Book Review: Change by Design, by Tim Brown


When I picked up this book, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Tim Brown and IDEO would both be well known to anyone interested in design and innovation, but along with this fantastic reputation I also get a sense of exclusiveness – so, my initial thought was to wonder if Brown would actually reveal any of the secrets behind design thinking and his work at IDEO.

To answer that question now, the answer is both yes and no. You shouldn’t expect to pick up Change By Design and find a manual that will give you a short cut to design thinking. Instead, what you will find is two things – an introduction to the patterns of design thinking (part one – “What is design thinking”) and stories of how design thinking can be applied to business and society (part two – “Where do we go from here?”).

The narrative of the first part of the book really does a good job of capturing the essential differences between classical management thinking and design thinking. Just to pick out a few of the topics covered, they include:

  • How designers collaborate.
  • The processes of analysis and synthesis.
  • The use of observation and empathy.
  • Using visual thinking and story telling.
  • Risk taking through experimentation and prototyping.

Overall I found this first part of the book the most interesting and as Brown promises, this does provide a framework for design thinking. I think the first part of the book probably caught my attention more than the second part because I came to it already convinced of the value of design thinking – I didn’t really need further evidence or help to understand where it could be applied. However, if you are new to design thinking or need further convincing about its application to real business or social issues, then the second part will be very worth while.

The final pages of the last chapter also provide some useful pointers for everyone to remember:

  • Don’t ask what? Ask why?
  • Open your eyes.
  • Make it visual.
  • Build on the ideas of other.
  • Demand options.

I also enjoyed the reference to Victorian engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel that Brown uses to both open and close the book. I have often thought there was something different about the engineers of that era and perhaps Brown is right – people like Brunel and innovators that followed him were in fact design thinkers of sorts:

What they all shared was optimism, openness to experimentation, a love of stroytelling, a need to collaborate, and an instinct to think with their hands – to build, to prototype, and to communicate complex ideas with masterful simplicity. They did not just do design, they lived design.

If I had one major criticism of this book, then it would be the book itself rather than the ideas it contains. We are teased by a fantastic mind map on inside cover, which provides a visual table of contents. But the rest of the book contains just a few incidental sketched diagrams (and they all look like elements from a MBA’s play book, not a design thinker). Unfortunately I think Brown missed a fantastic opportunity to both engage his readers more effectively but also to show case different techniques for sharing stories and patterns.

Despite a missed opportunity with the actual design of the book itself, Change By Design is still a very good read – you will probably get more value from it if you are new to design thinking since as a package the book really provides a great introduction to the topic and examples of how to apply it. But just remember that design thinking is both a process and also an attitude, so don’t expect a step by step manual.

BTW While you are waiting to get hold of a copy of Change By Design, you can read his HBR article on design thinking or watch this TED talk.