Interview by Andrej Kupetz.

Hasso Plattner is a supporter of the design thinking approach from the very beginning in Germany. Design Thinking has been taught at the Hasso Plattner Institute in Potsdam since 2007. For this, the SAP co-founder received the German Design Award 2017 in the Personality category.

According to the judges, “his extraordinary commitment has been instrumental in ensuring that design thinking is taught across the globe in higher education courses and workshops and research is consistently conducted into it. We have visionary patrons like Hasso Plattner to thank for the fact that numerous companies are now applying design thinking to their design processes and that interaction between man and machine stays simple and user-friendly.”

Andrej Kupetz talked to the founder of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design in Palo Alto and the HPI School of Design Thinking at the Hasso Plattner Institut in Potsdam.

Portrait von Hasso Plattner
Hasso Plattner, SAP co-founder. Source: German Design Council

Hasso, you’ve been a design thinking pioneer for many years; the d.school in Stanford was opened almost exactly 11 years ago. When and how did it attract your attention for the first time?

It was due to a chain of events. I was preparing a talk about design for our SAP SAPPHIRE congress in New Orleans in 2004 when I stumbled on a copy of Businessweek. The cover story, entitled The Power of Design, was about IDEO and its design methods. I showed my audience the magazine during the talk. IDEO on the other hand was following my talk online and contacted me in Palo Alto a while later. Shortly afterwards I became acquainted with the group of Stanford professors who wanted to create an institute for design thinking. I was on board from that moment on and the institute was opened a year later.

SAP has been using design thinking for years too – how has it changed the company?

I think that discussions on product development have become broader and more open. There’s a greater focus on involving users again. Furthermore, hierarchies are becoming flatter and young people have more opportunities to contribute – which is something they’re keen to do. The young generation wants to make things happen and anyone who does must be allowed to make mistakes and take the wrong track. Design thinking’s fast prototyping is very much in tune with this culture.

You can now look back on many years’ experience in Stanford and Potsdam. Are there any cultural differences between the two institutes?

The differences are more of a structural nature. At the University of Potsdam we lack engineers, which is why there’s a national network with other universities in this field. There are differences where the students are concerned though; Stanford is more international than Potsdam.

Are there differences between the US and Germany when it comes to putting what’s been learnt into practice?

In general, the willingness to apply design thinking is greater in young companies, but in the US there’s a much stronger focus on pragmatic solutions than there is here.

Design thinking also transfers the designers’ mindset and modus operandi to other disciplines, such as economics or engineering. Can economists and engineers judge and appreciate the purpose of applied design work better as a result?

Similar methods have been used in lots of design departments for years. What’s new in companies is the consistent user-centric approach, the involvement of people from vastly different departments, i.e. not just design but development, sales, service and so on as well – and last but not least, the courage to come up with unusual solutions. Using design thinking definitely increases people’s appreciation of these methods. To what extent this can also lead to a greater appreciation of applied design largely depends on the company concerned.

Has the position of designers changed?

The designers are integrated into the development process better and have more influence. But the jobs also got tougher because more interfaces need to be taken into account and the projects have become more complex altogether.

What cultural changes are you observing in companies triggered as a result of design thinking?

Design thinking offers the chance to speed up or bypass protracted processes and procedures and to bring all the different skills in a company together in the interests of a user-centric approach. If companies can operate like startups again we’ll have achieved quite a lot.

What role does management have to play and how can it foster or prevent the implementation of design thinking?

Design thinking has the biggest impact when it’s not just tolerated but actively used by management. That obviously requires a fundamental understanding of its benefits and opportunities – which is something we put across at our institutes.

To what extent do the institutes keep in touch with past students and monitor success in day-to-day business operations?

The institutes in Potsdam and Palo Alto lay essential foundations for entrepreneurship while students are still studying – we’d like a lot of our graduates to take that bold step towards being founders and entrepreneurs. But of course we can only keep track of some of the successful graduates. Hasso Plattner Ventures allows us to invest in highly promising startups in the founding or growth phase. These can also include graduates who found companies after they’ve finished studying or at a later juncture.

Your focus is on the IT sector. Are there other areas where you would like to see design thinking applied to a greater extent in future?

For now I’m glad that it’s already in such widespread use in various industries and professions – way beyond just IT companies. But there’s still a lot to do in areas like local government or education.


First published in the German Design Awards 2017 catalogue. Article picture: Source: German Design Council.

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