Design as Problem Solving

frog is a global design and strategy firm. Over their 40 years of work, frog has worked with the world’s leading brand and institutions, from Apple to Louis Vuitton to UNICEF. They approach design as “problem-solving through making,” because their clients turn them to solve the toughest challenges they can’t solve in-house.

Turi McKinley helps lead frog’s design research practice. McKinley and her colleagues start their research process in an “immersion” phase to understand how their client operates today. Then they broaden their investigation in the “discover” phase. That’s when they talk to clients, users, and experts, when they go into the field, and when they figure out what they don’t even know they need to think about. Today, frog’s research process is so robust, they often think of themselves as a research firm, McKinley explains: “We have to stay ahead of the market. We have to be able to foresee where things are going. Because we need to be able to push and lead our clients.”


Sometimes when people think of the term design, they think of a physical object or something that’s on a screen. We think of it as problem solving. It’s problem solving through making. My name is Turi McKinley, I’m one of the leads of our design research practice at Frog. We are hired by clients who have tough questions that they need to solve. It might be what is the future of the bank branch? It might be how do we help a company like GE transform from thinking of hardware to thinking of software?

Our first piece of work is what we call the immersion phase. That’s when the team dives into understanding the company – what’s their business? How do they operate today? And then we dive into our discover phase, which is where the team goes out and they get really physical and tangible with exploring the space.

So if we’re designing the future of a bank, our teams are going into the bank and we’re talking with banking patrons. We’re talking with the people who work at the bank. All that information gets synthesized into a set of opportunity areas for our client. And that becomes the base for concept generation. We use GLG when a team is diving into a new industry; it helps us figure out what questions to ask next.

I’m usually going in with a hypothesis – something that I think might be right. And I’m looking for that expert to prove or disprove it. And it’s great if they answer yes or no that theory is right. But really what you want to get out of an expert interview, or any interview, you want to learn something that you didn’t even know to ask in the beginning. Early on in my career, we were pushing our clients to say, “Hey, before we start making this thing, let’s go talk to people and understand if that’s really what they want.” Today, 12 years on, most of our clients come to us and they’re asking us, “Is your research phase upfront long enough? Are you really understanding your users at enough depth?”

There’s been a shift in the market to where companies are beginning to understand that you need an empathy-based approach to understanding your user before you design a transformative product or service. In many ways, Frog is a research firm. We have to stay ahead of the market. We have to be able to foresee where things are going because we need to be able to push and lead our clients.

Understanding how people think about it today is crucial for a team that’s going out and trying to understand what’s not talked about.