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What’s the Secret to Great Design? Finding the Right Verb. (Really.)

February 19, 2019, 11:30 AM UTC

The notion of “design thinking”—which takes some of the tools involved in shaping physical products and applies them to the task of building better systems and organizations—has been around for decades. But Tim Brown has been on a mission to broaden its reach and understanding. The CEO of design firm IDEO, and author (with colleague Barry Katz) of the 2009 bestseller Change by Design, isn’t merely hoping to expand its canvas—using this collaborative approach to solve societal as well as business problems—but also to rework the very grammar of design.

Read: How Great Design Could Fix the World’s “Wicked Problems”

In a wonderful new essay, adapted from his updated book of the same title, which hits shelves this month and is excerpted in this issue, Brown explains that designers are learning to think not about nouns, but of verbs. “When we focus on nouns, we lock ourselves into an incremental mindset: a better toothbrush, a more comfortable desk chair, a quieter air conditioner,” he writes. But when we think about verbs—improve oral hygiene, work comfortably, live in harmony with your environment—“we blow the roof off the problem and are able to approach it in all of its wicked complexity.”

This simple frame shift in syntax is more powerful than it might seem—a thesis that Brown will explore in depth at our Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore, March 5–7. Importantly, it also reflects one question at the heart of “The Real Tide Pod Challenge,” a thoughtful and finely reported investigation by Fortune’s Jake Meth, which begins on page 104. Tide Pods, the colorful, squishy packets of detergent that have become a runaway hit over the past seven years, are one of Procter & Gamble’s biggest successes. Laundry pods are now a $1.5-billion-a-year business, and the Cincinnati company has a 79% market share. At the same time, the pods have prompted an average of 11,568 calls to poison-control centers—and more than 4,000 emergency room visits—a year since 2013. That disconnect, as Jake explains, may speak directly to how P&G set out to design the product—and to what it has and has not done to fix it in the wake of these accidental poisonings.

The question that remains: Is P&G focused on the noun or the verb—on the blockbuster product, or on reducing risks to consumers?

Read: Designed by A.I.: Your Next Couch, Sweater, and Set of Golf Clubs

And that question brings up a separate philosophical—or perhaps, ethical—conundrum: How much should manufacturers and marketers do to make sure their customers are using their products the right way? At what point does the company’s responsibility end … and the customer’s begin? It’s a dense and sprawling debate these days, stretching across the corporate landscape.

A more settled debate, however, concerns how much companies should do to keep their workforces thriving and engaged. The answer? A lot. That’s certainly the takeaway from our annual “100 Best Companies to Work For” list, compiled with our partner Great Place to Work (please see page 57). In the end, CEOs and corporate boards may balk at some of the more generous perks companies are giving their employees: Nvidia, No. 38 on our 2019 list, will help pay off their workers’ student loans up to $6,000 a year; Bank of America (No. 92), offers childcare reimbursements of up to $240 a month. But the design thinking here is that these companies are building cultures, not merely a slate of benefits.

These companies are in the verb business, after all. It’s a great strategy, by design.

A version of this article appears in the March 2019 issue of Fortune with the headline “Grand Designs.”