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Northwestern University

Differentiation by Design

Blending human-centered design research and methodologies with a strategic focus on creative problem solving, Dan Brown helps MaDE students seek, conceive, and create compelling solutions for the marketplace.

In the Segal Design Institute’s most recent Manufacturing and Design Engineering (MaDE) capstone, all five student teams secured provisional patents for their class projects.

But that result alone is not what brings a smile to Dan Brown’s face.

“What’s most exciting is watching the students push themselves beyond their comfort zones and work in teams to strategically solve problems through design with distinct differentiations that create advantage,” said Brown, a clinical professor at Segal.

Brown has long championed the concept of “Differentiation by Design” – a trademarked term he has long used to describe his design process – to strategically create innovative solutions to real-world problems in a competitively advantaged way. Through their three-quarter capstone work, MaDE students put Brown’s design thinking doctrine into action.

“It’s fundamentally working smarter, not harder in a ‘designerly’ way,” Brown said.


Pursuing a competitive edge through design

Brown has lived the “Differentiation by Design” mantra over four decades in product design and entrepreneurship. A serial inventor and design engineering professional, the Chicago native boasts nearly 45 US patents as well as numerous international patents and awards for design and innovation. He’s developed celebrated, game-changing products like the Bionic Wrench and founded LoggerHead Tools in 2005.  

Brown joined the Segal faculty in 2008 after receiving a Master of Product Design and Development Management from Northwestern and subsequently pursuing a PhD at Coventry University in the UK. In the classroom, Brown leaned into his practical experiences and graduate research to educate students and demonstrate the value of strategically baking competitive advantage into the design process.

Brown defines design as “how people seek, conceive, and create new knowledge” and innovation as “how new knowledge competes with existing knowledge.” The competitive advantage, then, is innovation’s key metric – and the target Brown actively promotes with students as they pursue novel solutions.

“We’re teaching beyond the skills of research, data collection, and analysis. Our capstone focus is the application and practice of strategic critical thinking, research, and process rigor applied to real, right-now problems in a professionally appropriate way,” he said.

While promoting core elements of human-centered design, such as stakeholder research and iterative testing, Brown also provides students with deep instruction on how to design with strong intellectual property in mind. Specifically, he trumpets the importance of patents and other forms of intellectual property to protecting one’s competitive edge. He also incorporates patent research as primary research to guide strategic design.

“If you’re going to invest your time, effort, and money, you need to be able to protect it and essentially design the strategy to protect your IP as you create it. Without protection, you will simply lose the control of who benefits from your efforts,” said Brown, who recently completed a three-year term on the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s Patent Public Advisory Committee. The US Secretary of Commerce appointed him to the committee to represent the voices of independent inventors.


Providing students a powerful experience

Brown’s Differentiation by Design ethos is evident in the MaDE capstone he leads alongside fellow Segal clinical professor David Gatchell, director of the MaDE undergraduate program. 

Together, Brown and Gatchell reject handing students a defined problem or a design process with strict checkpoints. Rather, they encourage exploratory research, creative critical thinking, and rigorous evidence-based reasoning and validation to propel unique design solutions to the real-world problems students identify.

Brown recalls one MaDE team designing a restaurant highchair that could be easily broken down and placed in the standard commercial dishwasher for cleaning, thereby eliminating a pain point for restaurant guests with young children.

“Both Dave and I fondly remember at one point the team, frustrated by the challenges, insisting it was physically impossible to accomplish, but we insisted they push towards a solution,” Brown said. “We often reflect and share the story of how excited the team was having proven themselves wrong.”

Brown has also watched others launch startups from products they designed at Northwestern and then gain marketplace traction given their focus on distinctive IP that allowed for investor interest.

Along the way, Brown has witnessed students’ persistence and confidence grow as they imagine new possibilities and seize compelling opportunities. Even better, they begin to see competitive advantage as an attainable goal when they marry the foundational disciplinary design knowledge of creative problem solving and critical strategic thinking alongside the technical skills and experience gained in their engineering courses.  

“In the MaDE Capstone, we want to prepare students for real-world problem solving and push them beyond what they think they can do,” Brown said. “When we embrace design as a discipline through the lens of how humans seek, conceive, and create new knowledge solutions, and focus them on ethical and responsible competitive outcomes, we are all in better positions for success in society.”

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