Is ‘Design Thinking’ the New Liberal Arts? (CHE)

March 26, 2015

By Peter N. Miller

The “d.school,” or Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University, to use the formal name that no one at Stanford ever does, sits in a newish building just behind the main Quad, inconspicuously nestled among the other buildings of the School of Engineering to which it belongs. The engineering school has divisions of aeronautical engineering, an earthquake center, mechanical engineering, and also a division of product design. But the d.school is something very different.

It sees itself as a training ground for problem-solving for graduate students that “fosters creative confidence and pushes them beyond the boundaries of traditional academic disciplines.” Whereas design schools elsewhere emphasize the design of products, Stanford’s uses what the local culture calls “design thinking”: “to equip our students with a methodology for producing reliably innovative results in any field.”

What is design thinking? It’s an approach to problem solving based on a few easy-to-grasp principles that sound obvious: “Show Don’t Tell,” “Focus on Human Values,” “Craft Clarity,” “Embrace Experimentation,” “Mindful of Process,” “Bias Toward Action,” and “Radical Collaboration.” These seven points reduce to five modes — empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test — and three headings: hear, create, deliver. That may sound corporate and even simplistic, but design thinking has been used to tackle issues like improving access to economic resources in Mongolia, water storage and transportation in India, and elementary and secondary education and community building in low-income neighborhoods in the United States.

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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