Interview with Patrick Link

Patrick, can you tell us a bit about your professional journey and how you came to be a professor in Design Thinking? 

Larry Leifer, one of the three founding directors of at Stanford University, lives partly in Switzerland in a small village near HSLU. Larry introduced us to Design Thinking. Since then, HSLU has developed many modules and courses in Design Thinking, initially with the support of Larry’s team. 

So we have tried many different formats – from a 2-hour introduction to the Mindset, to a 4-hour introductory workshop, to a CAS Design Thinking course that runs for 6 months. 

In parallel, together with Larry, we set up an expert community for Design Thinking practitioners in Switzerland. The international bestseller “The Design Thinking Playbook” was an idea that came out of this community. Many experts contributed to this book.

How did you become interested in Design Thinking? And what do you love about Design Thinking? 

I wrote my PhD at the ETH Zürich at the former BWI. The mindset I applied in my doctoral thesis was based on Systems Engineering, a strong analytical problem-solving approach. When I discovered Design Thinking I recognized the complementary aspect – similar to the right and left brain model. Design Thinking fosters team-based problem solving of wicked (complex) problems and is especially beneficial in combination with other mostly analytical approaches, especially with Systems Thinking. Nowadays the combination of Design Thinking and System Thinking becomes particularly useful in designing business ecosystems where the needs of the customers are central to success.

Why is the topic of “Design Thinking” so important today? 

First, we are facing more and more wicked problems that cannot be solved by a genius alone, but only in interdisciplinary teams. There you need to establish a common language and mindset to work together. Design Thinking helps to create this common understanding and foster creativity. 

Secondly, user-centricity is key to defining the right solutions. Design Thinking supports co-creation, a close relationship with the potential customer/user, thanks to the iterative approach with many prototyping and test sessions. This leads to a strong user-centric approach, ensures that the problem/solution fit is given and that requirements are correctly described and prioritized. 

Third we need more innovation and a culture that supports radical innovation and fosters a positive failure culture. Design Thinking supports the organization to find radical innovation solutions and the digital transformation of the organization. 

What is the best or worst career advice you ever received? 

Follow your heart, work hard and always imagine how a possible future will look like. 

We all prefer to work in an open, honest and playful environment, and of course in a cool team with people we like to hang out with. We like to work hard and have fun at the same time. So look for good people rather than good jobs. Work with respectable people and you will have a good job. Working with bad people you will never have a happy time while working. We are always working with people and functions are just descriptions on an organization chart. So build your teams and organizations around people, not functions. Your heart helps you to find the right, trustful people. Personally, I advise my students to apply the Design Thinking mindset also for planning their personal life. Larry Leifer, together with Michael Lewrick recently published  “The Design Thinking Life Playbook” which fosters self-empowerment and helps the readers to think, act, and take advantage of their opportunities proactively. 

What’s the most challenging situation you’ve encountered as a professor in Design Thinking so far?  

There are groups where all participants wanted to join the Design Thinking class and learn Design Thinking. In other cases, people were forced to join the Design Thinking training because their company sent them. Interestingly Design Thinking works there as well, especially when the participants have to create prototypes. Then they are taken back to their childhood, applying a beginner’s attitude, remembering how much fun it was to build something with your own hands or draw something. Unfortunately, we have lost this childlike curiosity while going through the current school and university system. There we are already trimmed to a strong “zero error culture”. The corporate cultures are often like that too. We have refrained from thinking differently and have often subordinated everything to success. 

So the biggest challenge is to unlearn things that we have become accustomed to over the years and to dare to make mistakes again and thus learn. 

How is Design Thinking relevant to your role? 

I try to learn and prototype and test things every day to learn from the beginning and then challenge and improve myself further. This way of thinking accompanies me everywhere, in my private life, at university and in the Start-up Trihow. 

The Design Thinking approach at the University helps us to create new programs like CAS Design Thinking or Smart-up, a program to support start-ups at the Hochschule Luzern. 

In my work as an entrepreneur in our start-up Trihow it helps enormously. At Trihow, we develop new ways of interaction between people. The hybrid world of Trihow combines the usability and feel of the analog world with the ease of editing and reusability of the digital world. We create new hybrid spaces and thus promote team understanding and the ability to find solutions. These approaches are all radically different. They can only be created in close cooperation with the users, following an iterative approach. This is where the Design Thinking approach plays an important role.

You co-wrote the popular book, “Design Thinking Playbook”. What prompted you to write follow up with the “Design Thinking Toolbox”? What is the difference between the two guides? 

The “Design Thinking Playbook” explains the approach and philosophy of Design Thinking. It shows how Design Thinking can be combined with other approaches like System Thinking, Data Analytics, Lean Start-up or agile innovation. Also fairly new topics like Business Ecosystem Design are covered. The “Design Thinking Playbook” has been translated into more than a dozen languages and became the standard design thinking book at many universities and training programs 

The new toolbox was purely customer-led, because our practitioner’s community and readers told us that the “Design Thinking Playbook” is great and inspiring, but the tools are not described in enough detail. There are a lot of tools mentioned in the playbook, but there is not enough detail or explanation about how and when to use them. So the main aim of the Design Thinking Toolbox is to motivate our readers to try out new tools and help them to use them effectively with simple templates and tips. The toolbox supports the reader in using Design Thinking in practice. 

You’ll be speaking at European PO&RE Day about the “Design Thinking Toolbox”. 
What is this Toolbox about?  

The “Design Thinking Toolbox” describes in detail the 50 most useful tools for Design Thinking. It explains when and how to use them and includes a downloadable template. Additionally, a short introduction in Design Thinking, warm-ups and application cases is included. The Toolbox enables you and your organization to work more effectively and efficiently using the right tools and templates. 

The selection of the 50 most effective tools and methods was made by the largest international survey on Design Thinking tools with more than 2500 participants from the worldwide Design Thinking community. In addition, more than 100 Design Thinking experts contributed to this book by describing and reviewing their favorite tools. 

For which roles is this Toolbox most relevant?  

The Design Thinking Toolbox is beneficial for people who moderate (facilitate) workshops or meetings to better understand a problem and determine a suitable solution. These can be product managers, product owners, SCRUM masters, but also any manager or team leader. 

It is important that people have the curiosity to try out new things and learn. We also use the templates in our university courses and many people use them in virtual spaces, in tools like Mural, Conceptboard, Nexboard or Miro. 

Design Thinking is the right mindset for solving complex (wicked) problems, being customer-oriented and using the brainpower of an interdisciplinary team.