The SAP School of Design

Hasso Plattner, co-founder of the business-process software giant SAP (SAP), is donating $35 million to fund a new design school at Stanford University. It will be housed in the Stanford School of Engineering and be called the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design.

This donation will further the evolution of design from an emphasis on form and style toward more sophisticated design thinking and strategy. The new design school will teach innovation by bringing together students from business, engineering, medicine, psychology, anthropology, and design to form collaborative teams that solve problems.

Plattner talked to BusinessWeek Assistant Managing Editor Bruce Nussbaum about the importance of design, the circumstances surrounding his gift, and his hopes for the new school. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

What do you expect from the new Stanford school?

I started my career at IBM as an electrical engineer, and one of the things I learned in the field is that you have to be broader than you thought. You have to work on all kinds of things. You have to work with people. You have to understand what they want. You have to learn to listen.

When you study, all the work you do is within your own faculty. You become, very early on, a specialist. It's very common that computer scientists are relatively introverted. It's very important for people to learn to work together with other disciplines.

Stanford has already proved that students coming from the medical school, the business school, design, engineering, psychology working together for six to nine months on projects, are able to move things forward beyond what any of them could have done within their own faculty. This interdisciplinary collaboration is the interesting part.

How did you connect with the D-school?

Probably through your magazine. A little bit more than a year ago, when we had our customer meeting in New Orleans, I gave a keynote speech with regards to development, early prototyping, and how we want to do design in the future. On the way to the address I got a copy of your magazine with IDEO on the front (see BW Online, 5/17/04, "The Power Of Design"). I just had five minutes to flip through, and I said that these guys are doing exactly what I'm proposing here.

Many of the ideas talked about were so commonsense, but they work. I went up to the stage, showed the magazine, and said, "There is a company doing exactly what I think we should do." When I came back to the Bay Area, I looked the company up.

What were your first impressions?

When I met the company, they were a little bit different. They have this freewheeling spirit. The most important thing, I thought, is that they try to define the whole process of innovation. That intrigued me. There wasn't any pontificating and not being clear about what you mean. We talked more and more, and then the Stanford thing came up.

What are you doing to generate innovation inside SAP?

We worked with [industrial design] firms in the past. But again and again, it was mostly scratching the surface. IDEO was different. They weren't doing much in software, they were mostly in instruments and devices in the physical world. But they were doing it with users.

We started a project and worked together. After a while we came up with the idea that we should have a design consulting team inside the company not just focusing on the latest stage of how we should present something, but analyzing the whole process of how users work.

Now we do a deep dive. We do research. What are other people doing? What's current thinking at 20 universities? What's the competition doing? Talk to people who don't like you or use competitive software products. Then prototype what you have learned and what you want to provide and discuss this again and again. We found out that this process can be repeated again and again.

So SAP has an internal design consulting team?

Yes, and its success is pretty amazing. It works on real projects -- and without clashing with the egos of the software developers. An internal consulting team can be very efficient when it's not in the middle of an operational division. I think many companies will go that way in the future, have design consulting teams internally that work with actual development teams.


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