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2011 Fall Issue 8 (November 4, 2011)

Design thinking and the liberal arts malaise

November 4, 2011
By Stuart John Urback

One of the major reasons students come to liberal arts college is that they want to affect real, positive change on the world.  They want to make a difference.  The issue is that liberal arts colleges don’t do enough in their educational platform to teach students how to make that difference.

At Liberal Arts College we’re baked in this great setting of analytical thought.  It’s a great tool for fully and deeply understanding exactly how and why the world behaves the way it does.  As IDEO CEO Tim Brown states, “Analytical thinking is a great tool for coming up with analysis.  It’s not a great tool for coming up with new ideas.”

From my experience thus far, I’ve exited classes with a sense of knowing exactly what the problem is, on a very deep level, but without having any understanding of how to go about affecting the change I want to see.

I think what occurs as a result is a level of disaffection of epic proportions.  Students feel utterly trapped because they don’t believe they can facilitate change while simultaneously understanding exactly what is going wrong.  I think this, more than anything else, is one of the primary reasons students end up feeling so frustrated with the liberal arts by the end of their collegiate experience.  One might say that the liberal arts education almost becomes a self-defeating process.

However, again from my perspective, it seems like once the students are exposed to the “real world”, and are given a set of tools to make the change they see, they feel incredibly empowered by having been given a liberal arts education.

Yet it seems to me to be a terrible waste to go through all this time at Carleton feeling helpless. 

Enter design thinking.

As IDEO CEO Tim Brown said in a 2009 conversation with Bruce Nussbaum (both influential figures in Innovation and Design), humanistic design is about making small, actionable change that can produce big results.  Design isn’t about teaching technical skills to produce product designers, it’s about teaching people with real jobs in real institutions how to make small, consistent changes that produce big, big results.

Now doesn’t that sound something like what the liberal arts is trying to do?  For example, he speaks about how working with nurses at the MAYO clinic, allowed for the development of a system to reduce shift change time from 45 minutes to 12.  Let me repeat that, working WITH nurses (and designers, together) in a design process, they cut the shift change time down by two-thirds.  The result was increased time to do other things, increased nurse happiness and increased patient confidence in what the nurses were doing.  That seems like real change that made some people’s worlds a little bit happier to live in.

This was done with the help of real people, working in real positions, not by just product designers.  Design for the people by the people that is not about large, top down change, but about small, bottom up change. 

So how do we incorporate this change at a liberal arts college?  Isn’t our strength analytical thinking?  I’m not saying that we should turn into a technical school.  Far from it, our greatest strengths are our abilities to see the problem for what it really is.  But we need to start teaching students the process of design.

Processes like prototyping, storytelling, empathizing, brainstorming and facilitation.  We already do all of these things at different levels and in different parts of the college.  But we need to find a way to leverage the new Weitz Center for Creativity to combine these processes to teach students how to use their analytical skills to design solutions to real problems.

Design thinking is a way to involve every department in teaching real, actionable change.  It’s a way to get students, faculty, staff and administration to think about how we can constantly make small, real upgrades to the college to make it a better place.

At the end of the day, design thinking isn’t about creating products or companies, it’s about taking concrete steps to make our world a better place.  Isn’t that why all of us are here?

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