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Harvard Business Review Turkey Op-ed: Design is a good opportunity for especially Turkey

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The article is originally published in the September 2015 issue of Harvard Business Review Turkey in Turkish as the only contribution from Turkey to the Design Thinking cover story.

Consider the local context

When I was rushing to the office on a nice spring in 2014, the phone rang. I quickly answered this first phone of the morning. The caller began by saying that she was from the Turkish office of an international company. “We want to develop a new and innovative product from Turkey. I was informed about you. Could you give us a proposal with a budget and guaranteed product at the end?” I told her how the design processes goes and the importance of contextual research. Then I told her that it’s a collaborative work and it also depends on their teams. I concluded by informing her that there is no such thing as a “new product guarantee.” After a little bit of conversation, she said that she could not acknowledge the budget if there would be no end product, and she had to find a method that would lead to new product quickly. She then stated that I could not guarantee that so she had to find another way. End of conversation.

If you work in a new generation design studios, these kind of conversations are a part of your life. You’re used to it and you try to continue knowing that. Although this is very common in emerging economies like Turkey, developed economies are not entirely different. It may just be not as common.

Design, which has entered its “golden age” as claimed by the New York Times, has started diffusing into many domains of business as a context-dependent instrument through which emerging countries can compete with developed ones.

Design thinking, because it’s necessarily context-dependent, gives us the opportunity to form original and creative products, services, and businesses that we couldn’t so far, mainly due to the barriers of orientalism. In  doing so, by partially controlling Western-centric thinking with an instrument, it leads to opportunities for our economy far more significant than we can imagine.

Design thinking: Why now?

20th Century was the century of the pragmatic (a way thinking focused on direct and practical outcomes) disciplines like engineering, business administration, and science. Technology, a primary discipline among them, became a main  instrument of innovation in economic growth. According to John Maeda, the design partner in Kleiner Perkins, schools like MIT stood out as a symbol of these strategies. With the dazzling speed of technology, many new products and concepts became a part of our lives and changed our ways living. This brought about more change in many of our values including meanings we ascribe to things, ways of relating to each other and these innovations, existing cultural codes, our relationships with environment and climate change, our reactions to things, our expectations, things that make us happy or unhappy. We acquired a new set of values. Referring to these people as “360° people,” Sara Horowitz says, “they are aware of the ecological, societal, and financial impact of their actions” and “want to connect to one another.”

When our values change in such drastic measures, one should expect every organization that builds and presents things for people to change accordingly as well. However that was not the case. As a matter of fact, according to a study done by Shikhar Ghosh, the failure rates of return on investment in new product ventures are about 95%. Although there are many parameters for investment, one of the fundamental causes of failure is not being able to address the market and understand people’s needs. This may be due to the fact that the lens used in problem-solving which focuses too much on profitability and functionality and neglects human behaviors and expectations. Although “customer-centricity” is a concept that is often voiced in conference rooms, the lens used here comes from pragmatic disciplines like marketing. The real need, however, is questioning problems in ways that empathize with changing value structures of people and look at them from more behavioral and emotional dimensions.

Where is Turkey in this picture?

As a result of globalism, these changes in the world affected Turkey too. In fact, the country adapted to some of the new technologies and innovations very quickly, mainly due to its social diversity. For example, it has become one of the fastest growing countries in mobile technologies, ahead of United States.

As a developing country, Turkey has a lot of problems. We often see that some of these problems are assumed to be the same as the ones in developed countries. So their solutions are duplicated here, like trying to create global entrepreneurial achievements and heroes from Turkey without looking at the geography itself, solely based on the examples of Silicon Valley or Steve Jobs as a hero.

There is a very significant phenomenon that hinders the ways we do business, our relationships with developed economies, creating our own heroes and original achievements. This phenomenon is Orientalism as established by the cultural critic Edward Said. It is not a hot topic of conversation in meeting rooms of the business world, but since this is about people and understanding their values, it’s useful to simply define it and include it in the discussion. According to Said, the West, placing itself in the center of history, has created an imaginary “East” in order to define itself and justify its political agenda. From this perspective, Orientalism is roughly looking from a Western-centric point of view when understanding “Eastern” peoples and cultures.

In fact, Orientalism deeply affects our ways of doing business in Turkey. Because we take the “West” as one true path, we have trouble in creating concepts and works that are uniquely from here in fields that require creativity and need to be context-dependent. Although there are other reasons, this results in copied works or carrying out the operations and the sales of works done in developed countries.

It gets deeper when it comes to new ventures. Due to the investors’ prioritization of “low-risk” tried-out examples, this copying mechanism gets reinforced even more.

In this case, companies that try to fulfill sales goals at the end of specific period or people who are rushing to quickly  implement a startup idea from Silicon Valley have no time, budget, and perspective to look at values of people from here. Therefore, our biggest achievements are only carrying out local operations of Western businesses.

From customer-centricity to human-centricity

The changes in people’s sets of values also changed the global and local problems that need to be solved. So far, problems have been tried to solve through a lens of pragmatic disciplines. However, the founder of Design for Change in Stanford University Banny Banerjee says that “if there is a new value system, we need to ask new questions to redefine the problem. If everything is changing, questions must change too. This is where design enters into the picture.” In doing so, he claims that design should pioneer the 21st Century approaches of problem-solving.

Complex and multidimensional problems of the 21st Century

Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber from Berkeley University were first design theoreticians to put forward that some problems in design and planning had “complex and multidimensional” characteristics. According to them, these unique problems were made up of components that couldn’t precisely be identified. Therefore there was no absolute or single solution. Rittel summarized this as “solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong, only better or worse.”

If design methods work for solving these complex and multidimensional problems, they can also work for other problems that are conventionally considered outside of design. “It is this element of design practice that, we separate from the tangible and applied to intangible problems, is often termed design thinking.” says Hilary Collins in her dmi:Review article named “Can design thinking still add value?”

This point of view is not compatible with the business-as-usual approach, which is “a solution is either right or wrong.” However it positions design thinking as a powerful instrument in every part of life.

In explaining design thinking, a candidate for such an significant position, the most common question we get is its difference with design.

Design can be defined as a purposeful creative activity for answering people’s needs.  

Design thinking, on the other hand, is the application of the creative problem-solving approach of design in almost everything. According to Roger Martin, the Dean of Rotman School of Management, design thinking is more abstract than design.

The most challenging issue in business: Ambiguity

Because there were physical products, graphics, or interfaces at the end of the conventional design, business people could make decisions based on the final outcome without having to deal with the creative process. However, it is much different in design thinking where you tell them “we have modelled this creative process for you, you can take it and use it in different domains.” In this case, business people need to understand and evaluate the analyses that include ambiguity, complexity, emotions, and empathy that are the prices of creative process. That is not compatible with our pragmatic educations built upon certainty and result-orientedness as well as the culture of the business world. This is the most fundamental reason why businesses hesitate about design thinking.

Who can work on design thinking?

Who can practice a new and abstract work like design thinking is a significant question for brands. “Who a designer is” is a common topic of conversation in both academy and business. Although there are collective design groups as of late, design is driven by an idea of “star designer.” Design thinking, however, mainly because of its domains of application, depends on a collective and democratic culture where people from different disciplines work together.

What almost everyone agrees is that people who are apt to or self-developed about this practice can be a part these teams. Since most of the literature focuses on prototyping, I’d specifically like to elaborate on two other topics.

The first one of the most fundamental topics is the fact that a designer may not know or have practiced design thinking in her professional life. In Turkey, most design schools, especially industrial design schools, have specialized on product design. That’s why the new generation design studios have to hire industrial designer and train them on various applications of design thinking.

However, knowing the difference between “design strategy” and “strategy design” could more difficult for someone coming from a design education.

The next topic is contextual research which is one of the most important phases of design and design thinking. This is an research about observing people on the field and identifying their behaviors, needs, and wants. One of the main purposes of this research is to form “informed gut feeling” capacity in creative people. A common confusion of clients with contextual research is the field studies carried out by the business world in the name of “customer centricity.” However, there are significant differences between a marketing research and contextual research for design: Pragmatic disciplines make decisions by induction and deduction based on the past data about people. CRM, for example, is based on the data formed by people using a service, but the data aren’t about people’s emotions and behaviors. The data aren’t about empathizing with people and understanding why they do the things they do in their everyday lives and what they need. In design and design thinking, however, people’s behaviors, emotions, and experiences and looked at and made sense of through “abduction.” Market research is useful for convergence while contextual research is a material and source of inspiration for divergence.

Synthesizing and generating design opportunities from the contextual research findings are the most critical parts of the process. Both contextual research and synthesis are domains that require aptitude and knowledge about their techniques. That’s why it’s important for the quality of the process that this phase is facilitated by people who are trained in anthropology or research-based design.

Who are the global players of this domain?

Generally, there are developments in 6 areas in terms of the players in this domain.

Firstly, there are the educational centers among which are Stanford and Austin Center for Design founded by Jon Kolko. These schools diverge from the common concepts of university and authority, and work in experimental ways. They also have considerable effects on business and they are rapidly growing in number.

The second one is the new generation design studios including the likes of IDEO, Frog Design, and Smart Design. Especially, IDEO is one of the pioneers of this field and eventually entered the league of premier consultancy firms like McKinsey and Accenture. Now, with their collaboration with Roger Martin, they are heading towards new applications of design thinking outside of technology. Their mutual article titled “Capitalism needs design thinking, implies the direction of their collaboration.

The new generation design studios are focused on a variety of topics. A majority of them offer service and strategy design, design thinking, experience design services in addition to product design.

The third one is the big consultancy firms like McKinsey and Accenture buying out design studios like Lunar and Fjord, reinforce their services with design. However, it’s curious how the work practice and culture of these studios will blend with MBA culture of consultancies.

The fourth is the companies such as SAP (main funder of Stanford, Intuit, Kaiser, who started early and formed integrated design units within their companies. In addition, companies like GE, IBM, Capital One have been forming their own big design teams. The Design Center in Austin formed by IBM is a prime example. Such design teams work for both their parent company’s (like GE’s healthcare products) and their clients’ services. For example Adaptive Path, bought by Capital One, works only for intra-company services.

Finally, another area worthy of attention is the agencies. We have so far associated agencies with getting closer to and communicating with the customers. Naturally, digital agencies have moved forward within the recent years. Since brands don’t really know the difference between agencies that work through a marketing perspective and design studios -such as the difference between market and contextual research- they couldn’t make clear decisions about who to take services from.

Maybe it was different ten years ago but now agencies are aware that design studios are partially their competition. As a matter of fact, according to a study about new generation digital agencies conducted by Econsultancy and Adobe in 2014, customer experience is a significant domain of growth within the coming five years. That’s why agencies have started adopting approaches of design studios and repositioning themselves.

Another player worth mentioning is the professional institutions. Boston-based DMI (Design Management Institute) and London-based Design Council are the most prestigious and pioneering institutions in design thinking.

Is there a different added value in Turkey?

We now know the reasons for design thinking coming into prominence globally and the need to interpret people’s behaviors, emotions, and desires through a new lens. There is, however, another added value specifically for Turkey. Maybe this is the first time ever that businesses will have to look at the local context instead of copying the West. This may be our chance of creating original and creative services, ideas, and ventures.

On the other hand, design thinking is a promising  innovation tool for economies like Turkey, which are not as technologically-competitive as developed economies. The approach of “Design-Driven Innovation” as illustrated by Roberto Verganti, a Professor of Leadership and Innovation at Politecnico di Milano, explains such a phenomenon. According to Verganti, (please see the figure “Design-Driven Innovation”) radical innovation can be facilitated by generating new meanings within a cultural context about existing technologies using design.

Although the distinctions between design and technology are smaller than many people think, design humanizing technology by generating new meanings can be a significant source of differentiation.

On another level, In Turkey as a country with a powerful entrepreneurial culture, design thinking can help reduce pivot and failure rates and can be utilized as an instrument of “technical analysis” by investors. They can determine if a venture addresses a need and it is a good solution to the problem. In this respect, venture capitalists who invest in new startups can benefit arguably the most from design thinking. This is because, according to Shikhar Ghosh, 3 out of 4 ventures fail to generate return on investment.

In entrepreneurial ecosystem, design is often associated with graphics and interface design.  However, the questions a venture asks about the problems are the most critical points that fundamentally affect its performance. Design thinking, in this sense, can make a difference by helping entrepreneurs frame problems and come up with ideas.

Applications in Turkey

Design thinking and the new generation of design studios in Turkey have concentrated on user experience design. Companies invest especially in mobile applications and web interfaces in serious amounts. However, as far as the entire customer journey goes, interfaces are only one of the touchpoints. For example, when buying furniture on we went through a 2-month-long process where we had a bad experience with the manufacturer and eventually returned piece although the web user experience was completely unproblematic.

In addition, there are also companies that aim to raise awareness about the topic and look from a broader perspective although the demand is largely about user experience. Big companies like Eczacibasi, Arcelik, Koc, and Sabanci keep the topic on their agenda with the innovation divisions they have formed.

Although they position themselves in terms of product design and user experience, TOFAS forming their own customer experience team is also promising. On the other hand, Local independent design studios, including us, Bilende, Atolye Istanbul, and Ethnogram play a significant role by paying attention to addressing local needs.

Studio founders who work in this field don’t lose their faith in the potential in Turkey in spite of all the difficulties. “I think there is a lot of potential in Turkey. Our culture is very compatible with thinking differently, creating alternative solutions, and adapting to innovations” says Ekin Ciftci, the design director at Bilende.

There are teams utilizing such a perspective, although they are not directly associated with design thinking. Institute of Creative Minds, for example, have created significant projects like 140jurnos and Gastronomika. Chef Mehmet Gurs succeeded internationally with his restaurant Mikla through his collaboration with anthropologists studying Anatolia and his relationship with local culture, as he claims in June 16th 2015 interview on Hurriyet.

In order to clarify the topic at hand and  illustrate its applications in Turkey, let me briefly mention projects we, GEDS, carried out.

I will elaborate on an example from Turkey, which is a strong market in mobile, although we mostly do strategy design. We carried out a prototyping project with Ericsson Middle East that aimed to transform customer experience management (CEM) for mobile operators from a technology-centered to a human-centered perspective. Executives working in customer experience from different countries and a representative from a mobile operator participated in the project. We identified the human-centered parameters of customer experience management using service design tools.

“Network KPIs were designed according to the technical parameters. Customers keep complaining although all KPIs are green. The mobile operator dilemma is to match the network KPIs with the subjective KPIs of customers” says Tunc Yorulmaz, Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at Verizon Customer Unit, Ericsson. The main reason for this is customer experience management focusing on the practical functions of mobile phones and networks like call drops.

The project was carried out through a preliminary contextual research about end users and operator customer centers, as well as a one-week-long intensive workshop with international participants. There were significant conclusions drawn from the project. For example, it was identified that mobile experience is largely shaped by offline activities more than online, which changed our approach to the problem. We also noticed that mobile operators predominantly focus on post-sales process. However, it was identified that people mostly need help with research and decision-making, and operators aren’t really active on these phases.

Projects with entrepreneurs

Design thinking is an opportunity especially for technology startups in that it reduces pivot and failure rates by addressing needs. That’s why using it in the phase that precedes the lean startup process can make a significant difference. We started design thinking workshops for entrepreneurs in 2010. In 2011, we facilitated a workshop titled “Innovation for Small and Medium-Size Enterprises” with KOSGEB (Small and Medium Enterprises Development Organization in Turkey) in Umraniye, a working-class district in Istanbul. This may be one of the first-ever applications globally in its own category. I can safely say that it was the most successful workshops in Turkey. There were two main reason for that. Firstly, the participants were from very diverse backgrounds. Second, they had no negative bias as they knew nothing about the topic or the methods used. With such project experiences, we included design thinking into a social entrepreneurship program in Guinea in 2012 in collaboration with U.S. Peace Corps. 10 social startups emerged out of this program and it still goes on. You can find the details of the project in the article “Bridging Skills and Opportunities” on Stanford University Social Innovation Blog. In 2013, these applications were included in the curriculum of the first design-driven entrepreneurship course in Turkey in Sabanci University.


With its democratic and collaborative work practices, design thinking is an significant tool for creativity to diffuse into business. In Turkey specifically, it can be a significant instrument for breaking the barriers of Orientalism and creating original products, services, and ventures by getting in touch with the local context. In developing countries where people have limited resources and less chance to make mistakes, we can apply it on different areas and create human-centered solutions, especially in a sociocultural structure where there are many complex and multidimensional problems like ours.

Design and design thinking are the equivalent of technology in early 20th Century that transformed lives and was instrumental in economic growth. In Turkey specifically, businesses will have to get in touch with the local context maybe the first time ever, and take advantage of design thinking efficiently. We can start this crucial journey by realizing the existence, value, and significance of our own local design lens.


Problem: 21st Century is ripe with value structures being transformed by technology and unsuccessful products, services, and experiences that don’t adapt well to this phenomenon. Problems are approached using the instruments of 20th Century.

Cause: Products, services, and systems are designed based on functionality and profitability. Human needs, wants, and behaviors are often neglected. In the context of Turkey, local needs are approached through a Western lens.

Solution: Design and design thinking focus on people, they look at problems through a perspective of human needs and wants. In the context of Turkey, for the first time ever in business, we will have to look at local context.

Gulay Ozkan

August 2015 – Cihangir, Istanbul

Category : Blog, Genel
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