Design Thinking: A New Liberal Art
Design Thinking: A New Liberal Art

On March 30, 180 Princeton students, faculty, alumni and friends gathered at TwoSigma for TigerTalks in the City, a series of panel discussions that bring entrepreneurial Princeton research to New York City.

The evening’s topic was “Design Thinking,” a buzzword that leaves many people impressed with its impact but perplexed by its meaning. The panel, moderated by Entrepreneurship professor Derek Lidow ’73, aimed to shed light on what Design Thinking is and why the methodology has gained momentum at Princeton.

Senior Rebeca De La Espriella ’17 opened the discussion with a working definition of Design Thinking, describing it as “a problem-solving methodology that takes a human-centered approach.” Like any other academic methodology, Design Thinking is rigorous, requiring extensive research and synthesis. The distinction, however, lies in Design Thinking’s emphasis on empathy. The tools leveraged in Design Thinking, such as ethnographic interviews and user personas, are focused on creating a desirable solution for end users. “With any solution, one must consider its feasibility, viability and desirability,” De La Espriella said. “But it’s desirability that is really the key to getting a solution off the ground—it’s what can cause the simplest solutions to skyrocket and even the most well-funded solutions to crash.”From Austin to Africa, the panelists have implemented Design Thinking’s human-centered approach to develop desirable solutions in both the public and private sectors. Empathy is likely not the first word that comes to mind when one thinks of the private sector, but as a product designer and mechanical engineer, Annie Cardinal ’15 uses Design Thinking to help her clients develop innovative products. To come up with real solutions to everyday problems, Cardinal takes her clients through an ideation process, encouraging them to think about the problems their customers face and the many possible product-based solutions that might solve the problem. “The first solution we come up with probably isn’t going to be the final answer, and that’s OK, because that’s the best way to come up with the best solution,” Cardinal said.Carolyn Rouse, Chair of the Anthropology Department, has found this non-linear problem-solving approach to be a helpful way to explain her work, which is anything but linear. Rouse described ethnography, an anthropological term employed in Design Thinking, as “reverse engineering,” or the study of why things are successful and sustainable. Rouse gave a lighthearted example of ethnography: “I have a current student who is studying the popularity of brunch. What is it about a special day where people feel like they can eat as many calories as they want? What is it about avocado toast?” Rouse explained that by studying why something works, one can determine how it might be replicated in other contexts.Design Thinking’s emphasis on discovering what people (or end users) find desirable and using these findings to develop solutions can be seen at work on Princeton’s campus. Rebeca De La Espriella shared an anecdote: “Professor Lidow tasked our class with mitigating sexual assault on campus, which was a pretty daunting problem.” After extensive research and interviews with the student body, the class came up with an idea for a bus that picks students up from the Eating Clubs on weekends, so students who feel uncomfortable have a safe, convenient means of getting home. “The UMatter bus has been a huge success, which goes to show you that when you use the Design Thinking method and keep desirability in mind throughout, the solutions can be long lasting,” De La Espriella said.

Design Thinking is having a clear impact on campus and in the real world. But why should it be taught as part of Princeton’s liberal arts program?  The panelists offered several compelling reasons. Rafe Steinhauer ’07, manager of Tiger Challenge, Princeton’s Design Thinking program, said that when creating the program, the theme he heard from students repeatedly was, “I want to have a really big impact, but I don’t know where to begin or how to do it.” Design Thinking provides a channel for students to impact their communities by connecting critical thinking and rigorous analysis to real-world problems, an objective at the heart of any liberal arts curriculum. For example, two of Steinhauer’s Tiger Challenge teams are working in education: one with a local school district to mitigate the impact of adolescent stress on mental health, and another with New Jersey’s Department of Education on solving the state’s teacher shortages. Other Tiger Challenge teams work on making housing affordable in Princeton, finding long-term careers for refugees in the area, and making Princeton a more sustainable city. This ability to solve a different kind of problem and look at the world in a new way is another pillar of the liberal arts and an integral part of Princeton’s informal motto: “In the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity.”The future of Design Thinking at Princeton is a bright one. The recent creation of a certificate in Entrepreneurship includes many courses with Design Thinking at their core. Other departments, such as engineering and anthropology, have started to integrate the Design Thinking methodology into their existing curricula.  Whether Design Thinking at Princeton becomes a freshman seminar or a core requirement remains to be seen, but its positive impact on campus and in communities bodes well for its continued permeation in the liberal arts and beyond.

The fourth and final TigerTalks in the City of the 2016-2017 academic year— “Breakthrough Books” – will be at WeWork Chelsea on May 18. Sir Angus Deaton, Nancy Malkiel, Dalton Conley and Alex Todorov will discuss the research in their recently published Princeton University Press books. You can register for the event here.



— Julie Clack
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Director or the plutonium refinement in Yonkers.