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How to build trust and respect within a diverse design team

Tuesday, 29 March 2016   (0 Comments)
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Design Thinking is used extensively to find user-centric solutions to identified problems. But the tried and tested formula needs to evolve and expand to accommodate the needs of increasingly trans-disciplinary teams. This was the key message from Thys de Beer, Senior Lecturer in Brand Strategy at Vega, who presented the results of a Master’s study on the subject at the Design Human Capital Forum hosted by the Cape Craft and Design Institute on 10 March.

De Beer’s study emerged from challenges experienced on a project to create an animated series about the adventures of a lesbian activist called SoeperGuava who uses her super-powers to expose injustice and discrimination in post-apartheid South Africa.

The project team encountered difficulties because, as De Beer writes, “the broad skill-set and approaches of the participants called for a more integrated, iterative approach to the development of a strategic creative-activist brand but the team failed to appreciate this complexity fully.”

The project in its original form was terminated in 2013, but continues with a different team.

In the wake of phase 1 of SoeperGuava’s failure, De Beer wanted to understand what was needed to build trust and respect within a design team, and “to address key challenges and stressors like decisive leadership and project management (adherence to timelines and deadlines), clear roles and responsibilities, cultural differences, creative development of the characters and scripts as well as a lack of funding.”

De Beer was inspired by the Stanford’s Design Thinking model and designer Paul Pangaro’s Design or Conversations model. Pangaro insists that the design conversations themselves need to be designed in order for design thinking processes to succeed. Building on Pangaro’s thinking, De Beer identified one critical component that needs to be present for a trans-disciplinary team to succeed: internal empathy

In the traditional Design Thinking model, empathy has an outward focus. What does the user need? What’s the design solution to meeting those needs? But trans-disciplinary teams comprise members whose world views can be vastly different. An engineer’s perspective on a problem, for example, might be diametrically opposite from a marketer’s perspective. Without internal empathy, a lack of understanding between team members can create obstacles to effective collaboration

De Beer’s study identified the need for teams to have a common language and a collective understanding for Design Thinking projects to work on a deeper, more meaningful level. This collective understanding needs to be established at the start of the project – at the forming stage. This, De Beer explained, would “give more structure to the accepted models which may feel loose to team members who come from different contexts and disciplines.”

Using the Stanford’s Design Thinking model as a basis, overlaid with both Pangaro’s design conversations and Tuckman’s ‘forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning’ approaches, De Beer developed a three-layered model to understand team dynamics:

Phase 1 (Forming): Evolutionary leadership. The team agrees a common language, who the leader is and, importantly, why that leader is the leader.

Phase 2 (Storming): Collective buy-in and empathy. The team agrees their goals and what the challenge is. This conversation relates not only to the wicked problem the team is trying to unlock, but the challenges that the team itself faces, given its trans-disciplinary nature.

Phase 3 (Norming): In-depth, collective understanding and commitment. The team’s internal conversation focuses on building a collective understanding and extracting explicit commitments from all members

Phase 4 (Performing): Clarity and openness. The team agrees on the definitions of openness and clarity and commits to a clear and open way of working.

Phase 5 (Adjourning): Insightful reflection. The team members assess whether they have individually achieved personal growth as team members during the design process.

De Beer’s own reflection on the failure of the SoeperGuava project highlighted these as the missing components that – had they been present – could have offered team members greater levels of understanding. He asserts that if these elements had been agreed from the start, then the project would have succeeded: “To learn from failure, it is arguably more important to understand what didn’t work in a project than what did.”

At Vega, De Beer teaches a Design Thinking-led innovation class integrating what he teaches into their practical learnings. While this proposed evolving model isn’t yet in their curriculum, at the outset of their class projects De Beer asks his students to create their own code of conduct at the forming phase.

They’re asked to identify dos, don’ts, sanctions, and to form a class-led agreement on their commitments to accountability and respectful dealings. During and at the end of the project, reflection is compulsory. As a result, De Beer has seen greater levels of empathy, respect and accountability in the way his students interact, adding that, “students are more reflective during the process as they are challenged to ask ‘why’ throughout. They are more collaborative and supportive of each other’s ideas.”

Perhaps SoeperGuava’s super powers have worked after all.

Do you have any views on De Beer’s model? Join the conversation by email

For more information, contact Thys de Beer –

Paul Pagano’s views on designing the design conversation can be found here:


The Design Human Capital Forum (DHCF) is a quarterly gathering that brings together people working in, and passionate about, design education and human-centred design. We welcome all individuals working in design, innovation and skills development. This group meets to keep abreast of current design education and training initiatives, share examples of best practice and discuss areas that need attention. To join the mailing list and keep informed on upcoming events email


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