Design Thinking Labs – Europe’s Millennials’ Alternative Workspace?

Berlin Youths Spearheads a New Work Order.
A Special Europe Feature on Social Innovation – Interviews with Sascha Wolff from Dark Horse and Anna Ostwald from INNOKI

I’ve heard about Design Thinking in Singapore for a few years – be it projects like the Employment Pass Services Centre from the Ministry of Manpower, or from the National Design Centre and Secondary Schools. I was curious about the process. Was it a buzzword? The steps looked simple and were almost too easy. What was it that was different?

Before heading up to Berlin, I chanced upon a meeting with a local practitioner, Trechelle. She shared that if you want to learn design thinking, it would be Stanford’s in the U.S.. Otherwise, it would be the Hasso Plattner Institute School of Design Thinking in Berlin where she went.

She linked me up with her classmate, Anna Ostwald, a budding design thinker from INNOKI. I googled around and found Sascha Wolff, a seasoned design thinker, from Dark Horse, whose clients include Audi, Bayer, DHL, Luthansa and Mercedes Benz. From my interviews with them, I started to realised that Design Thinking is more of a mindset, than a process. Perhaps, this mindset can enable these youths to change Europe in fresh ways, for the better.

Sascha Wolff - Dark Horse

Anna Ostwald - INNOKI

Halogen360 (H360): What is so unique about Design Thinking?

Anna Ostwald (AO): It is a practice that allows you to re-discover the abilities and talents you had, when you were young. You use your curiosity, grow your empathy for people and their problems then you try to find the wildest ideas on how to solve them in order to really come up with innovative solutions.

Design Thinking allows you to think with your hands as you prototype concepts and products. It also encourages you to fail early and thus learn from your mistakes quickly.

The German education system places much emphasis on rote learning and the ‘one right answer’. In a typical classroom in school, you mainly sit and listen. With Design Thinking, you’re searching for a solution through doing and failing, it is thinking by doing.

Design Thinking is also a mindset and a culture where the participants are all equal. The team gains ‘informed intuition’ – where you distill insights and a point of view from both qualitative human conversations combined with data and research. From there you brainstorm for solutions, create prototypes quickly and find something that works.

(H360): How big is your team and what do they do?

Sascha Wolff (SW): We have 30 co-founders from 25 different disciplines. In design thinking practice, it is important to bring multi-disciplinary people together as that is where you get fresh perspectives and prevent groupthink. Personally, I studied political science, environment education and philosophy and graduated from the HPI School of Design Thinking.

(AO): We are 20 equal co-founders of different academic and professional backgrounds. In our team, we have actors, engineers, neurobiologists and business owners. We use our interdisciplinary points of views to create innovative products and services. We also support other organisations in their change management journey and share our experiences through Design Thinking in Workshops for our clients. All of us studied at the HPI School of Design Thinking.

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(H360): What is the structure of your team and how do you all operate?

(SW): There are no hierarchies and all 30 of us have voting and veto rights. Yes we have ‘CEO’s by law and need functional roles but by and large we’ve created a company with a structure that is pretty uncommon. We are focused on building a community, serving each other.

We create tools of trust, not tools of control. One of them include the biggest failure award – it is self-nominated and the person shares with others what they done and what they’ve learnt from that. For that, he/she gets a ‘silly’ prize. This helps open up people and create a social norm to dare to attempt. This is important as trust issues and failure are strongly related. To build trust, we need to openly talk about failures – not glorifying it or sweeping it under the carpet.

We also help build a strong internal network by encouraging people to bring their full selves to work – giving them space to share both business related information and what is fun to them be it biking, hiking etc. We also take trips together – half of which are business-related and half are fun ones. This blurs the line between private and public.

(AO): In Germany companies can be quite hierarchical, and people do things because the ‘boss says so’. Leaders fail to manage and motivate people well. The Design Thinking culture empowers people to speak up, share ideas and co-create solutions. We all wanted to change the way we work and create opportunities to dive into projects we are really passionate about. They range from finding solutions of how to use new technology in German classrooms to re-designing insurance models.

We are set in a space where we can do “office work” as well as prototype new concepts and ideas and dive into our own passion projects.

(H360): What is your business model?

(SW): Through the Design Thinking process, we work with companies like Audi, Bayer, DHL, Lufthansa and Mercedes Benz to as consultants create new solutions for them, co-develop solutions with their team and/or provide training for their employees in innovation through innovation camps. For example, for Lufthansa, we co-designed offices that facilitate collaboration in the IT department. Through participatory research, interviews and workshops, we involved 400 employees and deeply analyzed their routines, communication flows and blocks. We designed and co-created an office space with more than 3.000 m². and room for more than 200 work spaces that enables collaboration and concentration at the same time.

(AO): Our goal is to change the world with empathy – to bring an empathic view to our clients when they create new products and services while creating solutions in a fast changing world. Design Thinking not only helps us to understand our clients/ users, it also helps us to understand each other and thus live and create a new working culture. We help to effect such an culture also with clients such as Deutsche Bahn, Zühlke Engineering, Barmenia Insurances, and Cornelsen.

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(H360): Sascha, Dark Horse published a book called “Thank God it’s Monday”. Tell more more about it.

(SW): As we started Dark Horse, we planned it to be a Design Thinking company. However, we didn’t realise that the biggest project was ‘us’. We applied principles via trial and error, did much self-reflection and as we did so, we found out that other people wanted to work with us. We did a workshop with a publishing company and they suggested we wrote a book (not about Design Thinking) but about ‘us’. That was how the book was birthed.

In the book, we shared more about how we worked – fun and hard work. Instead of meeting marathons, we had idea sprints. Instead of hierarchies, we had rotating offices. What we espouse is self-expression in tandem with cooperative collaboration, flexibility and digitisation.

With this, we also consult for HR managers who want are looking to attract and retain young talents with flexible, meaningful and engaging work. We help HR departments to develop their companies into employers of choice for Millennials.

(H360): Sascha, some Millennials may opt to work in established companies. How do you think they can adapt to traditional structures?

(SW): One of my favourite quotes is “Got to learn the rules so I can break dem properly”.– “Evolution”, lyrics from song by “Gentleman”, a German reggae musician. I think it comes down to the entrepreneurial spirit – yes, they can complain and they can dream of the ideal. But, I think they need to be brave to complain purposefully, find space to test ideas, not be afraid to fail, fail soon to learn and add value by creating a minimal viable product. I’ve learnt from HPI School of Design Thinking to not complain but have a spirit that asks “How can we solve this?”.


It is with this spirit of creating solutions in these Design Thinking labs that may give Europe the next boost. With the future of work becoming increasingly uncertain, established companies are racing to innovate yet some are also held back by traditional structures. Companies like Zappos are proposing a new work order called ‘Holacracy’, that removes power from a management hierarchy and distributes it across clear roles, which can then be executed autonomously.

With thorny challenges like the European migrant crisis, the unity of the European Union and the European economic state, one thing for sure, is that new and better solutions are needed.

What will work? What will not? The future is in the hands of those who create it.

— Article by Jael Chng
Photos contributed by Jael Chng