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What the Pandemic is Teaching Us About Design

EDI Program Director Jim Wicks reflects on how COVID-19 has introduced new industries and countless leaders to the value of design thinking.

Jim Wicks, EDI DirectorI've always found what fascinates me about design is its broad reach. When people hear the word "design," many might think about work in graphic design or interior design, but design is so much more than that, and nothing has put that notion into the spotlight more than the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

With the changes that have happened to our society since March 2020, it truly makes you realize how incredibly important design is. There are people from human resources to finance and product development to customer service who for the past 16 months have been forced to rethink and redesign the way they interact with and design outcomes for their stakeholders. People who were used to going to work and doing things the way they always did were forced into a design-thinking mindset in a way they never had before.

That's fantastic.  

I will never say the pandemic has been a good thing, but I am encouraged by how so many people stepped back and thought through how to go about identifying and solving problems in new and unique ways. We didn't necessarily do that when we were running at our typical fast pace pre-pandemic, which is why that moment of reflection is so important. Think about the HR managers who confronted the question of what the onboarding process should be like for a new employee if everyone is working remotely, or leaders across industries who continue to grapple with the ongoing challenge of forming and maintaining bonds among employees when those same employees work from home full-time.

That second idea is the one that fascinates me the most. Yes, processes matter, as does focusing on how employees can accomplish their tasks if they are working remotely, but for me, the most important thing businesses should be focused on is their culture. The single-most sustained differentiator you can have in your business when it comes to doing innovative work is your company culture.

I talk to a lot of senior leadership in companies around the world, and since the onset of the pandemic, it's been fascinating to see the difference between the companies redesigning because they had to versus the ones that want to. Perhaps this latter group would not have considered changes to their company design without the presence of COVID-19, but they are capitalizing on this moment to truly rethink their purpose and the way they go about doing business. They are turning their design research process on themselves and asking the questions of what their employees want and how they can go about building stronger communities. I applaud the folks that are trying to apply the process they go through for designing products and services onto themselves to address innovation, bias, and workplace culture because it's incredibly important. You can win or lose billions of dollars by making certain decisions in those areas.

In Northwestern's Master of Science in Engineering Design Innovation (EDI) program, we too have put the design thinking framework we teach onto ourselves to understand how we can best train and prepare our students given the current realities facing society today.

Isolation. Social justice. Political polarization.

As a program built on human-centered design, it was essential we figure out a way to engage with people on their terms, even if they are stuck in their own homes. We had to understand how you collaborate and do something truly innovative if your team is spread across the country, or even around the world. We benefited from having a number of alumni and faculty heavily involved with using MURAL as a virtual studio tool and dscout as a digital research platform, and we've relied heavily on incorporating those resources into the work we've done over the past 16 months.

Our faculty have also done amazing work conceiving ways to get students using prototyping facilities and resources in a relatively normal yet socially safe way. Throughout this experience, we haven't lost sight of the fact that our students are our primary stakeholders and our priority needs to be doing all we can to give them what they need. Sure, there have certainly been bumps in the road and challenges we've faced, but I'm excited to take the lessons we've learned and bring them into our new school year. 

After a year unlike any we've seen before, I have a lot of hope for the future with seeing how society is embracing design thinking to bring about change. If we can continue that momentum, there is no limit to the level of impact we can have on ourselves, our companies, and our society as a whole.

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