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Northwestern University

The Power of Design Thinking: Q&A with Greg Holderfield

Greg Holderfield is director of the Segal Design Institute, clinical associate professor and co-director of the MMM program. In this interview Holderfield discusses what makes design thinking so valuable.

At its core, how would you describe design thinking?

 I view design thinking as the core process and mindset that enables creative solution-based innovation, which is developed and iterated with a focus on contextual human behavior.

 It’s critical to understand that design thinking is process-oriented with a structured framework that is built on a foundation of human-centered design and empathy. The process itself is made up of six frames of learning as follows: Understanding, Observing, Synthesizing, Ideating, Prototyping and Iterating.

What do you think differentiates people who have a background in design thinking?

My experience has taught me that first and foremost a design thinker must have an optimistic mindset. When you are truly innovating, you are often in a space that is unknown and uncomfortable. It is difficult to effectively develop and push ideas forward if your mindset continues to cast doubt in the early stages of innovation.  Therefore, it is critical to reframe your perspective around what is possible and that your actions and voice are both optimistic and encouraging.

 Also, it is my belief that an individual must possess the following 10 traits to be an effective design thinker:

  1. An observing eye and a constant sense of wonder (what is possible, not what is probable);
  2. An empathetic attitude towards people’s behavior and habits (qualitatively-based through in-context observation and discovery);
  3. A questioning mind that goes beyond the obvious; 
  4. Patience to remain in the problem space until the right questions are identified (problems are opportunities in disguise);
  5. A holistic approach to problem solving; 
  6. A willingness to experiment and build (doing!);
  7. A passion for team-based collaboration that puts the user at the center of the opportunity challenge;
  8. A willingness to always be sharing;
  9. An acceptance of the messy (design thinking is not neat); and
  10. A commitment to lifelong learning.

Why is design thinking important to innovation?

Lack of empathy for the user or customer will limit outcome development. Design thinking, which is rooted in empathy, is a critical approach to need finding, problem reframing and opportunity development.

 Empathy gained through the qualitative hands-on process of design thinking can provide innovators a more balanced perspective that I call “whole knowledge.” By whole knowledge, I mean knowledge that is acquired through quantitative historical data, as well as the knowledge acquired through qualitative user understanding. I would also define whole knowledge as knowledge that is balanced by varied perspectives and information.

A lack of “whole knowledge” can cloud the innovation decision-making process and often leads to unbalanced or less meaningful experience outcomes for the consumer.

Within design thinking, empathy creates new knowledge, which leads the design thinker to informed ideas and choices with greater potential to be meaningful and as a result, more innovative.

What role does design thinking play in the MMM curriculum?

Design thinking is a critical component to the MMM program, as we strive to develop hybrid business leaders who can uniquely design, manage and integrate end-to-end solutions. Our MMM students earn both an MBA from Kellogg and a Master of Science in Design Innovation from the Segal Design Institute at the McCormick School of Engineering.

With that said, we have a robust fixed core of design-centric offerings as part of the MSDI degree. The hallmark of these is our Research/Design/Build course - a dynamic hands-on class structured as a studio practicum course, which teaches design research and design thinking methods with a strong focus on innovation through in-context user needs. The first 4 weeks of the course rapidly introduce key methods that are applied in a series of design sprints focused on user desirability.  In the remaining 6 weeks, student teams apply these methods to a more robust challenge for an actual “client”, focused on user desirability, feasibility and business viability. Throughout the 6-week challenge students hone their design innovation skills and connect them to not only the user but also the business. This past year we tackled two areas of opportunity for the YMCA-USA: knowledge management and membership growth.

Other core design courses in the program, which include Innovation Frontiers, Communication Design, Programming Design, Design of Networks, Organizing for Innovation and our capstone Integration Project course, all incorporate elements of the design thinking mindset and process into their subject areas. 

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