Academia embraces "Design Thinking": From the classroom to the jobs of the future, the pursuit of what it means to be human


March 21, 2017
Doreen Lorenzo (left) and Doug Dempster (right) discuss the College of Fine Arts and the Center for Integrated Design at the UT LIVE SXSW event on March 11th, 2017. Photo by Marsha Miller.

By Dr. Douglas Dempster, Dean of the College of Fine Arts at The University of Texas at Austin

In his November 4 piece in the Wall Street Journal, Irving Wladawsky-Berger asks, “Is design thinking the new liberal arts?”

Here’s another way of looking at it. For the record, design thinking isn’t new, it’s merely newly recognized—a modern discipline that coalesced around legendary 20th century designers like Dieter Rams and gained mainstream recognition through the success of global brands like Apple. As a new Forrester study commissioned by Adobe underscores, design is now considered a table stake in the business world. For those of us in academia, the question has become, what are we going to do about it?

Design disciplines and “design thinking” are having an influence in higher education second only to entrepreneurship studies. Entrepreneurship is so pervasive in colleges and universities that you’d be hard pressed to find an art school or music conservatory that hasn’t added entrepreneurship to its curriculum as a skill now indispensable to any 21st-century artist or performer. Engineering and business schools are scrambling to introduce something of the Stanford Institute of Design innovation magic to their curricula. Some schools, including Stanford, are moving Design thinking into the core of their curricula. Here at the University of Texas, design leader Doreen Lorenzo has joined forces with technology leaders to launch the Center for Integrated Design—the first integrated design curriculum for both undergrad and graduate students at a major public university.

The evidence that design methods can stimulate and discipline innovative problem solving in a wide range of domains seems compelling enough. In an age when every company and organization and product and service has a ubiquitous, evolving internet relationship with a customer or client, the role of designers becomes hard to discount. Many Fortune 500 corporations, in and outside the tech sector, are rushing to acquire design firms or are infusing design talent into various layers of their operations.

At the University of Texas at Austin, the Design Institute for Health has become a primary driver of innovation in the creation of the new Dell Medical School, which is pledged to reinventing medical education and health care. NEA research on artists in the workforce reveals that of the 2.1 million individuals whose “primary job” is in an arts profession, half of them are architectural and design professionals.

That alone is reason enough to find a more significant place in the curriculum for design disciplines. All the more so in a period when higher education is increasingly accountable for preparing graduates for employment in a hyper-competitive, globalized market in which human labor is racing with—and often against—automation.

But design thinking is enjoying such a vogue that some have even wondered whether it deserves to be elevated—or centralized—in the curriculum as a new liberal art.  Is that a good idea?

The case isn’t hard to make. Dive into the principles and rhetoric of design thinking and you discover many of the educational goals and pedagogical strategies native to the liberal arts. Design thinking is about “creative problem solving.” It’s interdisciplinary and collaborative in nature. It teaches effective communication across different media. It’s “human centered.” It’s a general-purpose method for tackling the most difficult, most confounding problems of our day. It’s context-dependent and culturally aware. And more broadly, it’s a skill that should start not at the college level, but at the elementary level.

One could hardly ask for a more succinct digest of the liberal arts from the Socratic method on down to the 42-credit “core curriculum” mandated by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

But in our enthusiasm for all things design and for centralizing design in our curricula, let’s be on our guard against distilling away the rigor and relevance of the many proficiencies and hard-earned vocational experience that have to meld into an effective designer.

Intelligent design that goes beyond just “design thinking” and gets as far as workable, sustainable “design making” isn’t something picked up in a 30-day “bootcamp” rich in sticky notes or in an undergraduate lecture hall full of case studies and venture capitalists. To become an effective designer, students have to get their hands dirty in the studio–often.

Nor is design thinking a universal solvent to be administered to all problems. It fact, it often leads to more questions than answers. The hard truth is that if the method is used, and used vigorously, you have to accept that perhaps no answer is available. Or that some problems are better solved by engineering thinking or business thinking or computational thinking. This is quite different from the quick, all-purpose fix people believe design thinking offers.

As design thinking is assimilated into the Academy, what will become of it? We as academics are expert at taking a practical set of skills or a body of professional knowledge, codifying and accrediting it, but then go on teaching it long past its expiration date in the larger commercial world and culture. As we integrate design studies into our curricula, we need to keep it tightly hinged to current-day commerce, culture and social engagement. Design thinking is experiential and changes with each problem or challenge. As the world evolves, the challenges will evolve and the Academy has to make sure we are keeping up with the changing landscape of design.

The “liberal arts” over its thousand-year history in European education is nothing if not a big tent. A big, elastic tent, for that matter, that has and does include everything from rhetoric to quantum physics. Surely there’s room in the tent of liberal arts for design thinking however much we might quibble over the criteria for admission.

But whether design thinking is a liberal art is not the important question. The important question is whether we can resist our scholastic and possibly self-serving, academic reflex for turning a practical, commercially valuable, and employable skill set into a new liberal art in search of relevance outside of the Academy. We should resist the reflex.

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