Architecture & Design and Higher Education

GVSU generating problem-solvers

The school’s Design Thinking Initiative reaches across all academic disciplines.

November 13, 2015
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Grand Valley State University’s Design Thinking Initiative provides opportunities to gain an understanding of the collaborative, interdisciplinary and integrative problem-solving approach.

While the initiative offers workshops, speaker series and projects that are open to anyone, GVSU students also can learn and practice design thinking through immersion experiences, specific courses and activities integrated into different classes.

John Berry, director of the Design Thinking Initiative, said it generates opportunities for students to have the experience and understanding of design thinking that can make them more employable when they graduate, particularly to West Michigan employers.

“We live in a design-centric region. Design thinking is a process; it is not a formula,” said Berry. “It is a process that involves empathy and really understanding the user. American businesses, corporations and nonprofit organizations are all realizing to really be able to be innovative and flexible requires that kind of problem-solving skill.”

Design thinking is defined as a collaborative process using an organized method of observation, and responsiveness to generate long-term, sustainable solutions, which are then prototyped and tested, according to the university website.

Berry indicated the process ideally involves individuals from different disciplines tackling a common problem.

“It is the experience of a process employers are seeking, and that is what it is bringing to students so they have a much bigger capability to deal with those bigger issues and work collaboratively in teams,” said Berry.

On Nov. 11, the university welcomed Shane Meeker, company historian and corporate storyteller at Proctor and Gamble and founder of storyMYTHOS, who presented “Story Telling: From Culture Building to Design Thinking and Creative Problem Solving” as part of its Design Thinking Initiative events.

“It has been a series of speakers who have come into Grand Valley to talk about design thinking and the particular aspects to again broaden the experiences for students, faculty and the community,” said Berry in reference to the event. “Empathy is such a key part to design thinking, and having the ability to communicate in a story is a basis for people to simply better understand.”

Meeker’s presentation focused on how communicating a compelling, authentic and well-told story influences decisions by eliciting emotional reactions in the listener that can be translated into all aspects of life, including consumer choices on brands, products and services.

His discussion also highlighted five key ingredients of a good story — hero, obstacle, treasure, transformation and structure — and how those components can help companies and brands identify target markets and how their tools or products can affect consumers.

Meeker said companies and brands can be the “mentors providing guidance and tools to help consumers through obstacles.”

GVSU also will feature Hugh Musick’s presentation, “Design Thinking at IIT and Impacts on Organization,” from 6-7 p.m., Nov. 17, in the L. William Seidman Center as part of the speaker series. Musick is the associate dean and director of executive education at IIT Institute of Design in Chicago.

As part of the initiative, the university also launched a new liberal studies course for the 2015-2016 academic year called “Design Thinking to Meet Real World Needs.”

“It is running now and it is now an ongoing class, which I am delighted to say was full the first time, and now it is over-subscribed for the second,” said Berry. “It is already a very popular class and, in addition to that, design thinking is being incorporated into some existing classes like Introduction to Business.”

Yalonda M. Ross-Davis, visiting business instructor in the management department at Seidman College of Business, said during the fall semester her students are working on a “very loose empathy project,” while next-semester students will work to solve a complex issue.

“We are going to actually designate a design thinking day where we will solve a complex problem or challenge, such as how do we increase the student and professor interaction,” said Ross-Davis. “We are going to do an entire process, and every Friday we will chip away at it.”

In response to the significance to exposing business students to the design thinking process, Ross-Davis said it is important students understand that creating a product, service or idea is not always about them or their business.

“Even though the primary goal of business is to make a profit, if we are not truly bringing value to customers, then what is the purpose of really making a product?” said Ross-Davis. “It is important to truly make it about that customer and the product, service or idea, and that interaction or relationship, and to truly meet a need.”

GVSU student Christopher Lopez said he has been involved in an honors class at the university called Social Product Innovation that specifically looks at building the next generation of hospitals. After participating in a recent design thinking immersion experience, he found the two are intertwined.

“I just had my second round of interviews for an internship at Eli Lilly. One of the reasons they were interested in me, in general, was because I could talk about social product innovation, innovatively thinking by working collaboratively to solve problems,” said Lopez.

“It is applicable to every walk of life. It is going to be one of the differential factors for employers, for businesses that seek to be ahead of the game and seek to be innovative. Design thinking is the key to that.”

Berry said he has held two design thinking immersion events for students who are selected and have an interest in gaining a broader understanding of design thinking. While the four-hour-long activity is not a credited program, it is designed to grow student awareness of the process.

“It is not the same kind of discipline as industrial design, graphic design, interior design, fashion design or architecture, all of which are important design disciplines and have unique and special toolsets that go with those,” said Berry. “Design thinking is a process and truly open to everybody. It helps bring out the creative character of each individual who gets involved.”

Lauren Somers, student at GVSU and interning with Berry, said she participated in the first immersion experience at the beginning of the semester and worked with 12 other students from various disciplines to solve a problem.

“For me, I have been able to use it in absolutely everything,” said Somers. “I think design thinking is very important for students or anyone to incorporate in their work. It gives you a way to empathize and connect with other people, and once you are able to do that, you are able to better understand problems, better service and help the people around you.” 

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