Back in 2008 when I first read these words by Daniel Pink, “The MFA is the new MBA,” I immediately understood the impact that this statement would have on the design profession and, in turn, on the future of design education. Three years later they have taken on a whole new meaning, as I am experiencing first hand in my graduate level teaching. For the past two quarters my students and I are utilizing the vaunted “case study” as a pedagogical tool, having dove head first into dozens of pages of data as well as numerous videos to ask new questions and seek innovation through designerly thinking means.
My intention with this paper/presentation is to discuss the increased use of case studies as a tool for design study. With an open mind I began a new road into the teaching of design thinking through the open case studies provided by the Yale School of Management (and the Design Observer). The use of case studies as a means of learning is, historically, something that was typically utilized by students of law and business, but not by designers. So it was with great trepidation (and intrigue) I began this ‘experiment’. “What could be learned through the access to raw data and video interviews?”, “What connections could we make in relation to design problem solving?”, and, “What ‘design’ outcomes would come of this study?” were all questions that I had going into this endeavor. What I hope to share are some outcomes, successful and otherwise.
Contemplating the future of the discipline of design and the education of future designers is something I am sure all design educators grapple with. The questions abound: technology?, concept?, form?, lead or follow industry? Depending on the level of study that you teach, and at what institute, these questions are easily answered, but for me, I am constantly vacillating back and forth in hope that I am giving my students the knowledge that they will need in a tumultuous job environment.
In the summer of 2008 I was introduced to the writing of Daniel Pink through his book A Whole New Mind. The content of this set off a firestorm of ideas for me in relation to the practice and the teaching of graphic design. This reading lead me to many others that summer which completely changed my notion of “graphic design”. First off, I no longer term what I profess, graphic design, rather, I am more interested in teaching Design. “What is the difference one might as?”, well, I think there is a significant difference and it starts with a less convergent mindset. Instead, I am interested in pushing my students to be much more divergent, or holistic, thinkers. Too often the term “graphic design” means making something look good to business leaders and while I am not devaluing aesthetics, I am trying to place a greater value on the visionary thinking process that designers can bring to the table; and what designers bring to the table is far and away more important that mere surface appearances.
“The MFA is the new MBA”
This brings me back to my original thesis: that the use of case studies in the teaching of design, (graphic or otherwise), is part of the future of design pedagogy as it leads to a much more designerly thinking outcome. Mr. Pink made the above statement early on in his book and along with this proclamation he maintains that the conceptual abilities of the designer (artist) is becoming more valuable to businesses. Where once the MBA was seen as the “must have” degree for those entering the business world, Pink states that the thought process possessed by designers will be more valuable to businesses of the future. (Pink, 54-55) This is something supported by noted management “guru” and author, Tom Peters, in his book entitled, Design. Both Peters and Pink, and others, call for business leaders to more openly embrace designerly thinking in order to propel their businesses into the future.
With this in mind I began to try and find ways to introduce these concepts to my students. I have become much more interested in cross-disciplinary groups of students as I have seen that this leads to a much more divergent exploration of design “problems”. (There is another term I am not very fond of, but that is for another paper.) Along with this cross-disciplinary model I was also interested in students working together in groups, both large and small, to appreciate and value the concept of collaboration. Too many times we teach them to be individuals and while I think there is some value in this pedagogical position, most designers will be tasked to collaborate during their professional careers. Morten Hansen interestingly covers the multiple layers of collaboration, the how’s, when’s and why’s, in his book Collaboration. I have utilized this writing to spot when student groups start to put up barriers that begin to break down the interactions within the group. Most of the time I have noted that students “hoard” their knowledge and fail to see that other disciplines offer insight to the specific design direction. This barrier can be worked through after a couple of brainstorming sessions where each party begins to show a trust in the other and that not all “good” ideas come from a specific person/discipline.
Putting it into practice
In the fall of 2010 I began to put together a group that would work together in the winter quarter of 2011. I had come across a case study developed by the Yale School of Management (YSM) and posted to the design blog, Change Observer (part of the Design Observer site). The study was on an Indian solar energy company, SELCO, who’s main target market was the rural poor in the state of Karnataka. One of the biggest obstacles was finding a group of students from different disciplines to add to the class. With “collaboration” being on the tip of everyone’s tongue, it was hard to believe that this would be such a difficult task, but it was. Having finally found 5 willing students we set off on our task of pouring through the data and videos put together by YSM. Our research did not end there; we began a much broader understanding of India, it’s general culture, the cask system, employment, general business practices, energy consumption and distribution, marketing techniques, etc.. Primarily we worked together as a group of 5 but in reality there were 3 independent groups all working with different interests in mind.
As part of our research we reached out to SELCO and arranged a conference call to better help us understand the business model that they had developed. Each group put together a series of questions that pertained to their specific area of interest. One group was interested in supplementing the SELCO line of clean energy sources, another was interested in increasing SELCO’s marketing opportunities and to possibly expand their market beyond Karnataka, while the third group was interested in using the SELCO model to build a local Savannah business. After this initial conversation we maintained our connection to SELCO via e-mail throughout the quarter.
With each groups direction defined they set off to define their audience and understand the culture that they hoped to impact. Each group’s process was unique, not only because their interests were so distinctive, but because of the fact that each designer tended to bring their own particular working methodology to the table. It was a great learning experience for each designer given the diversity of the groups overall background. No one had the same approach, and while this was difficult at first, it really added to the overall experience.
One student set up several charrettes. The first one was entitled “Think emotionally. Unite unexpectedly.” She used this classroom experience not only to push the bounds of her design thinking and doing, but to explore her interests in teaching. The charrettes were utilized to explore her thoughts and ideas relating to the collaborative experience. She brought together both graduate and undergraduate level students from 4 different majors: Graphic Design, Design Management, Advertising Design, and Broadcast Design. These students came from the U.S., Honduras, Uganda, and India. She also was able to recruit an India native who works in SCAD admissions. It was this person who brought a good deal of insight from outside the design disciplines and assisted in a breakthrough direction.
Each group developed a series of presentations throughout the quarter, each showcasing their process and conceptual development. These included many different research methodologies such as: mind maps, sequencing diagrams, rough business plans and affinity diagrams. They were usually, but not exclusively, presented as digital slide presentations. These presentations were delivered formally three times throughout the quarter as well as roughly on a weekly basis.
And in the end…
Each student group developed very unique outcomes based on a similar starting point. As illustrated in the appendix Group A developed a working prototype for their hydrogen fuel cell stove which would work in relationship to the existing philosophies of SELCO. The cleaner cooking option would alleviate the need for the massive kerosene use and subsidy already in place in India. As was presented on the 26th one can see the working prototype here. (Appendix 1)** Group B on the other hand, utilized the SELCO business model to propose a local food distribution business. In doing so, they branded and developed a business plan and have distributed it through the same creative commons license that Design Observer is utilizing. (Appendices 2–4)** Group C (made up of a single student) was interested in looking at ways to increase the visibility of SELCO within India beyond their present state. She looked at the ways of marketing within India and abroad to develop a meaning system that could possibly assist SELCO in their next market exploration.
Taking it online
As I mentioned during my presentation, I was in the midst of finishing up the spring quarter where I had tasked my online graduate level Social Awareness group with a similar design exploration. This time I asked them to access the Mayo Clinic case study presented by Change Observer and the Yale School of Management. After a very rough beginning the students really embraced the idea of expanding their notion of design through design thinking models. One student wrote the following:
“Dear Prof. DiGioia,
Thank you so much for a very interesting and challenging quarter! I’ve enjoyed this class very much and genuinely feel that its (sic) changed the way I approach design and really thinking in general... Isn’t that what they say a good law school is supposed to do? Change your thinking? ;)
I really appreciate all of your help, patience, insight and help this quarter! I hope you will stay in touch and hopefully I’ll have you in another course in the future!
Really, thanks again its (sic) been an experience that has shaken me out of that questioning period of my role as a designer!
Thanks so much again for all the helpful feedback!”
Given the nature of the online environment, this class took much more work and development than an on ground experience would take. Here I needed to explain everything in a written announcement and usually had to follow that up with a video post or a book reference. What usually can be explained in a half-an-hour took much longer to write out and still, the students had questions. Once past midterm most were on board and understanding what I was looking for from them. The biggest issue that I had from them was the open nature of the design outcomes. They wanted me to tell them what to design. This is an impossibility given the fact that each student was in a different physical location and developing different research directions. They needed to let go of the usual design brief model and seek out the design “problems” based on their own research endeavors. This was quite a new experience for each of them but I am proud of their ability to see it through. Many of the students partnered with local health care providers to improve on such things as Dr–patient relationships, child obesity, cross-cultural understanding, and dealing with mental illness within rural communities. I have presented some of these outcomes in appendices 5–8.**
These two experiences have lead me to believe that the use of case studies can be extremely valuable in expanding student understand of the possibilities of Design. To date I have only worked with graduate students, but I feel that with the right group, this could also yield very successful results on the undergraduate level. I have utilized the same thinking in my undergraduate classes but have not used a specific case study as a point of departure.
If one is interested in teaching a more design thinking pedagogy then using a case study is an outstanding place to begin. It will allow you to have a reliable research base to work from and expand upon. A suggestion that I would have if attempting this on the undergraduate level is: use the case study to develop an understanding of a business/organizational model and then project that on a local business/organization. This way the students can really “get on the ground” and do true to life contextual research to design their perceived outcomes. This will also allow the professor a very solid evaluative tool.
Brown, Tim. Change by Design: How design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation. Harper Business, New York, NY.
Hansen, Morten T. Collaboration: How leaders avoid the traps, create unity, and reap big results. Harvard Business Press, Boston, MA. 2009.
Peters, Thomas. Design: Innovate, Differentiate, Communicate. DK Publishing Inc., New York, NY. 2005.
Pink, Daniel. A Whole New Mind. Riverhead Books, New York, NY. 2006.
**Appendices appear in written submission. (When paper is available via the UDCA I will link)