There has been a lot of emphasis and effort put into benchmarking over the years. When done right, studying and creatively adapting key characteristics from example designs as part of a design thinking process can help you leapfrog the competition. Some have noted that benchmarking dooms you to follow the leaders. Experience suggests that in some circumstances, examples can be a double-edged sword. While it can help to clarify and inspire a custom design for your particular situation, it can also short-circuit the creative process. Design teams will occasionally stop working on a custom design once they see an example that they think will fit the organization. While this saves time, in the end, it is not as effective as a true custom design that is inspired or informed by the examples. So proceed with caution.
Examples are used at two different points in the design process. First, high-level conceptual design examples are used here during the initial discovery and conceptual design phases. Examples at this point in the process are particularly useful for design team members who are not highly knowledgeable of or experienced with the particular system being designed. As one CEO noted, examples can be very helpful to “bring alive” concepts that are in the early stages of development. Examples can also be useful for invigorating the often abstract theories and concepts discussed in the previous step.
Second, detailed examples are used during the detailed design phase to provide tangible options and ideas. At this point, specific examples are useful for the design of the individual components of the system or process. Remember, some of the greatest insights and creative inspirations come from examples outside of your particular industry. In the words of one of my favorite architects, Norman Foster: “Everything Inspires Me, Sometimes I Think I See Things Others Don’t.”
- Understand how others have done it.
- Review example conceptual designs during the first round to clarify concepts and inspire creative thinking.
- Review example detailed designs during the detailed design phase.
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