Designing The New Design Education Experience

If one was to set out to design a college-level business curriculum, it’s a fairly straightforward task with a historical reference point. Economics, marketing, accounting, statistics — all are generally accepted requirements for a well-rounded business education for a graduate. Ask someone to design a design curriculum…well, that’s another story.

If one was to set out to design a college-level business curriculum, it’s a fairly straightforward task with a historical reference point. Economics, marketing, accounting, statistics — all are generally accepted requirements for a well-rounded business education for a graduate.

Ask someone to design a design curriculum…well, that’s another story.

For that matter, if you were to ask a hundred different people to define “design,” you could have a hundred different answers. Design is a loaded word — and creating a framework for design education involves a lot more than a few core courses.

The challenge that faces today’s universities is how to create a dynamic curriculum that engages students in possibility-based thinking that is powered by design.

Defining Design at the University

Unlike some other universities, Northwestern has made the choice to not establish a stand-alone design school. Instead, we chose to harness the interdisciplinary nature of the field and bring together faculty and students from across the university into one initiative: The Segal Design Institute.

The institute was born out of the McCormick School of Engineering, where all freshmen in engineering are required to take an introductory class in design thinking and communication. After the initial class, all design coursework is elective, allowing students the freedom to discover and follow their passion in design. 

Design in the context of engineering has historically been that of data-driven solutions for problems. We’ve discovered that students need to augment this framework for problem solving with a view that is human-centered. 

Being human-centered — or factoring the user in context — is what makes design appealing across the wide spectrum of university disciplines. Design is evolving to become an essential component in many professional fields and the curriculum must be applicable, relevant and actionable for each student. In short, we felt the Segal must produce students that are fluent in design but can also apply that mindset and toolkit to whatever career they chose to pursue.

Leaders across a multitude of industries are grappling with how to articulate the role design plays in the business world. It’s not a question that is easily answered, but we have to prepare students to engage in that debate.

The Faculty Component

When you have a design institute that’s open to students in all disciplines, you attract a richer base of experience and talent. And that goes for faculty as well as students. Our faculty is gleaned from the top talent within the university in schools of engineering, communication, computer science, business and art. 

The ability to seamlessly integrate these diverse practice areas is also critical. Many of our faculty members collaborate to create coursework that expands the definition of design thinking. This year, Segal will be offering a another new class in the area of design, “Envisioning Information in a Business Context.” It focuses on visual messaging of data to tell a narrative — not to sell, but to have the information stand on its own through design.

Segal has also established a design teaching and research council with representatives from disciplines throughout Northwestern to fill in those gaps in traditional design curriculum through best practices, team teaching, research and collaborative publishing. It’s an important step as we establish the Northwestern voice in design.

A geographic advantage plays a part as well. Part of Segal’s design curriculum involves tapping the knowledge and expertise of leaders in the field, many of which are here in Chicago. We have a professional network of guest lecturers including thought leaders from IDEO, Gravity Tank, IA Collaborative, Greater Good Studio, Doblin, Epic— heavy hitters in the field of design consulting.

Because these design professionals work in so many industries, it attracts students with proclivities toward a wide range of subject areas like biomedical engineers, general studies, business, pre-law and communications.

Consider What’s Possible

Through this diverse range of students, faculty and curriculum, we’re able to widen the range of subject matter in design. Too often, design is defined as a tactic or practice, when truly; it’s a way of thinking, a mindset, or even a language. It’s the intersection of business and engineering, with elements of art, marketing, communications, and environmental studies, among others. 

We’ve all been trained that innovators create widgets based on need, and then they must seek a market. In the Segal design curriculum, we try to flip that mindset on its head. By identifying the needs in a situational context, we show students how to apply design as an integral component. We teach design as a way not only problem solve but as a way to also find opportunities.

Design is an essential key to differentiation in the marketplace — but not just as a process of function. Design must be emotional, experiential and connective.

You have to start with real needs and consider what’s possible.

Design starts with looking for unique patterns of behavior, spoken or unspoken, that tell a human story — of a product, a process, an experience. We teach students to not be the naysayer —to be out there in the field, not wedded to purely data-driven rubrics and always with an eye to the future. Difficult?  Absolutely. But essential for a design program to inspire a generation of design-fluent thinkers.

At Northwestern, we work closely with companies like P&G, Vera Bradley, Hospira, Yelp, Audi, Samsung and Nissan on campus, focusing on human-centered design initiatives and real-world applications. In each of these cases, students are challenged to practice and execute the design thinking process in context on real projects, with real users always top of mind.

We’re just on the cusp of understanding what design can influence. Design goes beyond business to influencing culture. If you approach design from an “arts and crafts” perspective, you risk falling into the “if you build it, they will come” trap. What Segal strives for is actionable innovation — creative thinking that demonstrates meaning, momentum and ROI. 

Today, with so many design schools still in their infancy, sharing these best practices outside the university space is essential. We’re moving toward an era where a basic design thinking class will be taught to every student.

Role of Disruptive Design

Coursework at Segal has always been driven by projects based on real problems or opportunities. In a recent collaboration with BP, the solutions created by our students through design were by far the most disruptive, but the president of the division was amazed that they were all actionable. Not every disruptive design is going to be worth the pursuit to bring it to life. If you are only making change in small steps, you’ll always play in the commodity space. There’s no differentiation without pushing the envelope. 

But that’s not to say that every design must be disruptive. The burden of design in modern thought is that it has to be sexy and revolutionary to be important or impactful. But in truth, revolutionary design is risky design.

That second part of the design thinking process — choosing which design elements to pursue and realize — is the distinction between applying information and fostering leadership. Making choices from good, actionable ideas is a critical skill that will serve our students well in any arena.

Design Fluency for Graduates

We don’t anticipate that every one of the students in our program will embark on a career in design — that’s not the point. What matters is that their decisions as a mechanical engineer, process manager or CEO will be influenced by their exposure to design concepts and will advance the dialogue. 

Today, many of our graduates are already ahead of the curve of many business’ expectations of employees with their exposure and appreciation for design theory. Businesses aren’t factoring design fluency into the mix, but it still sets the Northwestern student apart from the crowd as they interview for positions.

We will be successful if our students leave Northwestern knowing that there are opportunities in the ordinary. The most successful designs are virtually invisible — they are seen as the natural extension of the function or process.

Design can be a wildly exciting, liberating pursuit for students who have heretofore learned formulae and iterative information. The development of a design curriculum is even more exciting, because it’s absolutely critical to create a strategic platform in which design can thrive. Inspiring and educating the 21st century design innovator is a necessary function of the university, as market and global forces demand innovative solutions that have meaningful impact. Design programs like Segal will be incubators of these new methodologies, which will benefit an entire generation of design thinkers.

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