lenny Henry has endorsed the project.

This way of working within universities creating real world projects as the end goal, not trying to necessarily transpose previous working solutions to the next, working cross discipline for answers with specialists and generalists sharing knowledge underpins a way universities could work in embracing design thinking. This year I’m leading the Digital and Interactive Storytelling LAB at the University of Westminster, with two innovative design thinking colleagues, where experimentation and fleet of foot is key.

And that’s where we are. Rather prosaically and metaphorically having just watched and written about Chris Nolan’s Dunkirk, the hundreds of small independent crafts used to evacuate the Allies alongside more sturdy destroyers has the feel of design thinking’s nimbleness, though yes the decision making was handed down from the top.

In video design, whether it’s TV News, promos, iPhone forms, the spectrum of documentary modes, social media videos, typographical videos or the array of cinema journalism pieces (see video), each genre is framed by its patterning and perception by targeted audience.

It’s the digital thinking stoopid, to paraphrase a well known political rhetor.

Like I said earlier You can learn how to make 12 different styles of video or one extremely well in the coming weeks. Your choice?


David, named one of the leading writers in journalism on @Medium, is an international award winning videojournalist and Knight Batten innovator in journalism. Here for more on Cinema Journalism .

If this story grabs you, please pass on, or drop me a line. I love to collaborate, make new friends, and share ideas about possibilities david dunkley gyimah posts.

Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.