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Designing design education

Posted by: Helen Walters on May 1, 2009

Earlier this week, I chatted with Nathan Shedroff, who helped to launch the MBA in design strategy program at California College of the Arts back in 2007. The degree course aims to unite disciplines such as design, finance and organizational management and give students a firm grounding in principles of design thinking and innovation.

It’s a topic I’m really interested in, as well as one that proves to be a thorny beast when it comes to working out how to cover it within BusinessWeek. Certainly, the question of how to teach design thinking and how to bridge the divide between “business” and “design” within an often inflexible education system is not an easy one. But then the need for employees who are able to think about innovation and apply it within a business context is only going to grow, which makes the codification of some system that teaches those principles ever more critical.

We’re currently knocking around ideas of how to cover design schools and design thinking for a special package we’ll publish over the summer. I’m thinking that perhaps it would be smart to focus on programs rather than schools. Nathan referred to this list he put together of some of the more interesting programs available, while as he also pointed out in the podcast, it seems like business schools are really leading the charge here so we can’t limit ourselves to design schools only. But I’d love your thoughts on which programs you think are noteworthy, or any other thoughts on how we should tackle this. Thanks in advance!

Reader Comments

Fred Collopy

May 1, 2009 5:54 PM

I think it is great that you have brought this to a larger community, Helen. It suggests that you are viewing this very task itself as a design opportunity.

Following are my immediate reflections. More will follow, as I think about it, I suspect. I think that any assessment should be based on a realistic appraisal of what can be expected at this time. It is too early, for example, to assess programs in terms of output, without running the risk of seriously damping the enthusiasm of those who are designing and building them.

Actions must be allowed to speak louder than words, though. Has the school created courses, studios, recruitment materials, and staff and faculty awareness about design and its potential impacts?

At this stage, personnel development matters a great deal. Has the institution committed significant resources to hiring and promoting personnel with design skills? Have faculty members in a broad selection of conventional business areas committed to this mode of thinking? Does the faculty buy into it?

What research base has the school developed in the area? Are members of the faculty contributing to the development of pedagogical materials that can be used by other institutions?

Finally, another thing to be avoided in my view is a sense that every looks at art, sustainability, ethics, or integration is a manifestation of a variant of the same movement. Design is a complex mix of attitude, skills, methods and techniques. Committing to it is not the same as adding a course on right brain thinking or such.

Thanks for the invitation to help.

Andreea Hirica

May 2, 2009 7:21 AM

Helen, here are some thoughts from a Uni student following a similar program. At this point, they are only very personal reflections on the subject, not a professional opinion. (it is one of the many reasons I am continuously following, chasing and learning from the professionals in the market:)

In terms of how to tackle the idea of blending design within business, a potential approach might be starting from the market (needs) the culture(s) (present perceptions, openness to embrace and switch to new approaches) and the schools. A question might be who are the entities (companies) interested in such specific abilities and how can they get involved in tailoring the programs. Same as BW did for the schools ranking article, by pointing the partner companies of each university.

Than we would ask what kind of students we would need for the courses. It might not be enough to have business schools or design schools starting to develop the programs; in such a complex, continuously transforming environment, the rounder the approach, the better.

It would be interesting to have the opinion (involvement) of: Clients and Consultants (Design Management, Design Thinking) traditional or new model Advertising Agencies (interested in transforming their business) and may be other entities(Trainers, Management Consultants interested in applying the principles of design thinking).

They might bring their perspective on “How to blend Business and Design”. And come up with a set of most valuable skills of a design thinker / manager and may be with a set of most valuable personal features. From that, could start designing the Academic program.

In my very personal opinion, the program should be designed by clients,consultants, professors with strong market experience, academic professors and journalists like you.

Also, there might be two other points to consider:
1. the general perception that we have an inflation in education (may be not in design management / design thinking) but is a general perception we might want to take under consideration

2. as you said, in such times companies need people with a different working model (approach). not only specific business segments (as design or design management areas)
but now more than ever any company would need colleagues to integrate traditional skills and continuously transform them “live” to suit the new economy.

If in Marketing, “traditional” Management, or other study area we might be talking about an potential inflation of education, in Design Management / Thinking seems almost the opposite. Yet at the same time, there is the premise within the “industry” that not as many students finishing a design management program would integrate work in their study area (again, I do not have valid research data regarding this perception, is just a student feeling, may be design researchers or practitioners would contradict or bring a complementary approach through their experience).

On the one hand we have a tremendous need and growing, on the other hand we have a totally different perception.

In my very personal opinion (based on my observation, only) I think we need a symbiosis among the Academic “Ivory tower”, the market and the cultural environment. I think people like you together with people designing the programs, together with people in the market can nurture the symbiosis.

I believe that if we manage to nurture this symbiosis, we might get a good alchemy in blending design with business.

Last but not least, as a reader I would like to learn about a countries (cultures) approach. Who are the countries leading the transforming process in this area? What are their approach features? (similarities, differences, complementarity). Can we still speak in terms of countries?

Again, these are only personal student thoughts; may be most of them have already been considered long ago; some of them might not be completely valid, there are definitely lots of other things to be taken into account. so may be more of my colleagues would also share their thoughts to get a rounder:) perspective.

Ralf Beuker

May 4, 2009 11:48 AM

Helen, Fred and Andreea,

thanks for raising this dialogue and for your contributions so far!

While I think Fred has raised the most critical & highly relevant issues from the educational side, Andreea made her point on the student and corporate perspective.

Since we're talking here about how to link Design Thinking within Business & Design education I'd thought that the following chart I've assembled might be of help to frame arguments: Feel free to use it as a template to add your points and drop me a note once you feel something needs to be changed!

After all from my very own perspective and as a founding member of a post-graduate Masters Degree in Design Management (Inholland Rotterdam) back in 2000 I find Fred's arguments pretty stong! As I've been part on several DM programmes across the globe over the recent years I can confirm that in most cases a lack of a combination of Fred's factors has always led to the death of programmes.

Interestingly enough (and in contrast to the arguments of several schools) the demand for such programmes has always been there. In most cases the pitfall has been a lack of commitment and resources (financial as well as brainpower)!


May 4, 2009 2:29 PM

I would like to see BW cover two sides of the equation...

First, an in-depth look at how these programs are different from traditional MBA programs. It is important to convey that most are not teaching color theory, graphic design or other art related disciplines--as many people think. Rather, show how these programs are breeding the next generation of great BUSINESS leaders.

Second, I'd like to see examples of the kind of impact graduates from these programs are delivering to organizations. We know the design consultancies are behind them--IDEO, Continuum, frog Design--what about global brands? Start ups? Non-profits? Small businesses?

In order for programs like CCA, Rotman, and IIT to thrive, there needs to be acknowledgment from the business community that they value this kind of thinking and they're making change within their organization to accommodate the talent.

Youngjin Yoo

May 6, 2009 3:05 AM

Dear Helen et al,

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and this opportunity share some of my own. I am glad that BW will take this issue further. As someone who have been involved in the efforts of integrating design and management since my time at Case and now at Temple, I would like BW issue to cover the following issues.

First, I hope the issue does not simply cover the education angle. Yes, education component is very important. However, university faculty members can come up with original and innovative curriculum only when they are engaged in relevant research programs. Issues related to design are studied and published in a wide range of publications in b-schools, and I hope that BW will pay attention to them.

Second, it seems like there are two different ways to introduce design thinking into b-school curriculum. One is to introduce it as a general method for all business problems. Another is to introduce for specific targeted challenges, such as sustainability, innovation, and urban entrepreneurship. I think that it will be really interesting to see how different schools are trying to position design thinking as a part of bigger program offerings at their schools.

Third, in covering this issue, I hope BW would maintain a "design attitude". That is, do not rush to define what an integration of design and management should look like. By highlighting some of the better known and established programs too much, we can run the risk of crystalizing what this new efforts would look like. At this stage of evolution of design thinking in b-schools, we want to keep it liquid. The truth is, we (all of us) are still in a very early stage of this game and no one really knows what it should look like. One way to handle is to pay particular attention to small programs, individual faculty pilot projects from less known places. Perhaps using some type of crowd sourcing would be a good way to start. The idea is that we need to use this issue from BW as a generative mechanism rather than a selection-oriented one. Perhaps, a sidebar on how to start an initiative within your own school when your dean does not listen to you might be a helpful guide for those lone faculty members out there.

Finally, the BW special issue should also consider what type of student and community involvements the school has. Are there student clubs on this topic? Are they engaged in the process and organizing their own events? How about the involvements of the local community? Does the program work with places like Hacktory and other underground design movements?

Having said these, I am wondering how we can effectively deal with the fact that design thinking may be a strong destabilization force of b-schools as we know it. One thing design thinking teaches us to do is seeing things in the context of an ecology. B-school is situated in an ecology of institutions and a web of industrial complex. Many of these institutional forces are quite antithetical to design thinking. Therefore, the very pregnancy of design thinking in b-school bears inherent paradox and tension. Unless we deal with this tension in a honest and genuine way, I worry that design thinking may become another fad that simply re-enforce the very institutional forces that design thinking wants to challenge.

Lucy Kimbell

May 7, 2009 4:04 AM

Dear Helen and all

This is a great way to engage with stakeholders as BW develops its own ideas about this issue.

I write from the perspective of being a design and art practitioner/educator now teaching and researching in a young business school within a traditional university (Oxford). Among other things I have designed and teach an MBA elective currently called Design Leadership.

I agree in particular with Fred and Youngjin's comments and would like to add these points:

- It would be a mistake to see either design schools or b-schools as homogeneous categories. There are incredibly diverse ways of doing things that hinge on different theories of teaching and learning, and underlying philosophies of how we understand and engage with the world. For example, within the Royal College of Art in London, the studio-based teaching that I used to do which often focused on the inspiration and research of the individual designer is not found in other design schools which attend more closely to transmitting methods and skills. Within management schools there are big differences in how mainstream MBAs are conceived of and taught, again based in distinct theories of how to organize and manage and how value is created.
- There are differences in the research traditions in design and art schools (where, for example, there is an ongoing conversation about whether practice is research), and in management schools (based mostly in social sciences, which have big internal arguments about what constitutes valid and reliable knowledge). Since universities are associated with the production of knowledge, not just teaching, it will be interesting to see where the knowledge about design-led approaches to innovation, social enterprise, managing etc is produced, peer-reviewed, presented and published.
- Education is not just about degree programmes. Exec ed, short courses and other ways of engaging with communities of practitioners are part of the institutional ecology that Youngjin refers to.


Daniel Erwin

May 9, 2009 4:16 PM

As a student at the IIT Institute of Design with an interest in philosophy, I'm tempted to take this issue back to the very most basic roots: how can you teach innovation?
The definition of "newness" and "creativity" involves things which cannot be systematized, reproduced, predicted, and perhaps even understood.
Yet somehow we see places like IDEO, Pentagram, and Apple consistently blowing our minds with not just brand new but also valuable and viable products and services.
We should evaluate these schools based on the quality and utility of what their students and professors produce.

Aidan Petrie

May 14, 2009 9:23 AM

Dear Helen,
Part of the challenge for teachers and employers is to understand the value of this fast emerging field. There are multiple schools that are beginning to hone and build 'Design strategy, Design leadership and design thinking' focus into their curriculum's.

The other side of the coin is to help the receiving parties; employers, corporations etc. understand how to incorporate these skills into their companies and organizations.

As yet there are a lack of tangible examples and few speakers with the right audiences and while methodologies are developing they are not well practiced.

In our field of medical devices and consumer health care, every project is a revelation to our client but we are up against Newton and Hypocrites. Change is coming but in my opinion will need to be collaborative between different silos of education... not just Design schools.

It's an important challenge.

For reference... I am involved at MassArt and RISD and the co-founder and chief innovation officer of one of the largest FDA registered development companies in the US.

Derek Nicoll

August 12, 2009 7:48 AM

Over period 1850 through 1950, the imperative was to maintain control and accountability for resources and activities dominated public and institutional concerns. This led to an emphasis on restraint and containment managerially, and formality and normality in design. Today, the keywords are empowerment, initiative, and creative development, personalisation and choice - both in production and in consumption. This requires that management and business models compete not only in terms of economic benefits but also on novelty in delivery, and in services.

Conversely, the methods - or ways of seeing and being - need to be understood in a kind of anthropological way by designers, so that they can navigate their way through traditional and modern corporate structures in order to get their message heard and their flair for novelty appreciated.

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