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by Cathy Castillo

Design is not just about solving technical challenges. Stanford’s multidisciplinary d-school teaches students to change human behavior, including markets, with empathy and creativity.

Search the word “creative” on Google and you are rewarded with roughly 430 million entries. Narrow it to “creative design” and the number shrinks to 133 million. Yet consumers complain of VCRs that defy efforts to program them, pens that won’t write unless they’re held vertically, and car doors that routinely swing shut on the driver’s emerging foot.

In nearly every industry, good design is the holy grail sought for bragging rights, for its aesthetics and usability, and in no small part because it will enhance the firm’s bottom line. The iPod and the computer mouse are two designs widely hailed as revolutionary. They are pleasing to the eye and were created to respond to human behavior—how we listen to music, how we use a computer keyboard. They forever changed the way those things are done.

For nearly 30 years, product design has been taught at Stanford University through the School of Engineering. Today that topic has been expanded via an organization nicknamed the d-school, which through its multidisciplinary approach brings together seven core faculty members from the Business School and the departments of computer science, mechanical engineering, and management science and engineering in the School of Engineering to help graduate students from across the University address design issues in new ways. In October the d-school formally became the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, named for the co-founder of the business-process software giant SAP who provided a $35 million gift.

“We do not see design as a discipline, but as a way of life,” said David Kelley, chairman emeritus of IDEO, the design firm that gave us the computer mouse. A professor of mechanical engineering, Kelley heads the Institute. “We hope we can teach our students to have confidence in a methodology of how to innovate routinely.”

“We want to be the place on campus where truly multidisciplinary course projects happen,” said the Business School’s James Patell, one of the Institute’s founders. In the courses he and the six others are developing, “we’re trying to do things no one [in an academic setting] has done before by trying to design real products and start real companies,” said Patell, who worked in his father’s tool and die shop as a teenager and holds an undergraduate degree in naval architecture. Today he is the Herbert Hoover Professor of Public and Private Management at the Graduate School of Business and co-director with David Beach, another d-school core faculty member, of the University’s Alliance for Innovative Manufacturing (AIM). The third co-director of AIM is Robert Carlson, professor of management science and engineering.

An October party announcing the Plattner gift was typical of the Institute’s approach. Guests dug into bowls of popcorn or chomped on candied apples along with more traditional hors d’oeuvres while they folded and sailed paper airplanes across Frost Amphitheater. Good design requires “creativity, imagination, and good engineering,” University President John Hennessey told the crowd. He quoted British artist David Hockney: “Art has to move you but design does not—unless it’s a design for a bus.”

“Good design must work,” argued Hennessey, “and great design moves me. It moves me with simplicity, with adaptation to the human mind and human body, and often with eloquence.”

The creative process being used to build the Institute’s course offerings operates on overload—toss 20 ideas onto the table, shuffle them around, argue about them, try a few, do some more research, and only then pick a topic for the class to address.

Each course is listed for credit by several University departments and developed and taught by at least two faculty from different disciplines. “If you put two or three strong-willed people in the classroom and work on an interesting subject, the faculty will have disagreements and the students will jump in and have disagreements,” said Kelley. “The fun is that after watching us fight, one of the students will ask, ‘Who’s going to grade the class?’ Since the fourth grade they’ve learned to please the teacher. Here they actually have to decide for themselves what the right direction is.”

At the moment, topics being considered for upcoming Plattner Institute courses fall into several large categories: design for products used in the developing world, K-12 education, and health and wellness. Course content is constantly being rethought and updated. In this case rapid prototyping applies to academic work as well as product design.

The Institute is shopping for temporary space until its own building can be remodeled. “For now, we would be happy with crummy, old warehouse-like space because we think we can turn that into a place where people want to be,” said Patell.

This academic year he and Kelley are teaching the course Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability for the second time and expanding it to two quarters. Last year’s class explored products involving water used by farmers in developing countries. “The class certainly had business students and mechanical engineering students, but it also had a good representation from civil engineering, geology and geophysics, electrical engineering, and from education,” said Patell.

After about 35 students had been selected for the class from roughly 100 applicants, last year’s enrollees got the first lesson in rapid prototyping. Each of the nine teams was given $20 and told to meet in Patell’s backyard the following Saturday to test their product designed to collect water during a simulated monsoon. As the muddy afternoon wore on, Kelley told the class: “Every one of you failed, but in beautiful ways.”

The class eventually developed more successful projects by working with IDE (International Development Enterprises), a nonprofit group founded by Paul Polak to increase agricultural output in the world’s poorest countries. In some cases class teams redesigned existing products—reducing the cost of an existing gravity storage tank to $4—or worked on new products such as a process for recycling ubiquitous plastic bags into roof tiles that could collect water otherwise lost when it falls on thatched roofs.

Whether designing tools to make hauling water more effective or developing a portable LED light to replace kerosene lamps (the project pursued by an earlier class), students had to hold real empathy for the people who might become their customers. “We were coming from a culture that says things should be small and cute and compact,” said Sally Madsen, a mechanical engineering graduate who was part of the class that designed the LED light. After spending time in India talking to rural residents, she said she was “hearing that things should be bigger and sturdier. It’s a different product, a different culture, and different information about how people use light and spend their money.”

Last summer Adam French, one of five student fellows supported by the Institute, helped Patell prepare for the 2005-06 class by spending several weeks in Myanmar living with the local representative for IDE and in Bangladesh, where he met with representatives of another organization. French took prototypes with him of some of the water-related designs produced by last year’s teams. “IDE has been the world’s best partner,” said Patell, “and we want to work with them again, but to expand the program we need to bring in others.”

Patell also was able to get funds for Stanford Management Internship Fund (SMIF) summer interns to do work in India with IDE and for Sarah Stein Greenberg, a second-year MBA student participating in an internship in Ethiopia. She met with IDE representatives there who were doing feasibility studies related to water needs of farmers.

“It’s not just about solving technical challenges cheaply,” said Greenberg, a member of the current year’s class. “It’s about making changes in a product and its adoption that affects the market and human behavior.” Both she and French brought back photographs and video to help their classmates understand what they had seen in the field. “It’s very hard to have empathy from half a planet away,” said Patell. “We’re trying to get as much inside knowledge as we can.”

In some ways the faculty are having a learning experience very similar to their students as they try new approaches to topics that are rooted in experimentation and change. This year they’re experimenting with boot camp—a set of experiential learning modules aimed at non–product design majors to give them design skills. In the fall the five Plattner Institute fellows were asked to look back over their course work in the design program and to identify the skills and experiences that were of the most value to them. They and the faculty then set to work to figure out how to capture the essence of those lessons in this new boot camp format, said Patell. “We’ll engage with the fellows on this. We’re not going to tell them what to do. This is a big project we want to pull off and everybody’s got to have an opportunity and a responsibility to add their own insights and make it become real,” he said.

They experimented last summer with a five-day version using the teenage children of some IDEO employees and Patell’s son. The topic was mass transit, so the campers went to San Francisco, traveled around the city by transit, and then were asked for ideas relating to mass transit.

Stefanos Zenios, professor of operations, information, and technology at the Business School, and Paul Yock of the School of Medicine aren’t a formal part of the Institute, but they co-teach a course in biomedical design that keeps coming up in conversations about future directions because of its similar approach. During autumn quarter the d-school ran a three-day boot camp for the Zenios–Yock medical fellows who will be central to the biomedical design course. The idea will be expanded to other courses taught through the d-school and eventually could become a summer executive education offering.

Patell and Kelly’s current course grew out of a 2002 offering they devised with Bill Behrman of civil engineering called Social Entrepreneurship Startup. It also owes some of its structure to an even earlier course started in the mid-eighties called Integrated Design for Marketability and Manufacturing taught by Institute founder Dave Beach and Seenu Srinivasan of the Business School faculty.

The first year Patell and Kelley taught the Social Entrepreneurship course, students worked with the Light Up the World Foundation on designs to produce solar battery–powered LED lamps to replace kerosene models. They explored ways to introduce the lights as a for-profit product in China, Mexico, or India and eventually decided India would be the most successful market for a variety of reasons.

After the final grades were in, four students went to India to test the lights with real customers. On their return they founded Ignite Innovations, a company to manufacture and sell the lamps.

Over the course of the next year, some parts of the project worked well while others involved surprises. For example, “We went into India too early in the development process,” Patell said. It is cheaper to manufacture there but the process of designing tooling took much longer than expected. But a product has been produced and today Ignite has formed a joint venture with Cosmos Manufacturing in India to manufacture and distribute the lights.

“One of the things we did differently in the water class was to consider a broader range of organizational forms. The students took each idea, determined how much wealth it could generate for farmers, what kind of investment would be required to pull it off, how much intellectual property was involved, and then had to design the appropriate organizational form to execute the project,” Patell said. Just as some products are more suited for specific countries, so are business structures.

After two years of adapting to the realities of producing products for the developing world, Cosmos/Ignite reached an important milestone. The first lights were shipped to Afghanistan in November.

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Also on Stanford Knowledgebase:

  1. Designing Products for People in Developing Countries
  2. Ask the Expert from the Stanford Engineering School
  3. Stanford Graduate School of Business Launches Institute to Alleviate Poverty with $150 Million Gift

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