Cast your mind back to March/April this year. It may feel like a lifetime ago but something interesting started to take shape in the early stages of lockdown. While restrictions led to inertia in all sorts of ways – things closing, less movement, limited interactions – there was also a flurry of activity. 

Businesses small and large redeployed their staff so home working became the norm, fashion clothing manufacturers switched to PPE production, companies built on brewing beer and lager started to make hand sanitiser and manufacturers created workarounds to build respirators. Across many sectors, in many ways, the health crisis proved a moment of invention as companies were forced to solve new problems at lightning speed. Gone was the luxury of months or years of testing, adapting and rollout – these problems needed to be resolved in weeks or even days. 

Think back to that famous scene in Apollo 13 – when the CO2 filter is overloaded and the engineers on the ground must create a way for a square filter cartridge to be compatible with a round one, from just the materials on the spacecraft. In many ways, that’s a cinematic embodiment of this year for a lot of organisations. For while 2020 has been terrifying, challenging and desperate, it has also been a good year for design and ‘design thinking’. 

What has become evident is that the businesses and brands surviving, adapting and growing in the pandemic have done so by adopting the practices of design thinking. Whether knowingly or not, companies have gone through the specific stages of design thinking – identifying the problem, prototyping, testing, learning and iterating – to help them navigate through the challenges that 2020 has thrown their way. 

Design thinking is not limited to designing products. It applies equally to customer experiences, systems and processes. It is a mindset of problem-solving, no matter what the platform or specific requirements. 

Businesses have been applying design thinking all year – companies have been testing Zoom and Microsoft Teams, testing homeworking on a mass scale, exploring how to get hand sanitiser at tube stations, how to migrate sales to online, how home delivery can be scaled, how to set up COVID testing sites. Endless problem-solving. 

Design thinking is iterative and probing. It doesn’t stop when a solution is found. It means continuing to question whether it’s desirable, viable, feasible and sustainable. 

But the real gains are made where design thinking has been coupled with ‘design linking’ – where the problem has been solved and then executed with excellence. It is through design linking that an online purchase is smooth and can be navigated with ease – a joined-up experience that feels seamless. When design linking is missed, the experience falls short, whether that’s by not being optimised for mobile, an inability to click back a stage, or other disconnected or disparate elements. 

Hopefully, the pandemic will have a legacy in terms of design thinking and design linking. This year’s James Dyson Award, which celebrates the new generation of design engineers, received a record number of entries: 1,798 – two thirds more than the previous year. The majority of entrants focused on issues to do with climate change, sustainability, medicine or healthcare. One entry was a recyclable single-use protective glove to tackle the environmental impact of PPE waste.   

Design thinking is not just about business survival in a pandemic, it’s also about growth. A Forbes Insights survey from a few years back found that 39% of organisations in its research had adopted the key guidelines of design thinking with a direct connection to the organisation’s growth. The most essential activities were close communication and collaborative work with customers and end users.  

Almost 90% of the most forward-looking companies planned to increase investment and resource into design thinking activities. 

Indeed, solutions born out of the current restrictions could prove inspiring and appropriate even when COVID-19 has started to fade in the memory. For instance, the Brazilian airline projected seat numbers for the boarding plane onto the ground, which allowed travellers to board more quickly and according to their seat allocation. While the system had been tested pre-COVID, it was adapted to ensure that people kept socially distanced as they waited. It’s a genius piece of design thinking and design linking that makes sense in any circumstance.

Whether it’s 80 year olds learning how to use Deliveroo, Admiral offering Stay at Home refunds on its car insurance, or Marks & Spencer’s rollout of its scan, pay and go app, what we have seen throughout 2020 is businesses thinking about the human approach, how to link elements together and offer more connected experiences. Creating something as simple as a frustration-free queuing process could be enough to lift a retailer above its competitors. 

With an open mindset and well curated design, improvements – in experience and service – have been turbocharged and applied across the board. Many of the problems solved through design thinking coupled with design linking over the past year will endure and make all our lives better for years to come.