Publishing needs more design thinking

Ask an author who they write for, and you’re likely to get as many answers as there are authors. But when we’re planning campaigns and strategies, we really need to keep one person in mind: the reader, or audience.

In reality, this isn’t always the case. The look, feel and content of creative strategies are all influenced by many factors, especially within publishing: multiple stakeholders with competing priorities, the wishes of the author or IP owners, keeping up with the competitors and following the latest trends.

Design thinking offers us a way to cut through all of this; a way to explore fresh ideas that keep the needs and interests of the end user front and centre. Handily it can also end up being faster, more collaborative, less risky and more fun.

So what is it?

Put simply, design thinking is a creative problem-solving approach that was adapted and popularised to help businesses innovate by Stanford University’s Design School and IDEO in the late 80s and early 90s. Since then it’s been applied to help design everything from buildings, to machines, to software and products, such as the Apple Mouse.

Design thinking is centred around a few core principles and stages. The first is human-centricity, or developing empathy for your customers or audience. This means ensuring you have a clear understanding of their wants, needs, ‘jobs to be done’ and the context of use of your product or content, achieved through observation, interview or other forms of research. These insights can radically change your understanding of the problem, as Penguin Random House found out last year. The publisher’s mobile-phone sized series of classics, Vintage Minis, was created after observing the limited amount of space most commuters have to read, particularly if they’re standing up.

The second principle is divergent ideation: allowing yourself to go wild and wide with your ideas rather than jumping too early to one solution. A few years ago we wondered: what if we could beam up Star Trek fans? It’s technically not possible (yet), but with creative use of augmented reality we ended up helping them to disappear on a specially designed stage.

And finally, there’s an emphasis on test-and-learn, achieved through creating simple prototypes that are put in front of real users, before committing any significant budget to proper production - for example mocked up posters or images of a website. Create just enough for it to feel real so that you can get feedback. While the approach was honed on physical products, it’s equally adaptable to brand strategies, marketing campaigns and creative content.

There’s a whole academic discipline around design thinking, with a wide range of tools and approaches which can seem daunting. However, there is an easy way in. A few years ago the team at Google Ventures developed a cut-down collection of the ‘best bits’ of design thinking, and condensed these into a five-day process that was easily adopted and adaptable to a wide range of problems. They called the process a design sprint. Over five days a small team of six or so people explore a problem in depth from the customer’s point of view. They’ll look at lots of examples of how that problem has been solved before, by competitors and more left-field references. The team comes up with dozens of potential solutions, before taking one, or the best bits of many, and rapidly building a ‘goldilocks quality’ prototype, before testing it with five customers. All in a week.

It’s an intense, fast-paced, but tried-and-tested approach, and we adapted it at PRH to develop a strategy for using video to sell more books. Previously video content at the publisher was sporadic, formulaic, repetitive and often author-led. Book trailers and author interviews were being created by rote, with little thought as to whether they met anyone’s need, other than a contractual obligation to the author. We were also keen to see how we could help Penguin Random House to cut through its silos of editorial, brand, marketing and production, as decision-making is often slow in this kind of editorially-driven environment.

So we bought together a team that represented each of these departments. The newly formed team started by exploring the role of video in the customer’s experience of choosing, enjoying and recommending a book. They found that most video content was focused on selling, and not on helping the customer to meet a need - be that to be entertained, learn something new, connect with other readers over the love of a book or quite simply get an answer to a question.

This insight helped set our strategy to ‘make the book the answer’: instead of starting with the book, we could start a conversation about anything under the sun - from how to boil an egg to the joys of forest bathing - as long as we finished by tying the content into a book published by Penguin Random House. We then, as part of a design thinking sprint, took the team through structured ideation. They looking at dozens of examples of who was doing engaging video content well. The team then generated dozens of potential new video formats and ideas.

These ranged from one-offs (such as a global bedtime readalong) to new ‘always on’, needs-driven content: short videos providing answers to hot topics such as mindfulness and global politics, to collaborations with gifted illustrators animating passages from fiction works. The best of these new format ideas were storyboarded and tested with potential readers for feedback, before we went anywhere near spending money on production.

The new formats have now largely replaced book trailers, which had limited appeal outside of existing fans of the authors. By taking inspiration from successful videos outside of publishing (such as Comedians Drinking Coffee in Cars) we found a route to replace the staid, author-behind-a-desk format with more engaging content, such as Professor Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw covering, life, the universe and quantum physics while driving around London.

The world of publishing can be painfully slow. With so many stakeholders, from authors to commissioners, editors and marketing teams, decisions can take months to make, if they happen at all. Each team has their own interests and agendas, and as a result, the focus on creating great content or experiences for the viewer or reader can be lost in internal politics. By taking the team through the sprint process, with its emphasis on collaboration and an iterative test-and-lean approach, we were able to agree on a strategy, develop ideas, test them and publish a rollout plan in under three weeks.

Design thinking is not, however, a silver bullet. It’s great for developing and testing new ideas, but further effort is always needed to take those ideas into production. Bringing wider stakeholders into the process can help gain alignment and investment in the eventual outcome, but many may not be comfortable contributing ideas (or, frankly, be very good at it). And while the pace of design thinking means you don’t get too attached to ideas until they’re tested, sometimes the best ideas come if you slow down a little and give them a bit more thought.

Having worked in a wide range of industries, the challenges facing publishing are in many ways not unique - budgets and resource are tight, there are multiple stakeholders to satisfy, and demands for quick results. However, there’s the added challenge of necessarily being editorially driven - of balancing subjective, creative decisions to promote certain work with the commercial demands of the market.

In an industry where new channels are constantly emerging, where tastes constantly shift and the competition gets more fierce every season, there’s a lot of potential benefit to be had from applying design thinking to publishing and media challenges. Ultimately, it can help get teams behind great ideas, and get them to market quicker - and who wouldn’t want that?

Nathan Fulwood is co-founder of creative consultancy CreateFuture, working with clients including Expedia, Prudential, KPMG, Penguin Random House, BBC, SCUF Gaming, Zoetis and Adidas. He has a 20 year career in digital innovation, and helped to develop and take to market some of the Press Association and Orange Telecom's first digital products.