Tag Archives: education

Travelogue: Design Culture at IBM


A couple of weeks ago I spent a few days with a former graduate student of mine, Jordan Shade, who now works as a design researcher at IBM Design in Austin, Texas. News of IBM’s strategic reorientation around design innovation and human-centered design process has reached somewhat mythic proportions in the design world as the organization has committed to hiring 1,000 designers within a 5-year period that began about 18 months ago. And they are aggressively recruiting and training recent design graduates from bachelors and masters level design programs (this summer 100 new designers will be on-boarded, added to the approximately 300 that have already been hired). I first learned of this at A Better World by Design 2013, where some of the first wave of the newly created team were present to evangelize about IBM Design, including Doug Powell, who presented the conference keynote.


I hung around IBM Design’s vast 2-floor design studio for a day to get a sense of the work and the culture, shadowing Jordan, speaking with some of her colleagues, and generally studying the workspace and the visual evidence of their process. The initiative is impressive in many respects. For one, the studio space appears to be highly functional, supporting a large number of designers on multiple product teams and working in different modalities: spaces for large workshops, small team group work, private conversations, quiet reflection, video conferencing, formal presentation, vertical surfaces for large-scale visualization and ideation, and cafe environments for eating and socializing. The space is comfortable, accommodating different kinds of work, and flexible enough to respond to the rhythms of the design process.


Most impressive to me, though, is the intentionality with which IBM is building — or rather, prototyping — a design culture. The goal is ambitious and transformative: infuse a strong design ethos within a multinational enterprise software and business operations corporation (and one with some 430,000 employees). At the heart of this mission is design education, the transference of design process, methods and tools through project-based experiences. New hires fresh out of undergraduate and graduate design programs are brought to IBM Design’s Austin studio for an intense 3-month design camp during which they are oriented to the organization and culture, assigned to various product development projects, and pushed to quickly deliver results within a highly complex, iterative, and rigorous enterprise environment.

Expanding beyond the confines of the design studio, members of IBM Design’s Education and Activation unit travel around the world to other IBM sites to facilitate week-long design workshops with product development teams, most of which are already integrated with IBM designers. The goal of these engagements is to, again, transfer aspects of design thinking and human-centered design process by working closely with developers, engineers and managers. The dissemination of design culture — ultimately, a massive organizational change initiative — at this scale of an organization is so fascinating, not so much as a strategic goal, but in practice, in the specific methods, behaviors and relational work being done to meet this goal. The question remains to be answered, of course, about the net effect and impact of IBM’s reorientation around design, as judged by its key business metrics. How successful will the establishment of a new design culture be in transforming an organization?

A New Kind of Med School


Kicking off the first workshop on contextual inquiry at Jefferson’s new Accelerator Zone space

I recently had the pleasure to develop and lead two design workshops for first year medical school students at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia at the invitation of Dr. Bon Ku, director of a new design co-curriculum in the medical school. The CwiC (College within a College) Design Track “seeks to foster creative thinking in medical students in order to assist them in developing novel and innovative approaches to challenges in healthcare delivery, research, and education.” This amibitious and visionary program will organize a series of design workshops, lectures, site visits, and capstone projects for a select group of students accepted into the program. This will be no small feat for the students to complete, given that this curriculum runs in addition to an already grueling schedule in the regular med school curriculum.


Two medical students interviewing an attending physician in the ER

The first cohort of med students began the track in early February with a day-long design thinking introductory bootcamp led by David Janka, who is on faculty at Stanford’s d.school. After David gave the 15 students a crash course in the basics of design process, I then built on that foundation with two workshops focused on redesigning aspects of the patient experience in Jefferson University Hospital’s emergency department.

The first workshop helped them understand in more depth a suite of basic design research methods, and how these are so essential for understanding complex systems and services, and for building empathy with the people who are a part of them. With a set of contextual inquiry methods and tools in hand, the med students set off for the ER, shadowing physicians, nurses, other staff, and patients in different environments and processes. They returned to the following workshop with dozens of photos and pages of notes documenting what they saw and heard, as well as their initial interpretations.


Students in the second workshop synthesizing their research data

With all of their raw documentation of the ER gathered, for the second workshop the med students began to make sense of the qualitative data through visualization techniques, affinity diagramming and stakeholder mapping. They created personas based on what they learned and who they had spoken to in their research, and then they used those personas to better understand the systems they were zeroing in on through user journey mapping. This helped them to identify a few pain points within the systems, which they then used to define a problem to address through rapid ideation and prototyping. Interestingly, many of the students had learned from patients about how frustrating waiting in the ER is (in various stages of the care process) and how uncommunicative the system is about wait times — not surprising for anyone who has visited the ER! What was so compelling was that each team of students had identified multiple and different underlying issues causing long waits and the associated frustrations. Each of their prototypes then attempted to either alleviate the symptoms of prolonged wait times, or tackle one of the root causes for wait times and poor communication.

These were very quick, albeit intense, experiences for the students, and they will continue to accumulate more of them over the coming semesters in the CwiC Design Track. The creators of the design curriculum believe that it will transform them as physicians and give them a new set of capabilities and mindsets rooted in design thinking, thus better equipping them to lead within an uncertain future for healthcare in this country. As an outsider looking in, I am impressed with how fearless and passionate the 15 med students are for embracing the design process. It’s exciting to be a part of such an important shift in how future doctors are trained.

Evolution in the Neighborhood

Green bug on a brown leaf

Green bug on a brown leaf

wrote a few weeks ago about The Neighborhood Project, an interdisciplinary effort to affect positive social change in Binghamton, NY by applying evolutionary science. The underlying philosophy and story of this ongoing work is wonderfully recounted by its lead instigator, David Sloan Wilson, in his book of the same name, which I’ve just finished reading. I confess that reading about his work is the first time I’ve really explored evolutionary science since a very superficial introduction to evolution in a college humanities course. (Strangely, I don’t remember a thing about the actual science of evolution from high school. I have a sneaking suspicion that my biology teacher was a creationist and skipped over that evolution part in the textbook!) Sloan’s writing is exceptionally readable, and the territory he covers in establishing his and others’ research on evolution is expansive, cross-disciplinary, and without jargon. I also found his demeanor in the text to be humble (when faced with the experience and knowledge of others), generous (when debate those who disagree with him), and full of conviction and integrity (when secure in his own knowledge and methodology).

While there is a great deal of interest in Wilson’s projects, two ideas in particular have been most striking for me in this reacquaintance with evolutionary science through his work. First, understanding the degree to which evolutionary science can be applied to the socio-cultural milieu has been fascinating and helped to fill in certain gaps within a larger framework of changing human behavior. I think I was ignorant of this potential application in the social field because of a confusion between cultural evolution and that most reactionary and base (mis)understanding of evolution espoused in social Darwinism. The second insight — and it is this that makes the human cultural application so compelling — is the importance of context and environment in natural selection, which is the process by which certain biological traits become more or less common. (Duh, I know.) Evolution is site-specific. And so, when Wilson and his colleagues systematically study the residents of Binghamton, using both qualitative and quantitative information, they are approaching that analysis through a granular look at how blocks and neighborhoods function according to a wide range of data. The goal is to determine how urban environments shape attitudes and behavior so that targeted interventions can be implemented with community partners to create the environmental conditions (social, cultural, spatial, political, economical) for positive social change. As someone reaching for this same goal in my own city using the tools of socially-engaged art and design, there is quite a lot to learn from in Wilson’s project.

As might be expected in such an urban project, Wilson at times touches on educational issues — and the environmental aspect of evolution clarified, or rather expanded, some of my thinking about the importance of learning environments. Particularly, what if, amid all of the contentious politics and noise of the education “reform” debate, we focused more holistically on the environments in which kids learn? What if we looked at the question of educational environments as specific, particular contexts that needed to respond to very specific groups of people and their communities? With very few exceptions, it is difficult to claim that any school is an optimal environment for learning to flourish. Schools are mostly overcrowded, lacking resources, authoritarian and coercive, socially disfunctional, anxiety producing, homogenous. Yet, society needs places, environments, where kids can be safe, nurtured, challenged, and loved. Might Wilson et al’s evolutionary perspective with its nuanced study of environment help us cut through the politics of education and design learning spaces appropriate to a diverse range of people and communities?

Teaching and Learning at AICAD 2013


I’ve just returned from the 2013 AICAD conference, an annual affair which brings together faculty and administrators from mostly small, private art and design colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada. This year’s theme, New Paradigms in Teaching and Learning, invited a number of presenters who shared examples of the many challenges faced by higher ed arts institutions along with examples of how best to meet these challenges. (*Nb: The emphasis was on the undergraduate experience.) It’s a no-brainer that higher ed is in crisis, with unsustainable, escalating tuition fees and a growing perception that a college education may no longer be a worthwhile — much less, affordable — ‘investment’, even with the insistence by our national leaders that a college degree is a necessity to enter the job market.

Not having many expectations prior to the conference, I was surprised by the diverse approaches being envisioned and implemented at many institutions as we scramble to keep pace with the speed of social and technological change that really does threaten to make our institutions irrelevant to current and future generations of young college degree-seekers. If anything, my university colleagues and I take comfort that we are not alone in our attempts to re-imagine how we create meaningful educational experiences for our students within this turbulent time. And, while I won’t say there was widespread agreement in the range of pedagogical and curricular approaches being tested, some familiar themes emerged: an emphasis on interdisciplinary work, broad collaborative opportunities, increased student choice, integrated digital media instruction beginning at day one, competency-based learning and assessment, and online education. (For my part, my colleague Jonas Milder and I led a seminar on design skills and competencies within a design for social impact education, first presenting our work in the graduate program at UArts and then facilitating an exercise to sort and prioritize a range of skills and competencies.)

There were many new relationships begun and several insightful nuggets shared during these few days, which perhaps I’ll share in more detail at some point. However, even though many examples of interesting student projects were shared, I felt that a genuine student perspective was missing from the discussion. Our students need to be invited into to these spaces to reflect on our collective experiences in education together. I want to hear more from them, and I believe that in creating space for their input — and truly embracing the idea of student-led learning by giving them access to these higher level conversations — we actually empower them to take ownership of their own educational experiences. At the end of the conference I found myself writing: “trusting students, so that they can trust themselves.” We need more of this attitude.