Forget b-school. These days, d.school is the place to go.
Stanford University's d.school—the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design—has gained recognition in recent years for introducing the trendy, but murky, problem-solving concept known as "design thinking" to executives, educators, scientists, doctors and lawyers. Now other schools are coming up with their own programs.
Design thinking uses close, almost anthropological observation of people to gain insight into problems that may not be articulated yet. For example, researchers may study the habits of shoppers waiting to pay for groceries in order to create a more efficient checkout system that maximizes last-minute purchases while keeping customers moving quickly.
Traditionally, companies have relied on focus groups to get feedback on products that were already in development. With design thinking, potential solutions—products, processes or services—are modeled, often using simple materials like markers and pipe-cleaners, then tested and quickly adjusted based on user feedback.
The d.school was launched in 2005—one of the first of its kind—with help from a $35 million donation by SAP AG co-founder Hasso Plattner, who has said he was inspired to spread the practice after reading a magazine article about global consultancy IDEO, a leader in design thinking.
Playroom for Grown-Ups
Designed to ignite creativity and collaboration, the d.school's interior looks like a preschool playroom for grown-ups: Colorful furniture, open spaces and neon Post-it Notes abound. The school said much of the lay out is for the sake of teamwork, as hard chairs and small tables encourage student groups to remain on their toes and work more closely with each other.
The d.school doesn't award degrees and isn't tied to any individual department but two to four times as many students want to take its courses than there are seats available. It now enrolls 700 students a year, up from 100 in its inaugural year. Courses run the gamut from designing products for the world's poor to "D.Compress: Designing Calm," in which students design technology that "enables calm states of cognition, emotion and physiology."
Organizations are taking note. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, game company Electronic Arts Inc., JetBlue Airways Corp. and the software firms SAP and Intuit Inc. have worked closely with the school, acting as test cases for courses or posting job openings on d.school boards.
Still not everyone is an advocate. Peter Merholz, vice president of user experience at online database start-up Inflection LLC, of Redwood City, Calif., said slapping the design-thinking tagline on new initiatives is "good marketing" because it is vague enough to apply quite broadly, but has little real meaning. "Design is an act of making, so the idea of design thinking is paradoxical," he said.
That hasn't stopped companies like Procter & Gamble Co., Google Inc., Nike Inc. and Fidelity Investments from recruiting heavily for students with a design-thinking background.
Executives at Fidelity became converts of design thinking after working on a project with a d.school class in 2006 that focused on getting people, especially younger people, to contribute more to their savings accounts, said Fred Leichter, a Fidelity's senior vice president and chief customer experience officer.
In that project, students learned that baby boomers fondly remembered their first savings accounts and bankbooks, but younger savers didn't have such a tangible connection to banking. In response, Fidelity created an online feature that mimicked old-fashioned bankbooks.
Fidelity said the online feature helped users track their savings and provided positive reinforcement and motivation for savers.
Given corporate interest, other schools are adding integrated business and design offerings. The Johns Hopkins Carey Business School and Maryland Institute College of Art joined forces in November to announce a new M.B.A./M.A. in Design Leadership, set to launch this fall.Blair Johnson, a Carey lecturer who helped create the program, said it's an answer to organizations' growing awareness of "having to solve messy problems."
In similar fashion, Parsons The New School for Design will roll out a Master's in Strategic Design and Management this fall and Philadelphia University is unveiling a 16-month Strategic Design Executive M.B.A. program, which it has dubbed "the M.B.A. for hybrid thinkers.
Some schools have been involved in design thinking for years. University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management has taught the discipline to students and executives via elective courses and its Rotman DesignWorks center since the mid-2000s.
California College of the Arts saw 92 applications for the M.B.A. in Design Strategy in its first year, 2008. This year, it received 172 for the $40,000-a-year program.
Candidates are attracted to these programs by the prospect of landing at companies like P&G and Google. Plus, it gives students with art and design backgrounds a stronger business background, while offering business-minded people a more creative edge, according to students, school administrators and recruiters.
Adam Broidy, who just completed his first year at CCA, said the course "transcends a plain business program" by integrating design-thinking topics across the entire curriculum, and said that makes it more than "just a feeder for traditional finance or marketing jobs."
Design thinking is becoming big business for schools targeting executive-level students, too.
A four-hour course on design thinking and innovation at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, which was held last fall, cost $495. At Esade, a business and law school at Barcelona's Ramon Llull University, a four-day Design Thinking for Business Innovation course costs €4,200 ($5,230), while Stanford's three-day executive "boot camp," run in partnership with the Stanford Graduate School of Business, costs $9,500 per person.
Catherine Courage, vice president of product design at information-technology company Citrix Systems Inc., took a five-day "customer-focused innovation" workshop at Stanford's d.school in 2009. She said she was so inspired by the course and the school's physical setup that she helped redesign some of Citrix's workspaces to mirror those of the d.school.
Citrix now runs employee training programs to introduce the tenets of design thinking to thousands of staffers. The training programs are held globally, last as many as five days and are so popular there is a waiting list, the company said.
This story first appeared on WSJ.com.
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