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Northwestern University

Design Innovation

The mindset, process, and tools to effectively and confidently solve problems within any domain

Empathy is Key

Better Design through Humanity

By harnessing some non-quantifiable qualities—like empathy and deep human understanding—we can solve seemingly unsolvable problems. Not only can this human-centered approach identify the underlying issues with the greatest impact and meaning, it can also produce fast, thorough, transformative solutions that have the power to change lives. This concept is called Design Innovation. And it's key to everything we do.

Mindset. Process. Tools.

Getting the job done right

We take a threefold approach to teaching design innovation.


Empower yourself to see what's possible

Your mindset helps you take risks and design what's next. By incorporating the following qualities into your approach, you can start with an ambiguous problem and finish with a transformative solution. Consider design innovation as serious play. To adopt the designer's mindset, try letting go of your fear of failure and adopting a solution-focused attitude.

Key Design Innovation Mindsets



Keep the end user in mind

Design innovation begins with messy, ill-defined problems and ultimately delivers clear directives based on human need, technological feasibility and marketplace opportunity. Everyone has a different way of describing the design innovation process, but they all include some version of these steps: identify, ideate, and iterate. However you describe the process, it’s purpose is to make it possible for you to design with the end user always in mind.

Julio M. Ottino

Design innovation empowers leaders to develop meaningful solutions, create new value, and envision new possibilities. At the highest level, design unlocks creativity and the ability to imagine a new future.”

— Julio M. Ottino, Dean, McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science



Don't just solve a problem—frame an opportunity

There’s no big prize for correctly solving the wrong problem. In other words, finding the right opportunity is just as important as finding a solution. That’s why talking to the people who will use your design is so important. The ability to give and receive feedback is an essential tool for design innovation.

Examples of Design Innovation Tools

These are just a few of the tools we use to help our students interact with users, synthesize their insights, and confirm that they are solving the right problem.

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