When my neighbor Jessi, a German soil scientists who is doing post-doctoral research at Stanford, told me excitedly that she'd been accepted into a course in Stanford's design school -- or d.school -- I didn't quite get it. First, why would a post-doc want to take another class in anything? And what would a soil scientist, whose main area of focus is arsenic, do in a design school?
Well, she did the same thing that the medical students, engineers and other non-designers in d.school courses do: apply "design thinking" to solve real-world projects and problems that are best addressed through collaborative, cross-functional teams.
Last week, I attended an expo at which Jessi and her classmates in Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability presented 11 different innovations aimed at solving problems related to agriculture and healthcare in the developing world.
The solutions -- everything from irrigation systems to grain grinders to medical braces -- used design innovations to reduce the cost of current solutions. For example, Jessi's team devised a foot-pump irrigation system for Burmese farmers that could be made with locally-sourced materials and manufacturing systems and would cost the farmers 50 percent less than current mechanized irrigation pumps.
The best part? The class isn't just about theory and prototypes -- some of the projects, including a new brace for the congenital deformity clubfoot (which I'll be doing a full post on soon) will likely turn into real products.
The list of companies that have collaborated with d.school on projects include Visa, Motorola, Google and PepsiCo. And recruiters at companies such as Google, Nike and Apple have their eyes on d.school graduates.
The school's growing influence and popularity is due in no small part to the fact that IDEO founder and design demigod David Kelley is its leader. But as the Wall Street Journal notes in a recent article and video, Stanford's d-school isn't the only institution where design thinking and design strategy are turning into their own fields of study. Business schools and art schools alike are starting to offer MBA degrees in design strategy, for instance.
The demand for this type of curricula is coming from businesses, which are seeing that designers can solve business problems creatively and in ways that generate good PR. Design schools are also offering short executive courses as a means of teaching the folks in C-suites how to apply new design strategies.
The benefits likely flow both ways, however, and d-schools need to offer some b-school thinking. Without understanding how business works, whether that's a small farm in Burma or a major bank in Europe, designers won't come up with creative solutions that stick.
Images: (top) Flickr/Klean Denmark