Ok, class, think like a farmer. No, not a farmer in America
riding a big, green tractor on a couple hundred acres (although
you may be thinking like that farmer for another project). No, think
like a farmer who works a small plot of land by hand somewhere in
Southeast Asia and gets by on a dollar or less a day. Now, develop
an efficient, low-cost irrigation pump that he can afford. Oh, and
make sure you have a solid business plan. This product’s going
to market in a few months.
Sound unlikely? It’s not. Thinking like a farmer, or a teacher or a person who lives without electricity breeds innovation consistently for student teams at Stanford University’s new Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, more commonly known as the d.school.
It’s called design thinking. It’s the modus operandi of David Kelley, who not only heads the d.school but is also one of its founders. In fact, Kelley would like to see every university student add design thinking to his or her skill set. “It’s like a religion. It’s the disease I’m trying to infect everyone with,” says Kelley playfully, but emphatically. By using design thinking, students can “come up with innovations they wouldn’t find by just staying in their field.”
so? Students, especially engineers, are commonly trained in analytical
thinking as a way of problem solving: They’re taught to set
specifications, collect data, analyze the data and come up with
an answer. Design thinking is more human-based, more intuitive.
It’s about understanding what people want, building a prototype
and then asking the people who will use it what they think. “We
build to think,” Kelley says. “Most people think to
Building to think is not new for Kelley. He’s also the founder of IDEO, a worldwide leader in product design that takes a user-centered, multidisciplinary approach to innovation and has clients as diverse as Nestle, Intel and Lufthansa. At IDEO, most people don’t have job titles, but they do have an expertise. It might be engineering, but it might also be filmmaking, social psychology, architecture, computer programming or marketing. Or even storytelling. Design thinking, Kelley says, requires storytelling, usually through video, of what life is going to be like with that new invention. “We muck around and build a bunch of stuff and tell a bunch of stories,” he says. “The storytelling is like painting a picture of the future. If you’re inventing the future, you’d better be good at storytelling.”
In fact, storytelling gives IDEO its niche. Instead of just prototyping products, IDEO also prototypes experiences. In 2003, Kaiser Permanente, a health maintenance organization, asked IDEO for help with its long-range plan. Instead of drawing up designs for new buildings, IDEO looked at the culture of Kaiser by teaming social scientists, architects and engineers with Kaiser’s doctors, nurses and administrators. Together, they navigated their way through the medical facilities observing patients and sometimes pretending to be patients themselves. IDEO showed Kaiser that it needed to redesign its human relations, not its buildings. The result? More comfortable waiting rooms, lobbies with clear instructions on where to go, larger exam rooms with space for families to tag along and curtains for privacy.
IDEO celebrates the entrepreneurial culture or, as some might say, wild ideas. The only rules at the company are the brainstorming rules, stenciled on the walls above the white board. One is DEFER JUDGEMENT: Don’t dismiss any ideas. Another is BUILD ON THE IDEAS OF OTHERS: No “buts,” only “ands.” At IDEO, it’s not the person who offers the solution who gets the credit but the person who is asking the question, says designer Adam French, who had Kelley as his mentor at Stanford and recalls Kelley’s sense of irreverence even then. At one point, French, who had a 4.0, was worried about failing a drawing class. Kelley told him he could drop it but that it was also OK to fail it. Either way, he was still going to be a product designer. “I had to learn to get away from being beholden to other people’s standards. The design world is about doing something different” says French, who took the F in the class but still uses the drawing techniques he learned in it. “Straight A’s and a big fat F,” he says.
Even as a kid, Kelley was swimming against the current. “You could spot the creativity early on. You could tell he was going to do something different,” says Tom Kelley, David Kelley’s younger brother and the general manager of IDEO. He recalls a time when Kelley was about 12 and decided to weld two bike frames together to make a tandem bike. A few flaws in the welds eventually left Kelley flying over the handle bars into the dirt, but the bike did initially function. “The idea that you could build your own tandem and then actually execute it. That’s very much like David,” his brother says. Kelley was also torn about what his vocation should be. He attended Carnegie Mellon University, but three years into his electrical engineering degree, he came home and told his family he was dropping out of engineering and going into fine arts. The family persuaded him otherwise, but art remained a driving force. “That ambivalence, that dilemma between art and engineering is what has driven David quite a bit before and since,” Tom Kelley says.
Opening the D.School
Kelley found his spiritual home at Stanford. Once he got there, he never really left. He got his master’s from the Joint Design Program in 1978 and started his own design firm, which eventually became IDEO. A tenured professor, he also taught design at Stanford and spearheaded the opening of the d.school in 2005. Hasso Plattner, co-founder of the German business-process software giant SAP, donated $35 million to fund the school. Kelley says the school still needs to raise $50 million for four innovation labs that will look at the big-picture problems in areas such as the developing world and K-12 education.
“To me, IDEO and the d.school are joined at the hip,” says Kelley, who rides his bike between them. Like the staff at IDEO, students from all disciplines convene at the d.school to work together on projects, doing what they do best but also thinking like designers. “In the d.school, you get to find out you’re really good at something other people aren’t,” Kelley says. “You can be that contributor. You get to realize that your discipline is meaningful to the group.” No degrees are handed out at the d.school; after all, students already have a field of knowledge. Instead, they receive a certificate if they complete three classes. “We made it additive,” Kelley says. “Keep your hammer; we’ll give you another tool.”
In the Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability class last year, students from disciplines such as business and mechanical engineering did in fact design low-cost irrigation pumps for farmers in underdeveloped countries. Sarah Stein Greenberg was on a team that not only redesigned a frame for an irrigation pump but quickly brought it to market. Within one week of production, there were more than 1,000 orders for it. “It wasn’t about a brilliant, technological advance,” she says. “It was about answering the question, ‘Have you managed to really identify needs that are pressing and figure out a solution?’ True insight comes from surveying real human needs.” Now a fellow at the d.school, Stein Greenberg says she is working hard to create T-shaped people, or people who have real depth in one or more disciplines (the root of the T) but who are also willing to extend those abilities to work across disciplines. “The ultimate mission is to create people who are willing to tackle problems that don’t fit neatly into one discipline, such as poverty,” she says.
the d.school, students also try to understand a product user’s
experience by doing experiential prototyping. It’s different
from designing a product; it’s more of an analogy, says Jane
Fulton Suri, a psychologist, who has worked with Kelley for 20 years
and calls him a pioneer in his field. In one case, students were
exploring the process by which software coders were receiving code
specifications. The code specifications were handed over piecemeal,
and it was hard for the coders to understand the big picture. Students
did an analogous task under pressure. They had to follow a sequence
of instructions using pieces of modeling clay to build something
without knowing what it was beforehand. In another exercise, the
students knew what the final product was before they received building
instructions. “It gives them a level of empathy with the people
they’re designing for,” Fulton Suri says. In the first
task, they felt frustrated. In the last one, they felt empowered.
That empathy is also carried over to the classroom dynamic. Teams work hard, sometimes with a staff psychologist, to understand the motivation and discipline of each member and to nip dysfunction in the bud. And that, too, is design thinking.