A designer's epiphany: 'Let's stop talking and make something'

Making things is important because it reveals gaps in thought, sheds light on the fundamental assumptions that can kill ideas, and forces us to push toward solutions that actually work, writes HDR's David Grandy.

August 19, 2014 |

Photo via Flickr CC: Joe Haupt (France1978)

I grew up in an era before digital music. Turntables weren’t hip because they were vintage; they were standard issue. I’ll never forget my 10th Christmas when my godfather sent me a handheld transistor radio. Without doubt, it was my prized possession. I spent countless hours listening to just about any kind of music that would come through. Then one day, for reasons that even today I don’t fully understand, I decided to take apart that sleek piece of technology. Maybe I was looking for where the magic originated. Maybe I was just being rebellious. Mostly, I suspect that I was curious. More than anything, I wanted to know how that radio worked.

The engineering wasn’t complicated—at least by today’s standards—nor was the design. But the more I disassembled, the more I was struck with the notion that somebody had made this thing that I so loved. There was intent. There was logic. There was beauty. There was a cohesiveness that couldn’t have happened by chance.

There was design.

In my formative years, my rudimentary sense was that design was about drawing, and it was this assumption that principally steered me away from the discipline. I’m lousy with a pen. In my mind, design was entirely about aesthetic.

But now, having worked with designers of all sorts for a significant part of my career, I’ve come to understand that design isn’t just about making things beautiful. As Roger Martin says, “it’s about making beautiful things work beautifully.” It’s that one-two punch that made me want to think like a designer—in other words, to be a design thinker.

Design thinking is a creative process to develop solutions that balance factors like human needs, form, function, and cost. It is creative in the sense that the outcome is not prescribed; following a design thinking process might yield vastly different solutions. And that’s part of the point. To discover good ideas, we must go through multiple bad ones. And then, we must muddle through the arduous work of discerning the best ideas, and making them into complete solutions that actually work in the real world.

Said another way, design thinking is a model of complex problem solving that draws on various forms of discovery and creation, moving us from enigma, to scaffolding, to algorithm, and in doing so, generates a repeatable form of magic. It relies on intent. And logic. And beauty. And developing a cohesiveness that can’t be mistaken for chance.

Early in my career, I worked in hospital administration. If you know a hospital administrator, you’re likely acquainted with their standard routine marked by meetings from morning until night. When people asked me what I did for a living, my typical response was “I’m a professional meeting attender.” I spent countless hours in sessions where issues were turned inside out every way imaginable. We’d hash things out. We’d solve problems (or so we thought). We’d take world-class notes. And then we’d go into the real world, and we’d fail.

What I’ve come to realize is that we spent heaps of time talking, and very little time actually making. Don’t get me wrong: talking to others is essential, particularly when we can tap a diversity of viewpoints. Doing so makes for better solutions in the end. But, in my way of thinking, we spend far too much time just talking about plans, and schemes, and not nearly enough time actually making them. 

In my experience, nothing can replace form. The sooner we bring ideas into reality, the sooner we learn what does and doesn’t work. Making things is important because it reveals gaps in thought, sheds light on the fundamental assumptions that can kill ideas, and forces us to push toward solutions that actually work. Luckily for those of us who have difficulty drawing (or reassembling transistor radios, as was the case with me), making takes many forms: service blueprints, experience maps, frameworks, vignettes, sketches, models, concepts of operation—these all help bring ideas into reality.

And this is what design thinking is all about. Making, not talking. Discovering, not assuming.

So, stop talking and go make something!

About the Author

David Grandy is HDR’s managing director of strategic innovation, a practice that integrates human-centered design and strategy to help organizations explore the evolution of their business to find their place in the future. He is passionate about design, healthcare, and making a positive impact on the world. Grandy remains inspired by beautiful ideas. His work as a thinker, teacher, explorer, and partner has taken him to five continents and into board rooms and cabinet rooms alike. More on Grandy.


Read more posts on HDR's BLiNK blog.


BLiNK is a blog written by the employees at HDR. We are most well-known for delivering architecture and engineering services—for adding beauty and structure to communities through high performance buildings and smart infrastructure—but our multidisciplinary teams also include the firepower of archeologists, economists, builders, analysts, artists and scientists. Our bloggers represent offices from around the world and write about ideas, experiences and insights into our practice and the greater design community. Come visit us at blink.hdrinc.com.

Related Blogs

January 19, 2017 | Sustainability | HDR BLiNKJennifer Bienemann, Environmental Engineer, HDR

To help one of the most complex cities in the world develop an actionable strategy to meet visionary GHG re...

October 21, 2016 | Architects | HDR BLiNKLynn Mignola, Strategic Facilities Planner

Sometimes people look only for the simple answer and don’t understand that there is a calculated process to...

Pixabay Public Domain

October 03, 2016 | HDR BLiNKJoel Worthington, Strategic Innovation Designer

Know what you're working toward, be empathetic, and listen actively are three tips HDR's Joel Worthington s...

September 08, 2016 | Sustainability | HDR BLiNKLynn Mignola

When it comes to design we are in the business of imagining what could be, not necessarily what is, writes...

Courtesy of HDR

August 10, 2016 | Healthcare Facilities | HDR BLiNKBrian Zabloudil, Healthcare Planner

Engagement at all levels, designing with families in mind, and integrating flexible spaces are all importan...

Images courtesy HDR

June 14, 2016 | Office Building Design | HDR BLiNKLynn Mignola

Recent design trends favor extroverts who enjoy collaboration. HDR's Lynn Mignola says that designers need...

How HDR used computational design tools to design Omaha's UNO Baxter Arena

The new Baxter Arena in Omaha, Neb. Photo: Dan Schwalm, courtesy of HDR Architecture, Inc. Click here to enlarge.

May 02, 2016 | BIM and Information Technology | HDR BLiNKMatt Goldsberry

Three years after writing a white paper about designing an arena for the University of Nebraska Omaha, HDR'...

Identifying, using, and applying predictive analytics

Photo: Jeff Seeger/Creative Commons

March 28, 2016 | Big Data | HDR BLiNKBranden Collingsworth

Branden Collingsworth, HDR’s new Director of Predictive Analytics, clarifies what his team does and how arc...

HDR's redesigns Twin Cities' studio to have coffee shop vibe

Images courtesy HDR

March 02, 2016 | Office Building Design | HDR BLiNKMike Rodriguez

With open spaces, huddle rooms, and a design lab, the firm's new digs are drastically different than the ol...

Photo: Rachel Park

January 19, 2016 | Augmented Reality | HDR BLiNKRachel Park

A waning need for office buildings may be on the horizon, thanks to the possibility of working remotely via...

Add new comment

Your Information
Your Comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Refresh Type the characters you see in this picture. Type the characters you see in the picture; if you can't read them, submit the form and a new image will be generated. Not case sensitive.  Switch to audio verification.
Overlay Init