Tag Archives: multidisciplinary collaboration

Design Thinking in Higher Education


Over the past few years I’ve spent quite a bit of time working in the world of higher education, both as a consultant and an adjunct faculty member. It seems to me that the very institutions where students learn about the value of design thinking don’t internalize these ideas. Real opportunities for improved products and more effective communication are being missed.

This is not a situation that is unique to the educational system. In organizations that pay lip service to developing an innovative and entrepreneurial culture, the reality is that most have a long way to go to achieve the goal of encouraging real innovation among internal staff. Many organizations have hierarchical, decentralized, and consensus driven structures that lead to inefficiency based on “groupthink”, lack of individual accountability, and a ‘keep your head down and it won’t get shot off’ mentality.

This is particularly true in the realm of higher education; with hundreds of years of tradition, institutions tend to be risk-averse and slow to change. But there is increasing pressure upon colleges and universities to become more responsive and entrepreneurial in their approach to problem solving, both in terms of curriculum and operations. From a curriculum perspective, some organizations have addressed this directly; for instance, Stanford has created the d.school, the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, where they express their vision as follows:

We believe great innovators and leaders need to be great design thinkers.

The Stanford ‘design manifesto’ goes on to say the following:

We believe having designers in the mix is key to success in multidisciplinary collaboration and critical to uncovering unexplored areas of innovation. Designers provide a methodology that all parties can embrace and a design environment conducive to innovation. In our experience, design thinking is the glue that holds these kinds of communities together and makes them successful.

Stanford is not alone in embracing the value of design thinking; for instance, in a recent article in Business Week Online (“Bob Kerrey Gets Innovation Right At The New School And Parsons”, published March 18, 2007) Bruce Nussbaum says:

Design thinking is seen as the integrative solvent that brings together the programs through a powerful methodology that solves a myriad of problems. […] Kerrey, in particular, was right on. He is leading a major move to make The New School more innovative and to teach innovation throughout its programs.

Kerrey wants to implement design thinking not just within the curriculum but also throughout the institution. Opportunities for real innovation are available to those institutions that engage in design thinking; but most will have to work through some fairly substantial issues before they can take advantage of it. Designers, writers, and other creative team members working in these institutions should become the advocates for real change.

Internal Agency, Strategic Partner

Design teams are in a complicated position within universities; they not in a position to refuse projects, and even in a changing environment are still responsible for achieving revenue goals. The ability of design departments to advocate for new approaches is dampened by the need to constantly crank out large numbers of projects without having the opportunity to pick and choose.

Because of their historical role and the inherent complexities of running an internal design department, internal teams don’t get the respect that outside consultants receive (it’s an offshoot of the ‘you can’t get respect in your home town’ mentality).

This reality is not caused by lack of professionalism on the part of the internal team. In fact, to some extent the desire to placate a client, to ‘give them what they want’, can cause strains on relationships and the delivery of products that are less than satisfactory. In order to improve the standing of the group within the University, a new and less democratic (though no less professional) approach to project definition needs to be employed.

Step 1: Differentiate Between Projects

Internal agencies may not be able to refuse work from within their institution, but it is still important to identify the nature of the project and apply the appropriate resources to assure a successful completion. One way to differentiate between projects is to place them within a simple grid, where one axis identifies the value of the project (from ‘production’ to ‘strategic’), and the other outlines the timeline (from ‘normal’ to ‘urgent’).

Whenever possible, internal resources should be working on projects with strategic importance and normal timelines, as these projects generally provide the most value for the organization while increasing the resident intellectual capital. These types of projects also improve the morale of the team, as they are more interesting and less stressful than urgent production projects. The goal is to move toward engaging in more strategic projects, and then to apply the principles of design thinking to those projects.

Step 2: Apply “Design Thinking” to Strategic Projects

1. Employ User-Centered Design
Techniques such as Observation, Research, Personas, and Scenarios help to establish a shared understanding of the project vision and encourage both the clients and the design team to look at the design problem from a different perspective.

2. Collaborate Aggressively
While it is tempting to set up a perimeter around the internal team and ‘man the barricades’, this may in fact be counterproductive. Hierarchical approaches do not lend themselves to effective collaboration. It is more effective to offer a willingness to engage with projects that are strategic in nature without preconceptions, but with confidence that designers have an essential role to play in building the University of the future.

3. Prototype Relentlessly
Industrial Designer Ashe Birsal had a professor at Pratt who told her to “Mock it up before you fock it up.” Tim Brown of Ideo calls it the “Build to Think” mentality. In his book ‘Serious Play’, Michael Shrage calls it ‘Externalized Thought,’ and goes on to say:

“Mental models become tangible and actionable only in the prototypes that management champions… Models are not just tools for individual thought. They are inherently social media and mechanisms.”

Prototypes allow us to share our ideas in a concrete manner.

4. Tell Stories
Stories are how people connect. Strategic projects require narratives. Effective teams us multi-disciplinary, scenario-based stories that engage the client and disarm the arguments.

User-Centered approaches, collaborative teams, prototypes, and narrative combine to create a design approach that can allow internal design teams to change the nature of the game. By employing Design Thinking, you have the opportunity to invent the future.


The Stanford School of Design

Tim Brown of IDEO in Fast Company (June 2005)

Story-Centered Design

Nussbaum on Design (Bob Kerrey Gets…)