GRAND RAPIDS — Over his storied career, John Berry has advocated for the benefits of incorporating design principles outside of traditional creative industries.
Now, Berry is taking that vision one step further at Grand Valley State University with the new Design Thinking Academy, where he serves as director. The academy spun off from the university’s Design Thinking Initiative that launched in 2014.
This fall, the academy will accept its first cohort of 20 students. Although they will not receive course credit for the free program, the students will go through a “deep dive” in design thinking, attending seminars on topics ranging from improvisation to rapid prototyping and other activities, Berry said.
The academy culminates with students breaking into separate teams to tackle a real-life problem presented by the 25 West Michigan companies that have agreed to partner with the program. The partnering organizations range from manufacturers and design studios to nonprofits and health care providers.
“My hope and belief would be that as more and more understand design thinking as a problem-solving, iterative process, companies who want to grow and change in that direction would begin to embrace both the process and the students who have these capabilities,” Berry told MiBiz.
Berry cuts a distinction between the Design Thinking Academy and other programs that incorporate design thinking. Namely, he says GVSU’s program will attract students from a variety of majors and programs including physics, nursing and the liberal arts before sending them back out into their chosen fields.
“It’s the mix of different majors and different individuals working on a common problem,” Berry said. “That’s the creativity of the academy. You’re not getting a physicist to become a designer. You’re getting a physicist to understand the design-thinking process so they become a great collaborator as part of a team bringing their own unique view to that process.
“It’s not trying to create designers, it’s trying to create good collaborators and release the creativity in each individual.”
Proponents of design thinking note that having employees versed in the discipline will allow companies in various fields to create innovative solutions ahead of their competition. Meanwhile, having experience in design thinking will make students stand out to future employers, setting them apart from their colleagues.
For manufacturers such as Grand Rapids-based Steelcase Inc., design thinking can bring additional problem-solving strategies and perspectives to the organization, whether in the design studio, the factory floor or the supply chain.
“As a manufacturing company, you have to be innovative to stay relevant and competitive,” said Sean Corcorran, general manager for Steelcase’s global education business. “We need employees that are problem finders, problem solvers — that are creative. Design thinking helps students, anybody, get better at all of those things.”
Corcorran also serves on the advisory board for GVSU’s Design Thinking Academy.
INCORPORATING DESIGN PRINCIPLES
Design thinking incorporates five main elements to solve problems. The first key step is to observe and find empathy with the people who are encountering the problem. After students achieve empathy, design thinking helps them define the problem, brainstorm ideas, prototype those concepts and then test them.
Corcorran notes the empathy piece of design thinking is particularly important and can be a key step in solving issues throughout an organization, including identifying the root causes of problems on the shop floor.
“If you look at just trying to understand root cause in a problem on the manufacturing floor, a lot of the design thinking steps are relevant,” Corcorran said. “If a problem on the manufacturing floor is a human-related problem, you go in and just observe, watch what’s going on. That’s part of the empathy building: understanding and observing and building empathy.
“Rather than asking someone what they’re doing and figure out what’s wrong or what the problem is, if you just watch what they’re doing — which is part of the design-thinking process — you might discover things that people might not think to say that they’re doing. It’s very objective and there’s no agenda.”
Corcorran noted there is no shortage of problems for Design Thinking Academy students to tackle should they choose to work with Steelcase. Specifically, he pointed to researching student behavior on college campuses and libraries as one key area where design thinking could come in handy.
Zeeland-based Herman Miller Inc. hopes to incorporate the Design Thinking Academy students into the organization as a way to break out of traditional approaches to solving problems.
“Sometimes we get mired in our own way of doing things, and the students are great at asking the ‘why’ questions and the what-ifs,” said Marsha Skidmore, a design director at Herman Miller. “They often take us out of our institutional thinking because they don’t come from what offices are supposed to be. They come from thinking about what they could be and oftentimes relate that to places they work, which is not what most of us in the industry have worked at, like outside, at home, in a dorm or a cafe.”
Skidmore also notes that design thinking pushes people to think of solutions to problems, as well as to push the envelope for that solution, creating future value in the process.
“You take more risk, there’s more change, there’s more ambiguity and more wild cards (in design thinking),” she said. “But most people are taught in manufacturing to fix what is, what we have, not to envision what something could be in the future.”
EXPANDING THE PROGRAM
While GVSU’s Design Thinking Academy capped its first cohort at 20 students, Berry plans to grow the program in the future to accommodate up to 40 students.
Beyond the academy, GVSU will continue to invest in growing its design thinking initiative as a whole. The university also is developing a certificate for design thinking, Berry said, declining to share further details about the project.
While GVSU may stand out for the breadth of its Design Thinking Academy, it isn’t the only institution in West Michigan providing education in the discipline. Both Western Michigan University and Kendall College of Art and Design incorporate design-thinking principles into a variety of their coursework.
As time goes on, proponents of the discipline believe design thinking experience will continue to give students a leg up over their colleagues when applying for jobs after graduation.
“It makes a student more employable,” Berry said. “Companies are looking for individuals who have this kind of thinking and are able to apply themselves in a way that allows them to be flexible and adaptable and collaborative and open to new ideas.”
Although competition for talent among companies remains fierce, graduates must still set themselves apart to catch the attention of large, growing organizations.
Having design thinking experience, particularly as a student with expertise outside the design field, can help do that, sources said.
For example, Jonathan Cook, who graduated from GVSU in 2016 with majors in finance and accounting, credits his time with the Design Thinking Initiative as a key factor in him landing a job with tech giant Google.
“I used design thinking as a way to test a lot of different opportunities out,” Cook said, noting he sought out numerous different opportunities as a way to “rapid prototype” his job prospects.
Cook also noted that having experience in design thinking helped him to avoid the fear of failure both in the job search and once he landed with a company. Instead, he saw failure as an “opportunity for feedback” and to learn more.
Outside of personal growth, Cook believes design thinking can bring a number of needed attributes to companies, including a deep understanding of the importance of collaborating across disciplines to solve problems. Moreover, Cook characterizes design thinkers not only as creators of ideas, but also as people who know how to execute or find a group of people to develop a solution.
“Most of (design thinking) is pretty intuitive if you’re a kid and don’t have concepts of the world,” Cook said. “In my mind, design thinking is just getting us in touch with our childhood brains, and that just happens to be a very efficient way to work.”