Innovation & Design

The Cross-Discipline Design Imperative


In a new, multi-skill approach, traditional design tactics are wedded to the needs of business. Schools should embrace the synergy

Click here to view the "Design Thinking" video.

Conventional thinking divides design schools into two categories. There are schools like Art Center or Rhode Island School of Design, which are often rooted in art and approach design visually and intuitively. Then there are engineering schools like MIT or Stanford: Founded on technology, they have a strong logical bent and bring science and spreadsheets to bear on design problems. Engineering schools probably produce the largest number of professionals with the word "design" in their job title.

But the word "design" has different meanings in these different schools, and as these meanings intersect, design becomes bigger, something that sits well above vocational skills and techniques. Design is a set of principles and ways of thinking that help us to manage and create in the material world. It values creativity as much as analysis. It is a way of seeing and painting a new, bigger picture.

Who Are the New Design Leaders?

Now business schools and other interdisciplinary graduate programs are entering the fray under the banner of ":design thinking." They have recognized that the creative principles found in design can be used to develop new solutions for business—and they see this as the next cutting edge. They are distilling the essence of the thought process that arose from the craft of the traditional schools of design. The Rotman School in Toronto, the d.school at Stanford, and the Institute of Design in Chicago have been the boldest in claiming this new territory.

There is a tremendous demand for design thinkers today. In industry and in consulting, those who can marry creative right-brain thinking and analytical left-brain thinking are at a premium. That's because innovation often happens not in the center of a discipline but in the space between disciplines, and right now a lot of new value is being found at the intersection of design and business. Professionals who can understand and respect both sides are at an advantage in our increasingly creative economy.

So who is going to lead this new world of design? You might think that design schools would have the strongest claim. After all they are not dabbling in it—design is their reason for being. However, by giving preeminence to form and color they have narrowed the meaning of the word "design" and limited the pool of students they can attract. Like the engineering schools, they have focused and taught their students to focus. But if the future is in seeing a bigger picture then they may not be providing the best preparation for future leaders.

An Evolution in Business and Academia

Many of the traditional seats of design education have recognized this challenge and are now beginning to pay more attention to business, and some engineering schools are recognizing the importance of emergent processes. Stanford, for instance, now teaches human-centered design methodology within its mechanical engineering department. Business schools, meanwhile, have the advantage of not having any vested interests—this is new territory for them. The different interpretations of design are evolving and converging. Tomorrow there will be even more people laying claim to the word.

Continuum created this video to bring to people's attention the growing importance of design thinking in business, and to advocate for a corresponding evolution in design education. We collaborated with others in the design and academic worlds who are part of this movement. The video was shot this summer at the Rotman School in Toronto and at Continuum's studio in Boston, with contributions from author Dan Pink and academic Jeffrey Huang. The video touches upon the current state of design education, its challenges—and the possibilities for its future.

West is vice-president for strategy and innovation at design and innovation consultancy Continuum. Using a process based on the concepts of research, analysis, and creativity he helps companies drive business results through innovative design. West has been with Continuum since 1994 and has worked with a wide variety of brands including BMW, Coca-Cola, Fidelity, Motorola, and Sprint.

Later, Baby
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