Design Thinking is the heart of innovation

Denis Hayes is the MD of IRDG (Industry Research & Development Group). Ahead of the Design Thinking Ireland annual conference, he describes why Design Thinking is used by all of the world’s top firms to drive innovation.

What is the IRDG? 

The IRDG acts as the voice of industry RD&I in Ireland, it supports members to avail of relevant funding opportunities for innovation, brings companies together to share learning and experiences, promotes collaboration between industry partners and the third level sector and facilitates best practice learning and innovation capability in organisations. This is where the likes of Lean Product Development and Design Thinking fit in.

“It made me realise that design thinking could be used as a strategic means to stimulate innovation.”

Design Thinking has been a fundamental part of your agenda for many years, why are you ‘believers’?

My own awareness of Design Thinking really grew about five years ago when in Sydney attending the annual conference of the Hargraves Institute. Design Thinking was a dominant theme at that conference among manufacturers, insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies, all speaking about how they have integrated design thinking into their innovative approach. In particular, I met Darrell Mann who had been bringing this Design Thinking approach to many leading international companies. That experience made me realise that design thinking could be used as a strategic means to stimulate innovation. It was about using the approach and mindset of designers in the innovation process and how it could deliver powerful results.

Over 300 executives have been trained on the IRDG Design Thinking Programme / Masterclass which has been run twice per annum in partnership with Design Innovation Maynooth.

A special interest group (SIG) has been running for companies who are practising Design Thinking with visits to appropriate venues such as Airbnb, Dog Patch Labs, SAP, Fidelity Investments and later this year, Bank of Ireland.

Leading international Design Thinking experts such as Jeanne Liedtka (Darden Business School), Sam Yen (SAP), Uli Weinberg (D-School Potsdam), Roberto Verganti (Milan) have spoken and delivered workshops on this subject for IRDG.

“Design Thinking is now being used by almost 60% of companies as their operating model in driving innovation.”

Design Thinking has been around for a long time, what practitioners on the Irish landscape are doing it well?

There is a growing number of companies using Design Thinking, many of whom have participated in IRDG conferences and SIG meetings. These include large firms such as IBM, SAP and medical device companies. Also indigenous Irish SMEs such as Kilkenny-based Merlyn (market-leader in shower enclosures in the UK who will be speaking at Design Thinking Ireland 2018. And of course, large indigenous enterprises such as Bank of Ireland are great exemplars.

Many academic institutes such as Maynooth, IADT, University of Limerick, UCC and Institute of Technology Carlow are very active in this space.

“The conference is all about sharing the business experience and value of design thinking.”

What is the thinking behind this year’s conference and what are your ambitions for the day?

A recent global study by PwC demonstrated that Design Thinking is now being used by almost 60% of companies as their operating model in driving innovation, given its more collaborative approach compared with traditional models. As such, building this Design Thinking mindset and capability into innovation strategy and teams are a critical matter for companies to explore. The approach is being used universally to address issues ranging from the design of medical devices, packaging materials, electronic equipment, food products, invoice processing systems, software products, to blood donation services and emergency room visits, along with a whole variety of other products and services across the world.

The conference is all about sharing the business experience and value of design thinking from those who are already on the journey. The day also features talks and workshops on the critical practice elements within Design Thinking such as ethnography, visual thinking, prototyping, storytelling, space design and more. All in all, it’s designed to be a very interactive, informative day, which will benefit those who are already practitioners or those who are seeking to understand the potential of design thinking.

The annual Design Thinking Ireland conference, now in its fifth year, takes place on May 29, 2018 at The Helix, DCU, Dublin. Book your place here. 


Representing a network of over 250 companies involved in Research, Development and Innovation (RD&I) across all industry sectors, the IRDG is an integral part of the current and future industry growth and ambition in Ireland. Denis Hayes started his technical career with Cadburys, progressing from there to Waterford Foods, Glanbia, Heinz and finally C&C / Bulmers, spending 10 years as innovation and technical director. Denis holds a Masters degree in Biochemistry and Food Science as well as an MBA.

Interview by Lesley Tully.