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Designing a Business Degree at the Parsons School for Design

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on February 10, 2010

I spent a day with the most amazing group of people talking about the future of business education on Tuesday. We were at the Parsons School of Design, which offers one of the only undergraduate set of business degrees given by a design school in the US. With traditional undergrad and graduate business education melting down these days, this was a huge opportunity to blue sky a new, more human-centered, creativity-focussed kind of education.

Seated around the table were Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the U of Toronto, Fred Dust and Ryan Jacoby from IDEO, Gordon Hui, partner at Peer Insight service innovation consulting firm, Arne van Oosterom, service design consultant from the Netherlands, Dr. Jay Parkinson, founder of Hello Health and the new Future Well wellness consultancy, Shawn Edwards, head honcho of technology at Bloomberg, Bob Feldman, head of the PulsePoint media consulting group. New School Provost Tim Marshall, Parsons Dean Joel Towers and professors Alison Mears, Jamer Hunt, Cameron Tonkinwise, Carlos Teixeira participated.

The Design & Management program within the School of Design Strategies program at Parsons is huge—600 students, growing fast—and the goal of the workshop was to shape its future. The program began a few years back when students (and their parents) expressed a desire to get into the business side of the fashion industry (hence, it began as a “human-centered” program based on students/parents desires/needs). Now Parsons wants to extend the curriculum and teaching staff to enable students to do Design and Design Thinking in all spheres of society, from business and medical services to social innovation. In short, the business degree program at Parsons wants to grow into the new wider space of Design as it has evolved from product to process, from stuff to experience.

For me, this is a great chance to structure what I think ALL education needs to be today—a learning experience that enables students to navigate a changing, uncertain world using the tools and methods of Design. I believe that we need to shift from a Consuming to a Making society and from a Choosing to a Creating culture.
Human-centered, iterative, collaborative, prototyping, generative approaches to problem-solving need to replace our old educational models, from liberal arts to business programs.

Staging this workshop shows that’s what Parsons wants to do, which puts it way ahead of most American universities (and certainly the big local, New York ones, such as NYU and Columbia). That Parsons is doing it within its own undergrad business programs makes it even sweeter (again, way ahead of the B-schools at NYU and Columbia).

The bottom line of the workshop was the need to focus undergrad business education on what Arne van Oosterom called the “3 Cs”—Context, Collaboration and Connection. Check out a long discussion that Arne led on his site. By Context, I interpret that to mean transferring the

skills of ethnography to business students so that they understand and empathize with the different cultures they will operate within throughout their working lives. Those cultures range from the business/social organizations that employ them to the digital, village, mall, urban, Chinese, European, Brazilian and other global cultures they will work in.

Collaboration and teamwork are the new core competencies of work and life but few schools actually show you how to maximize the experience. Fred Dust pointed out how ritual plays a huge role in collaboration and creativity--the rules of behavior often determine the outcomes of team effort (think brainstorming). For students who have grown up networking on Facebook, actual human contact and collaboration can be shocking (my own students are saying they need to learn how to engage physically, not just digitally).

Connection is all important, from using new hybrid on-line learning methods to forging post-graduation networks that continue to help grads in jobs and life. Alumni networks, as the Harvard B-School has shown, can be invaluable through life. In addition, a connecting educational model for Parsons could and should open up the Parsons undergrad business degree programs to life-long learning, with formal masters and Ph.d programs as well as smaller workshops, exec-ed programs and simple salons and small conferences offering learning spaces for business grads.

At the end of the day, I talked with Tim Marshall, Joel Towers and the professors around the table. Their reaction was a mix of relief and determination. The day's conversation reaffirmed their own plans to move the School of Design Strategies business degree programs forward. To them, its now time to execute--a tough job in any academic culture.

But which other university, which other school of design, and especially, which other undergrad business degree program in the US is moving as fast as Parsons to build a creativity-based network of learning? Not many.

One more thing--anyone have a better name than "School of Design Strategies?"

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Reader Comments


February 10, 2010 06:12 PM

My non-comprehensive first-pass notes from the workshop:

* Some things the group appreciated that we are doing already:

> teaching designers the language of business
and vice versa

> explicitly teaching how-to collaborate
not just assigning collaboration in the sink-or-swim teaching method

> teaching designers acting methods
not just for verbal presentation skills, but as a rich empathetic research technique, and as a self-transformative capacity

* Some things the group noted that we do but need to do more and better:

> integrated industry experiences
beyond existing adjunct faculty, required internships and industry partnered studios, we should create two-way knowledge networks and communities of practice

> integrated critical social research
beyond requiring design students to take social science courses offered around The New School, do more co-teaching, bringing rigorous social research into studios and partnered projects - be assertive about the New School as the only design-oriented university

* Some things the group said that we need to start to do:

> teach mentoring
teach students, faculty, adjuncts and partners how to mentor and be mentored so that mentoring, at many levels and in many ways, becomes an infrastructure for all learning experiences

> alumni as life-long learning
do something with (give to, not just take from) the fact that the alumni of Parsons would be one of the smartest 'social business design thinking' networks around

> get transparent
show prospectives and parents, but also future employers, what goes on in the classrooms, what is behind the grades and portfolios of the graduates

Cameron Tonkinwise

Sarah MacLennan

February 11, 2010 01:43 AM

HI, Bruce; Great article. I was having a similiar discussion at a design school today. For a more interesting name, how about "Design Agents" or "Design Value" Sarah

Ned Kumar

February 11, 2010 02:27 AM

Great stuff going on at Parsons - and I applaud the team on being an early adopter in new ways of thinking about our education.

One small comment - IMHO, it will help Parsons to clearly separate out the Vision from the Strategy piece. Vision can be painted using a broad stroke and in a more idealistic manner -- something more along the lines of equipping our students with the right skills and experience to navigate and succeed in a constantly flexing world (Bruce has it as, "..a learning experience that enables students to navigate a changing, uncertain world using the tools and methods of Design." Strategy on the other hand is really the blueprint to get there -- and this is more in line with some of the points Cameron had in his notes.

Anyway, differentiating this I think will aid in change management and create a clear value-proposition for the target audience and participants. Also clarity on these will help the School community think about how one can contribute to make a strategy (and by extension the vision) a success.

Andy Polaine

February 12, 2010 10:53 AM

Thanks for the summary of the workshop. Having been deeply engaged in the conversation that Arne started, it was great to see how it panned out. I wish other schools had both the guts to have these kinds of discussions and the ability to actually take some kind of action, which most often where it all falls down.


March 2, 2010 09:08 AM

It has been argued that since these new didactic modules are mostly post graduate training, they are simply teaching designers business competencies, or teaching business people design skills.

I am excited to see that Parsons is looking to develop the right formula starting an undergraduate level.

I was eager to deep dive into this fascinating field several years ago, and actually moved overseas to gain my masters due to a lack of US programs.

I do hope that more US educational institutions realize that Design Thinking (or whatever you want to call it) is not a fad, but a hybrid eduaction that may just be the norm in
the not too distant future.

And as far as a name... my program was named Business Design, which is a not the most creative name, but certainly calls it like it is.

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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