on November 19, 2014 Innovating with Design Thinking

How to Use Coolhunting to Identify Trends and Patterns


Being cool is hard. Staying cool is harder.

You know them. They’re those people, the ones who intuitively understand the pulse of the now and are always in search of the next-new-thing. They are, in a word, cool. In his article, “The Birth of Cool,” Mike Vuolo tries to determine the point at which cool moved from just describing temperament (a “cool customer”) to describing attitude. Vuolo ultimately finds that while there’s no specific origin for our modern usage of cool, it is very clearly entrenched in everyday language thanks to the "cool cats" of the jazz world. Like jazz, trends are unfixed, changing, and--more often than not--fleeting. That's why it can be so hard to uncover them.  

In this exercise, the quest to find cool becomes a game and an immersive team building experience.  Have you ever seen something so cool you had to call your friend and tell them about it? Haven’t you ever been so blown away by an idea that you just had to share it with someone? This exercise takes that natural impulse and turns it into a design-oriented research tool. Here’s how to break down the hunt into steps:

Define Objectives

Align your mission with concrete objectives. What are you trying to learn about? What do you need to identify? What are the existing knowledge gaps? Use existing research and insights you've gathered to build off of what you already know. Coolhunting is a method that employs deep observation techniques and can complement the design thinking process. You'll want to define a hypothesis that provides a guiding vision for the work you'll be doing. It's important to make sure you're not just floating around looking for something "cool." By taking the time to plan your mission and align it to your goals, you'll ensure you get the most value from this activity.

Building Your Team

In his groundbreaking book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell uses the analogy of a medical epidemic to describe a particular social phenomenon: how small ideas can very rapidly spread through a large population. Within the analogy of the “epidemic,” Gladwell likens these arbiters of cool with Patient Zero. There are three specific types of individuals he identifies:  “Connectors,” “Mavens,” and “Salesmen.” Connectors know huge groups of people; Mavens are considered “experts,” and Salesmen with unabashedly pitch a good idea. All three have varied approaches, yet all three are integral to social innovation.  

Coolhunting initially depends on finding those people. Within your project team, think of those extroverted people who love exploring new places and things. That person who immediately introduced themselves to everyone on the team? That’s your connector. The one you go to for restaurant recommendations? There’s a maven. The one who can always convince you to break away from your desk for a coffee break? Obviously a salesperson. Pick team members who are excited and enthusiastic about the exercise--talking to strangers and wandering through new locales isn’t for everyone!

The What and Where

Next, define topics and scout locations. Coolhunting occurs after an initial period of information gathering. Team members are already more accustomed to using the Batterii tools and can be more specific about the types of places they’d like to explore. Choose locations a little bit unexpected and off the beaten track. Explore a new part of your city or region, or go out of town if you your budget allows. Remember that "cool" is fleeting, so if you get a spontaneous opportunity, carpe diem! Leave no stone unturned. Part of understanding what’s relevant depends on seeing a little bit of everything and being able to “curate” a selection from within a larger group.  

How Coolhunting Fits Into the Innovation Process

As an exercise, coolhunting shares a reciprocal relationship with innovation. It can be used both proactively to drive ideation and retroactively to understand current industry trends: once you understand cool, you can create it. The Batterii mobile app provides a curatorial platform for information gathering and analysis, which makes design thinking a much simpler task.

What to Do With the Information You Collect

On location, use your phone to capture observations and log them into the designated Project Room. Next, deconstruct themes from what you’ve gathered.

  • Use interactive tags to describe why each item is interesting--what’s cool about it? Like the word itself, the experience of something cool often just gives you a feeling.
  • In order to translate those sentiments into more tangible design strategies, be specific about your reasoning.
Once you open your eyes and begin exploring, this exercise can become an ongoing touchstone as you develop your ideas.  

The thrill awaits you; happy hunting!

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Julia Wheeler

10+ year digital media, marketing and action sports veteran. Digital marketing freelancer. Lifestyle blogger since 2008. Writing here about technology, innovation and design.