5 reasons to apply design thinking to the economy

As a design student, I learnt that design was all about solving problems.

The problem might be frivolous (I want better packaging to sell more fish fingers) or serious (I want to convince more people to get tested for cancer), but there’s always a problem. And whilst creativity is key to finding great solutions, solving problems is really what makes design different from simply expressing oneself. 

Design has become a major part of our economy, and for good reason. Companies like Apple build their entire business around solving people’s problems, and sometimes by providing solutions to problems people hadn’t even realised they had (like being able to carry all their music around in their pocket, with the iPod). Last year, Apple alone spent over $13bn on research and development, but it was repaid to them many times over in the profits they made as a result. 

But although designers are a key part of the economy, and recognised as problem-solvers, there’s still one big area of problem-solving where we’re not applying ourselves – the economy itself.

If we all burned ourselves every time we boiled water in a kettle, you can guarantee that it wouldn’t take long before a designer applied themselves to fixing it. And yet we’re living in a huge-man made creation – the economy – that is burning people out and driving the planet to the brink of destruction every single hour of every single day.

How could design thinking help?

1. Design gets to the root of problems

Great designers take the time to really understand the problem they’re trying to solve, and apply lots of techniques to research. 

There’s no end of problems to solve when it comes to the economy. Whether it’s the fact that billions of people live in poverty whilst others have more money than they could spend if they lived to be 1000 years old, or the fact that our obsession with constant growth is pushing (or has pushed) the planet to breaking point, a serious investment of design thinking into the economy could help us understand what’s going wrong and to get specific about the problems we need to fix.

2. Design brings in others’ insight

Design isn’t about having all the answers, it’s about collaborating with those who might and facilitating the collection of the right knowledge together to find solutions. Whilst some designers might work alone, countless others are part of multi-disciplinary teams coming together to bring specialist insight and translate it into solutions that solve real human problems. 

Designers might bring in economists or bankers, for example. But relying solely on traditional economics teaching to help us solve the world’s economic problems would be naive. Because of standard economic teaching, these people will often bring value that is nevertheless hemmed in by preconceived and learned ideas about what it means to be an expert on the economy – but with the economy being so far away from providing human-centered solutions, it’s time to challenge these prevailing orthodoxies. Design thinking brings in the knowledge, analyses it, and then frames it within the context of the problem you’re looking to solve.

3. Design focuses on user needs

Does the economy serve humans, or do humans serve the economy? 

It’s a question worth asking, and the answer isn’t simple; but in our current world it’s clear that many of us are bound up to act in ways that the economy dictates to us, rather than it freeing us to act in ways that would best enable us to flourish. If you don’t agree, then ask yourselves whether people in underpaid jobs with poor working conditions are being well-served by the economy.

Design thinking would help start this again by enabling us to get to the heart of the ‘purpose’ behind the economy. Unfortunately, we’re so used to the idea of the economy as something that simply exists, that questioning its purpose has become alien to us – it’s simply there: all-pervading and inescapable. But we simply must ask questions about why the economy is important if we are to create a future where it’s looking after people and planet better than it is today.

4. Design includes testing and iterative improvement

No matter how well I think I’ve designed something, there’s always room for improvement. And that’s something I embrace.

In the name of pragmatism it’s not always possible to hold out for a perfect design before launch, but you can keep testing (before) and reiterating (before and after) to improve and refine. 

5. Design challenges assumptions

This is really crucial if we’re going to get past the current state of tweaking different ‘economic mechanisms’ and coming up with bullshit ‘solutions’ (like printing more money, or fracking). ‘Solutions’ that only help some of the people on the planet and ruin lives for others, or ‘solutions’ that make craploads of cash whilst irremediably destroying the planet are not solutions at all. 

Design thinking is all about starting with a blank piece of paper and a goal. 

If you can apply that same thinking to the economy, what would we come up with?

Banks have been in existence for several centuries, so is it right to assume that they’re still relevant (even when they are causing huge amounts of human suffering)? ‘Growth’ has become something taken as an automatic goal to aim for, but if we achieve a standard of living that allows people to live well, why do we still need growth? ‘Deficits’ are used to get whole countries to tighten their belts, but the US is simultaneously the world’s biggest economy and has the world’s biggest national debt, so what if this is a false narrative?

Only by challenging our assumptions – a key element of design – can change happen.

I believe it’s time for design thinking to be applied to our greatest design challenge of all – redesigning the economic system. And if just a fraction of the $13bn a year invested in designing new iPhones was applied to that, just imagine what a difference we could make. 

Photo by Per Lööv on Unsplash

The ‘no cookies in the house’ philosophy

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’m a 36-year-old man who can be defeated by a cookie.

Any cookie really, but Chocolate Hob Nobs are my favourites.

If I have them in the house, I always have a niggling voice at the back of my mind saying, “Just have them now! You’re going to eat them anyway, so get it over and done with.” 

Even when I’ve made a rational decision to eat less because they are bad for me, my subconscious gets the better of me. I’ll literally eat them until I feel unwell, against my better judgment. 

So what do I do? I don’t have them in the house. 

The ‘no cookies in the house’ idea is simply making sure things are ‘out of sight, out of mind’. It’s about creating a space – which can be a physical space, or it can be your mental space – that helps to support you in your goals. After all, if I wanted to eat more cookies, what’s the point torturing myself by having to look at them every time I open the cupboard?

I can still go out and buy them when I want – of course – but at least this way I have more control, by keeping my unruly subconscious at bay in my weaker moments. And, best of all – I feel happier because I don’t keep reminding myself of what I can’t (or shouldn’t) have.

So I’ve been thinking about how I can apply ‘no cookies in the house’ to other things. And it’s easy.

Want to buy less stuff you don’t need? Stop promotional emails coming to your inbox. No cookies in the house.

Want to spend less time on Facebook? Remove the app from your phone. No cookies in the house.

Want to become less obsessed with your appearance? Stop following the Kardashians on Instagram. No cookies in the house.

Of course, all of us have some degree of willpower. We could still buy Wallpaper magazine without being driven to buy loads of new furniture. But ultimately, we’re just putting ourselves in a position where we’re constantly reminding ourselves of the things we can’t – or shouldn’t – have.

So if, like me, you’re trying to create new habits but are finding it a struggle; think:

What are the cookies in my house?

Photo by Davide Carpani on Unsplash

The fear behind the phrase ‘just enough’

Have you ever stopped to think about the phrase ‘just enough’?

We use it all the time – 

“I’ve got just enough to make this recipe”

“He’s done just enough to pass the exam”

“They have just enough money to get by”

Whenever we use it, we’re implying a negative situation – sure, you have enough, but more would be better.

There is an inherent logical issue in the way we use this phrase in English.

Enough /ɪˈnʌf/
as much or as many as required

This is a binary idea – you either do or don’t have the quantity required to perform a specific task.

So why do we add ‘just’ to it? 

When we say ‘just enough’ – what we are actually exposing is our fear of insecurity about the future. Sure, I have enough, I’ve done enough, I’ve got enough… but what if I need more?

This feeling – an unspecified need for more or everything in the face of an uncertain future – permeates our entire culture. 

It’s the fear that drives us to keep accumulating wealth when we already have what we need to live well, to buy excess food on our weekly shop that we end up having to throw out, to work ourselves to the bone for our boss even if we’ve already hit our targets. And because these are driven by fear, it’s hard to know when we’ve ever got enough

And each of these examples of excess means that we’re trading off something else in our lives for it – our time, our planet, our energy, our happiness – and we’re not even clear why we need it. We’re simply scared about what might happen if we don’t.

So here’s a challenge to think on – the next time you use the phrase ‘just enough’, try and catch yourself doing it.

And try asking yourself: what would happen if I dropped the ‘just’?

The radical act of aiming lower

“I’ve got a meeting with a new client on Tuesday.”

I was talking to someone I trust about an impending business opportunity.

“I’m reading about the project tomorrow to see if it sounds interesting,” I continued. “I’m already over capacity. But I’ve been thinking and I don’t want to grow the business.”

A confused look on the listener’s face. I feel self-indulgent, privileged and entitled. So I carry on justifying myself.

“I don’t spend a lot, and I’m happy with what I’ve got. So instead of growing the business, I need to decide whether I want to keep all my clients because they’re all important to me, or whether to choose one or the other, based on how much of an impact I think the project can make.”

From my perspective, it’s an enviable position. I can pick-and-choose the project that sounds most interesting because I’m already doing ok for money. I get to decide if I work more or not.

So the response surprised me. 

“Well – I think maybe it would be easier to decide if you had a goal… like if you wanted a bigger house or a new car, then you’d have a reason to grow the business.”

What we’re conditioned to strive for

The response didn’t annoy me. I know that it comes from wanting the best for me. And I fully understand that having a goal like that would make things easier in some ways. It would provide a wonderful distraction – another target to work towards for months or years, only to arrive and realise it didn’t actually fill any emotional void, and that it now needed to be replaced with another distraction.

Moreover, I’m not annoyed because the response reflects how we’ve been conditioned to think as a society. 

Don’t have a goal? Set one, they say. You need goals. They keep you productive. And you need to be economically productive to be of value – literally and metaphorically. 

But the goals that we’re used to setting are mostly about money. ‘I want to grow my business’. ‘I want a new car’. ‘I want to save for retirement’. 

Goals that aren’t money-oriented are frivolous –

  • Learning for learning’s sake is self-indulgent
  • You can only travel the world for so long before you have to ‘get back to reality’
  • Searching for inner peace is flaky 

In fact, until retirement comes along, it’s seen as self-indulgent – even immoral – to have a goal that wilfully reduces your economic productivity. 

Working less? Out of choice? 

“When other people are struggling for work?”

That’s for the lazy. The layabout. The bad citizen. 

At least, that’s what we’ve been conditioned to believe.

What if we flipped it?

The conditioning is so ingrained, it’s a real feat of mental acrobatics to think about how it could be aspirational – even morally right –  to reduce our economic productivity.

Why is that?

Well, we’ve been taught that: 

  • For us all to be happy, we need the country to work well
  • For the country to work well, we need the economy to work well
  • For the economy to keep working, we’ve got to be productive
  • For us to be productive, we’ve got to keep working

Therefore – if you don’t work, you’re immoral. You’re ruining our collective happiness.

But does this logic really stack up? Because generally we have economic growth year after year, but we’re also seeing increasing inequality, massive tax evasion, decimated health and social care systems, increasingly divisive politics, and worsening mental health. 

Economic growth is simply not leading us to happiness.

And yet there’s already more than enough money in the world to pay for everything we need.

So more economic growth isn’t the answer. Better governance and economic justice is. And working more simply won’t make that happen.

The bravery of aspiring to less

Let’s face it, it’s going to be a long road to making that happen.

The richest in society are unlikely to change their mind any time soon and abandon the economic system. 

So maybe it’s down to us to make change happen through small acts of our own.

And maybe that starts with those of us who are lucky enough to be able to afford to work less. And maybe there are more of those than we think.

And maybe we won’t feel like we’re depriving ourselves if we learn to want less.

Maybe reducing some of that pressure on ourselves to generate more, to earn more, and to spend more, could free up time for us to work on things that aren’t money-oriented.

After all – we already accept that ‘the best things in life are free’. So why do most of us spend the majority of our waking life earning money?

Maybe ‘aspiring to less’ is the key to having time to work on our body, our mind, our family, our knowledge, and even our happiness.

Maybe that means that ‘aiming lower’ is actually – in another sense – aiming higher, just with less money.

But learning to not want as much – in spite of all the pressures to do so – is the opposite of something a lazy person would do. Given the armies of people that work hard to make us want stuff, it’s actually really bloody hard. Not to mention that you’ll probably be judged as having ‘given up’, or having ‘failed’ at life, by many of those around you.

So maybe, just maybe, deciding you want to become less economically productive isn’t the same as being a layabout.

Maybe it’s actually a major achievement to learn how to do it.

Maybe passing up opportunities for work that you don’t need opens up opportunities for others who do.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s actually being a good citizen.

Maybe, just maybe, a partial withdrawal from the system can actually shake things up.

Maybe it all begins with figuring out goals that don’t depend on money. 

Maybe it all begins with ‘aspiring lower’ – at least in the traditional sense – and being proud of it.

Photo: Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

Marie Kondo, you’re tackling the wrong problem

We have TV shows that teach people how to throw away all the unnecessary stuff they’ve bought.

But not that teach people to buy less things they don’t need in the first place.

Perhaps it’s only appealing to learn about throwing away things after the pleasure of buying them?

Whereas learning about controlling your purchases in the first place sounds suspiciously close to ‘being deprived’.

How can we reframe richness in ways that aren’t represented by the objects we accumulate?

Life is too valuable to be ruled by a spreadsheet

Budgeting is something that sensible people do. Right?

Idiots (like me) just get by on a wing and a prayer, without really much of a plan for their money.

That’s something I’ve been wanting to change for some time, but something has never sat quite right with me about budgeting. And I think I’ve finally figured out what’s been niggling at me.

Traditional budgeting puts income first, before quality of life

The Money Coach says, “budgeting ensures that you will always have enough money for the things you need and the things that are important to you”. 

And yet, this idea isn’t what budgeting does, because budgeting starts by asking you to calculate your income first, and work from there.

In theory, it’s about creating balance:

But seeing as you’ve already worked out how much you have available, the only thing you can trade-off is what you need or what matters to you.

In reality, this way of budgeting is allowing your income to dictate your life:

It forgets that we don’t only spend money on things, we spend time on things too. And yet we don’t have any space in the traditional budget equation to recognise that we need to accumulate that time.

And this is total bullshit. Which is why we’re so used to hearing things like:

  • I’d like to spend more time with my kids, but I have to work
  • I’d like to get in shape, but I have to work
  • I’d like to meditate, but I have to work

Not only is it flawed in its logic, but it reduces our options to find balance, because it is saying that:

  1. You couldn’t do anything to increase that income, which – to be fair – can be very difficult and/or impossible, but also

  2. The option that seems even more crazy and impossible –  that maybe you could consider reducing the time you spend on generating income (work) so you have more time to do the things that matter to you

This way of budgeting never even looks at the income you need, it just looks at the income you have, and what you can do with it.

So you’re left with very few ‘levers’ to pull if you want to make changes.

What would it look like to shake this up?

If we accept that many of the things that matter to you cannot be bought, and that time is important to us too, then wouldn’t it make more sense to balance the equation between:

  1. The things you need and the things that matter to you
  2. The free time you need
  3. The income you need

Otherwise, by simply accepting that our income is fixed, we’re simply accepting that we’ll spend 40, 50, 60 hours of our week at work. 

We’re not even questioning it – it’s just the starting point for the budgeting process. The majority of your waking life is all wrapped up in the step: ‘calculate income’.

This means you’re accepting that the 40, 50, 60 hours a week you work are worth trading in for the money you earn – without having a clear plan of how you plan to spend it in the first place, or how it will help you get the life you want

In other words, you’re giving up significant amounts of time in your life for unspecified or vague reasons.

So what if budgeting genuinely balanced the life you want to lead with the free time and income you need to lead it? Wouldn’t that be powerful?

This is a topic I’m going to come back to, because I have a lot to still think about. And I’d love to hear your thoughts on it, too.

But right now, it’s 9 am in Madrid, it’s sunny, and I’m choosing to spend my time on something else right now. To be continued. 

Photo by Picsea on Unsplash

We are all developing countries

Rising rates of depression and anxiety.

Politicians telling lies and undermining the free press.

Unprecedented levels of consumer waste and pollution.

People freezing to death in winter.

I’m not talking about some far-flung failed state. These points could describe the UK, US, China, and – frankly – probably any developed country in the world.

If this is what passes for a ‘developed country’, then what passes as ‘development’ is clearly failing us.

Separating countries into the ‘developed’ and the ‘developing’ is not only artificial, it is dangerous.

To call countries ‘developed nations’ implies that they have reached a point where development is ‘done’ 

Photo by Darren Halstead on Unsplash

Can we really say that the way any country is working in 2020 reflects the pinnacle of possibility for the human race? Is there anywhere on the planet where people are universally able to live well, in ways that take care of the earth and each other’s well-being, too? 

Have humans really been in existence for hundreds of thousands of years so we could reach an end-point where Kylie Jenner can paint her face on Instagram and make a billion dollars?

Development? It’s done!

Is there really no higher we can aim?

In putting ourselves in the ‘developed country’ basket, we become lazy. We stop trying to reimagine things, and take them as ‘the way things are’. 

We assume that things we invented – for example, the stock exchange – aren’t good or bad, they simply are. We stop questioning where we’re going – for example, we accept that ‘economic growth is good’ as a universal truth, without asking our politicians what this economic growth will do for us.  

The arrogance of ignorance

We are marking ‘developing countries’ further down the imaginary continuum between ‘developing’ and ‘developed’. We are insinuating that there’s only one way to be truly developed – and it’s our way.

We imagine developed countries as ‘less than’ us – less advanced, somehow, but without being specific about what it is they are worse at. 

And yet, whilst developed countries can complain about developing countries such as Brazil or Ecuador chopping down rainforest, they are still the ones driving the need for the rainforest’s resources.

Not only does this false divide between developed/developing create goals for developing countries that won’t necessarily make life better for humans (something politicians rarely talk about these days), but the divide also insinuates that ‘developed’ countries have nothing to learn from developing countries. So they don’t look. And yet, in many of these countries, there is still more harmony between people and planet, lower rates of consumerism, and lower rates of depression.

It’s time we accepted that all countries are developing.

Are humans really such basic animals that they are guaranteed to live better, happier, more fulfilling lives because their country has a higher GDP? 

Of course not. 

We need to be taking a more holistic look at what makes life worth living, to understand whether we’re creating the conditions for humans to flourish to their highest potential.

Only if we ever reach that state can we truly say that a country is ‘developed’. 

Cover photo: Photo by Ev on Unsplash

What are ‘Enough Questions’?

We’d all love to find answers.

But then, most of the time, we find answers that don’t work for us.

“It said to meditate every day but it just doesn’t work with my five kids and two dogs!”

“I read that if I ate six small meals a day, I’d lose weight, but I didn’t!”

“I was told that budgeting was the way to success but I’m still broke!”

Looking for answers and calling it ‘self-help’ doesn’t make any sense.

You’re not helping yourself if someone’s telling you what to do. You’re just being told what to do, and hoping it’ll work. And just because the answers worked for someone, doesn’t mean they’ll work for you.

Self-help is putting the work in yourself.

So why not look for questions instead?

Let’s figure shit out together. Because I don’t have any answers anyway.

When I’ve learnt something, really learnt something, it’s generally because I’ve been asked a really good question and been able to draw my own conclusions. 

That’s why I think properly reflecting on good questions is so much more useful than answers.

But because I’m writing Exploring Enough for myself, I’m trying to ask questions to myself.

I’m calling them ‘Enough Questions’.

Instead of looking for answers, I’m keeping my eyes and ears open for good questions to ask myself.

Questions that make think about what Enough looks like to me. Because, like life, what’s Enough for you isn’t fixed, it changes over time. And it’s not universal to everyone, it’s personal. 

There are so many questions we can be asking ourselves, and they aren’t rocket science. But in our busy lives, it’s rare that we stop to ask them. 

So I’ll be sharing ‘Enough Questions’ on my Facebook page and inviting others to share theirs, too.

Here are some that are on my mind, just for starters:

  • Why am I doing what I’m doing? 
  • Is that a good enough reason?
  • Really???
  • When was the last time I sat back and thought about my goals?
  • What really matters to me?

Do you have any ‘Enough Questions’ that help you reflect on what’s important?

Photo by Eunice Lituañas on Unsplash

Is Jeff Bezos really worth more than all the UK’s nurses?

Amazon boss Jeff Bezos earnings in one year:
£62,300,000,000 (Source)

Annual salary of all 300,000 NHS nurses combined:
£8,280,000,000 (Source)

That’s over seven times less money, shared between 299,999 more people.

One runs an online store. The others save lives.


To pay all 300,000 nurses in the UK costs approx £8,195,700,000 – £8.2 billion – based on an average salary of £27,319 for 300000 nurses (Source: Glassdoor).

Bezos figures: Business Insider