Idiom Reflections: Expert Intuitive and Business mindset


I described in my post ‘Why India and why Idiom’? how I joined Idiom in Bangalore to understand how this design consultancy had managed to successfully launch 80 companies over a period of just 6 years. From September to December 2012 I spent time with the Idiom team and engaging first-hand in their ‘mind to market process’, and observed many factors that I believe have contributed to their success. The following two mindsets were those I most admired, and believe contributed the most to Idiom’s practices:

1. Expert intuitive mindset

I soon learned in India, that with so much chaos and so many people around you all the time all you can do is follow your intuition – and I found that to be a key aspect of Idiom’s approach. At the start of Idiom’s ‘mind to market process’ there are intuitive insights that provide the overall vision for the project.  For example: Idiom designed Big Bazaar, which has become a national supermarket chain. Big Bazaar was designed around insights that came from the hustle and bustle of being in an Indian market, and this chaos was designed to happen throughout.


I understand that an ability to lead the design process from a sense of intuition does not come overnight. As you practice design you develop an intuitive sense of what will work and what will not, and with every project you build your experience and carry it over into the next project, learning in the process to trust your own intuition. So, as you become the expert designer, you begin to understand how to synthesise research and select the key insights that could lead to the development of a new product.

I observed how Idiom’s creative director Sonia Manchanda, provided the key insights for the team to follow, and by sharing her expert knowledge in this way simplified the process for junior designers, allowing them to use their time wisely. But Sonia herself had told me about two different modes of thinking that I feel are worth mentioning at this point: thinking fast, and thinking slow. By thinking fast Sonia can provide feedback to the team based on her experience in order to save them time; but thinking slow was for times when she needed to talk and have quiet time to consider the development of new initiatives – such as Mind, a new creative educational institution that is being launched throughout India in 2013.

Following intuitive insights can bring simplicity to the design process, but some could see it as being in opposition to the principles of co-creation, co-design or design research. But in a sense, Idiom’s practices are not without these elements, even if a key insight and possible solution were known from the start, research was conducted to validate the insights, which was then presented in a well constructed argument to the client. But in another sense, the clients were entrepreneurial and they were talking about the future and where design adds value is in the creating and sharing the vision of possible future(s). In this way the Idiom approach was similar to what I have understood of Apple and IKEA from this article: ‘User-Led Innovation Can’t Create Breakthroughs; Just ask Apple and Ikea’.  As you gain more expertise, you can follow your gut and work backwards, leading to a less complex processes – although design is essentially always going to be complex as it involves dealing with the unknown.

This learning realisation took me back to a time at art school, where it once took me 6 hours to cross-hatch a drawing. I drew my next cross-hatched picture in just 15 minutes, and my teacher loved it, she was the first to buy it! But if I had not taken the time to develop the skills through the process of making the first picture and many like it, I would have never have been able to make that second picture.

For me this reframes my understanding of how I see working with others in what is called ‘co-creation’ and ‘co-design’, but also in the process of synthesis. Co-creation can help you to gain a range of insights through giving people that are experts in their own context the creative tools to explore – as well as the permission to ask questions. When it comes to synthesis, and selection or reframing of the problem, this is where design experts are needed to frame those problems as opportunities.

Business mindset

As I mentioned before, Idiom’s clients are entrepreneurial so business always comes first for them. Entrepreneurs have a problem, and want a solution. What that means for the company (and for the process) is that they are outcome-focussed on the speed of delivery, and have a high regard for overseeing quality. For every project they have in-house business experts and put forward a business case that articulates clearly how design can add value. What this means for the young teams that are working alongside the entrepreneurs, is that they are gaining business expertise as they interact with their client.

From this experience, having a business focus does not limit how creative you can be, but it does change where you place your creative energy in order to get the desired outcome. If you choose to run a business and become business focussed it gives you the utmost creative freedom. As a wise man once told me: ‘If you are not designing your own life then what are you doing?’ But also, what this means is that you have to become aware of how your energy is being used both in business and life – and for that you have to become active in both and follow your intuition.

Idiom is interesting as it puts India first, because it has the knowledge and understanding of the local cultures and religions in India. During my time there I started to understand the mixture, but there was no way I could ever come to understand it all fully, this has to come from native people. With this knowledge, and with Idiom being (and working with the) entrepreneurial, outcomes can be put into action. On the project I was working on with the Idiom team, the client did not select one idea for a new brand they were creating, but four of the ideas were selected to not only represent a new line of shoes but also different clothing brands.

Especially at this time of an emerging market, India’s choice of what is available to them is limited – but now the growth of the middle classes is creating a need to have a range of product and services for them. Idiom has a huge range of different capabilities in the design of products, brands and spaces, so they have the expertise to make these things happen.

My post Why idiom and why India?  expands on DREAM:IN; a platform to capture a country’s dreams and turn them into reality creating businesses and social ventures to meet the needs of a changing world i.e. taking dreams to market, which has started as it’s own organisation. The idea of DREAM:IN helping people articulate their dreams is so interesting and powerful, and having spent time with the team I wish them every success as they move into China, as with each iteration the movement gets stronger and provides more value to society and a way of innovating across a whole country that has never been seen before.

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As ever, the third leg of my Walkabout in India went over so fast – especially when you meet people that inspire you and that you can have great conversations and fun with. I just want to say thank you to Sonia and everyone at Idiom for having me as part of your team and for being so inspirational. There are just too many of you all to mention! Every place I visit, I find it hard to say goodbye to everyone – so I look at each leaving point as a new beginning, as I know I will be back in the future to experience the opportunities of entrepreneurial India. As yet, the next location for my Walkabout is not confirmed, but having been to 5 countries and worked with 400 people in the space of just one year – I feel some reflection time is now needed!

- Thank so much!!!

Just a note: If you want to hear more about Idiom, Sonia is interviewed and case studies of the company’s work are featured in our upcoming book ‘Design Transitions’, which is due to be published by BIS in September 2013. Also I am currently working on setting up where I intend to post videos about my time with the Idiom team, and all the organisations and places I have visited so far.

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