By Gray Garmon, M.Arch.

Diversity, process, and relevance was key to success for the first group to go through the program

What do you get when you put together two faculty members and seven students with seven different majors to all work on a broad, campus-based design challenge? You might expect chaos, breakdowns in communication, and sad compromises. And yet this semester we watched as our students thrived, dared each other to grow, and tackled an ambiguously defined challenge using insightful design concepts. In the Center for Integrated Design, we show how diversity, complexity, and a focus on human experience can be not only good design but also an important foundation for a good learning environment —and hopefully a benefit to our campus as well.

Let’s Set the Stage …

The Center for Integrated Design started in 2017 with a few introductory design thinking classes and a handful of students. In just twenty-four months, we’ve grown to offer 38 courses per year in a wide variety of foundational design subjects. We are also reaching students across various disciplines, like history, English, business, engineering, communications, and architecture majors. Our goal is to integrate design into all disciplines across campus, so that students become more creative, adaptable, and designerly versions of themselves.

In the spring of 2019, we launched our first capstone studio project. It’s the culmination of almost 19 hours of coursework—by the time students have reached this class, they’ve taken Introduction to Design Thinking, skills courses like Sketching for Thinking and Communication, theory courses like Architecture and Society. In addition, they’ve often taken advanced design courses with partner organizations like IBM, McKinsey & Company, argodesign and USAA.

For this first capstone class, we challenged our students to improve the Waller Creek experience on campus. Waller Creek runs from north of campus all the way to Town Lake in downtown Austin. Waller Creek has so much history going back to the Native American tribes of Central Texas, and it also has major moments in the history of UT, like the time students chained themselves to Live Oak trees to prevent the expansion of the football stadium (they lost that battle).  But, recently, the stretch through the University of Texas has been overlooked, to say the least, and we asked the student team to use their design skills to understand what is needed on campus and how Waller Creek might be improved to provide something new and innovative.

I’ve pulled out three highlights from the semester that show how integrating design into various disciplines and projects can lead to big ideas—and big change.

Diverse Teams Lead to Better Outcomes

This semester we had students from English and American Studies, Psychology, Design, Japanese, Human Development and Family Sciences, Computer Science, Accounting, and Liberal Arts Honors. Some people might not look at this group and think they’d add up to a team of creative, innovative problem solvers. Yet their unique disciplines, experiences, and attitudes became one of their greatest strengths. It’s a characteristic of diverse teams, one that social scientist Scott Page talks about in his book The Difference. As he puts it, “collective ability equals individual ability plus diversity,” and—importantly—“diversity trumps ability.”

The dynamic team allowed for two important outcomes. First, this diverse mix of students all brought unique and important knowledge and experiences to the project. Together they figured out ways to incorporate their individual skills into the various parts of the work, from writing, to making decks and presentations, sketching, and building mockups. Second, this diversity also encouraged more thoughtfulness and creativity. It required everyone to be clear and direct with their ideas (no jargon or discipline-specific lingo like “HCD is really going to change the KPIs over at the DIH”). As a result, the ideas were better. There was none of the complacency often seen a more homogeneous team.

The best example of this was the final project report for the semester—a 50-plus-page document that was a culmination of the whole semester of work. It required the skills of writing, book design, photography, graphics, editing, storytelling, and attention to many tiny details., By leaning into their strengths and building upon each other’s contributions, the students were able to turn fifteen weeks of work into a coherent product, something they completed in barely a week!

Added to the student diversity was that fact that the course was co-instructed by myself, Gray Garmon, and Brooks Protzmann, a design program director at IBM who has decades of experience as a product designer and creative director. Brooks and I were able to build upon each other’s experiences, offer differing opinions, and overall give a much broader set of critiques and guidance. The capstone design course was much more like a professional design studio than a typical college lecture class.

A great team is more than the sum of its parts. This class was more than just seven students and two faculty. We were a team.

Creek Geek Design Principles flyer

Process Gives People Aligned Purpose and Understanding

To create strong, effective teams, it’s not enough to just bring together diverse individuals. We must also provide structure and process that allows them to work together. This is one of the most powerful aspects of design thinking. It’s not just a process for solving problems—it’s also a set of shared language, experiences, and actions that lets people work together. It helps everyone to listen more, understand better, and feel empowered to do something when they know what to make to improve the world around us.

We intentionally started the semester with an ill-defined and big challenge like “improve the Waller Creek experience” because some of the most difficult and important challenges in our society don’t just walk up, knock on the door, and introduce themselves: “Hi, I’m the systemic lynchpin that will allow you to redesign our broken public transportation system!” Nope—it’s usually something more like, “What’s up with public transportation? These buses are a mess, everyone is angry, and we don’t know what to do.”

But we also gave our students processes to help them push, prod, and understand wicked problems like this. They engaged in deep contextual research by taking students on experiential walks along the creek and asking questions. The breakthrough for how the Waller Creek experience could be improved—and could benefit the students in a meaningful way—came from an experiential engagement in which they put out a big board of questions like where do you go to relax and what is your favorite place in Austin and had students post answers. They found that students are stressed, sometimes to the point of breaking, and that their favorite places to unwind and decompress were outdoor natural environments. With this insight, they reframed the challenge to be, How might Waller Creek become a mental wellness resource to help students manage stress?

The design process let the team work together and find inspiration in the needs of the students who are on campus every day. No individual student needed to have the answer. The process gave them a shared language and guide for how to work together.

Creek Geek Design Proposals: The Oasis, The Nook, and the Perch

Work on Projects that Improve Human Experiences in the World Around Us

In choosing our [insert specifics here—capstone project?], we look for ideas that are relevant and would make a positive impact on our community. This is partially for logistical reasons, as it allows us to walk outside the classroom and immediately engage our users and our environment. But in staying local, we can find partners and collaborators who are working on the same challenge—for example, this semester we worked with the Office of Sustainability at UT, which oversees the future of Waller Creek.

As mentioned above, the student design team found that UT students are struggling for healthy and balanced mental wellness. Given that natural environments are exceptional at providing a respite and a recharge, they developed concept of a wellness garden, using nature to balance the stressful environment of a fast-paced college campus. In response to this concept, the student design team built a series of Wellness Gardens along Waller Creek, including a community garden, a meditation space, a pop-up violin concert, and several co-creation opportunities — all great ways to improve the “Waller Creek experience” on UT campus. This group of seven young students has set an incredible benchmark for what is possible when creative and capable people use design thinking as the guiding method for solving important problems.

Gray Garmon is Director of the Center for Integrated Design and an Assistant Professor of Practice at the School of Design and Creative Technologies.

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