Breaking Down the Buzzword: Design Thinking and Its Many Applications at U.Va.

It is tempting to dismiss “design thinking” as a buzzword that is tossed around business media and corporate boardrooms with little effect. Talking to the faculty members who have brought the concept to the University of Virginia, however, one quickly realizes the potential behind the publicity.

Students in the School of Architecture’s new design thinking concentration are developing solutions to water scarcity and brainstorming better prosthetic designs.

U.Va. engineering students spent the summer in Germany, using design thinking to craft corporate strategy ideas and present them at Volkswagen’s headquarters. (VW might want to invite them back for fresh ideas after its recent scandal.)

Faculty and students in the Curry School of Education are using design thinking to create better resources for adult learners, bolstering an oft-neglected student population.

And no examination of design thinking is complete without mentioning Darden School of Business professor Jeanne Liedtka, renowned as a guru in the field. Liedtka’s online design thinking course boasts tens of thousands of enrollees, and she consults with leaders from top corporations and the U.S. government to help remove barriers to innovation.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a U.Va. professor, Liedtka credits her early understanding of design thinking to the architecture of the Academical Village, where the proximity of student and faculty housing facilitates Jefferson’s vision for a less hierarchical, more democratic education.

“I got really excited about design, and in particular how architects create spaces that encourage people to live in certain ways,” she said. “Designers have a special way of looking at problems and many of those tools are teachable.”

Design thinking is a problem-solving method that applies architects and designers’ creative processes to business or social problems.

For example, hospital administrators scheduling nursing shifts might simply rearrange the schedule to best suit the budget or patient load. Hospital administrators using design thinking would set aside those constraints at first to talk to the nurses and patients directly to learn about scheduling woes. Then they would brainstorm solutions that accounted for those complaints and for limiting factors like the hospital budget. Finally, they would test those solutions, starting small with one or two shifts, soliciting feedback and expanding from there.

The process is, in Liedtka’s words, human-centered, possibility-driven and iterative. Design thinking insists that decision-makers focus most closely on the needs and desires of the individuals they are serving, set aside constraints that might limit their creativity and test their ideas in small, repeated experiments where failure is not just permitted, but encouraged.

“Design thinking breaks down the myth that innovation is something that only geniuses can do, something that you cannot teach or build processes for,” Liedtka said. “It gives people the tools to seek small innovations and develop the confidence to do much bigger things. Eventually, if enough people start acting, the world changes without permission from the people running it.”

The University alone furnishes plenty of examples to justify Liedtka’s enthusiasm.

This year, 27 third- and fourth-year architecture students are pursuing the school’s design thinking concentration, which began in 2014 and offers courses to students of all majors.

“Our design thinking curriculum enables students to study complex problems in critical ways through a more open-ended design education, focused on improving objects, services or systems,” said associate professor Anselmo Canfora, director of the concentration. “The curriculum is designed to give students foundational toolkits and critical thinking preparation that will allow them to succeed in fields outside of the architecture discipline as well.”

Canfora’s course, “Foundations in Design Thinking,” brings in experts from various U.Va. disciplines to help students study one major problem throughout the semester. This semester, students are examining water scarcity, using design thinking to understand affected populations and frame the problem to develop more manageable solutions. Some are studying how infrastructure woes contribute to scarcity. Others are designing conceptual technology, such as water collection surfaces resembling fog catchers, that could be applied directly to infrastructure and collect and condense moisture in the air.

“I want students to be comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable, to find themselves in an unfamiliar situation or facing a wicked problem and use design thinking to reason their way through it,” Canfora said.

Associate engineering professor Dana Elzey wants the same for his engineering students and sees design thinking as an important addition to his discipline’s analytical way of thinking.

“A number of trends are broadening the modern role of the engineer to include the power of creative, right-brain thinking in coming up with novel solutions,” Elzey said. “Design thinking helps engineers harness open-minded, creative and empathic thinking to arrive at holistic solutions incorporating social, cultural or environmental context.”

The Engineering School has incorporated design thinking into its introductory coursework, and Elzey, who directs the Rodman Scholars program, has been teaching the method for years. He also leads the trip to Germany each summer, pairing U.Va. students with German students for a nine-day challenge set by Volkswagen.

“After about five days, they usually get stuck. Their ideas begin to hit barriers, and that is where design thinking can bring breakthroughs,” Elzey said. “The leaders at Volkswagen’s headquarters are typically amazed at the ideas that these undergraduate students bring to the table in only nine days.”

Similar breakthroughs are driving innovation in the education sector and on Grounds.

Curry School faculty members like Mable Kinzie and Sara Dexter encourage students to use design thinking to better tailor their instruction to the needs of their target population, especially non-traditional or adult learners.

“We are teaching students not to wait until an idea is perfect, but to prototype early and often and engage our target population of learners in evaluating ideas,” Kinzie said.  “This allows ideas to fail while it is still cheap to fail, and helps students develop a refined product that is more likely to be effective.”

After completing Liedtka’s online course, Mary Brackett, a senior associate with University Human Resources, is promoting similar techniques in the training and programming she leads, especially a “Quality Core Network” uniting administrators across U.Va. At the last meeting, participants used design thinking to brainstorm on-Grounds parking solutions.

“Design thinking is very suited to solving problems in higher education,” Brackett said. “Everyone was very excited about the possibilities they saw to take these approaches back to their offices and use them right away.”

That proliferation – from students’ work to faculty research to University staff –exemplifies what Liedtka calls “the grassroots power of design thinking” and encourages an interdisciplinary approach to complex challenges within and outside of the University.

“From a collaborative standpoint, design thinking allows researchers from the humanities and the sciences to share methodologies and work creatively side-by-side to take on major issues,” Canfora said. “As a public institution of higher education, one of our most important responsibilities is to help create viable links between academia, the private sector, governmental agencies and non-governmental organizations to address these societal challenges.”

It’s a concept that, in his TEDx talk, Elzey refers to as a “design university” – a university that leverages the value of its research to create positive social change with real-world impact.

“We need universities that do not just discover, but that also do things, make things and change things,” he said. “Design thinking is about intelligent change. We have proven, amply, that we have the power to change the world. We now need to prove we can manage change responsibly. Design thinking can help us do that.”

Media Contact

Caroline Newman

University News Associate Office of University Communications