Institute launched to bring "design thinking" to product creation

David Kelley

David Kelley

If your decade-old VCR is still blinking 12:00, welcome to the club. The VCR is just one of the scores of poorly designed gadgets and gizmos cluttering up the consumer market, simply too difficult for most to figure out how to program. But Stanford is taking a fresh approach, creating frustration-free products, services and environments with user-friendly designs.

Thanks to a $35 million donation, the School of Engineering has launched the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design on campus. Nicknamed the "d.school," it will bring together students, faculty and corporate collaborators from diverse backgrounds to combat tough industry and social problems. Its motto: The greatest productivity occurs at the intersection of many disciplines—engineering, medicine, business, the humanities, education and more—allowing problems to be solved from a multitude of perspectives.

"It has been my dream to bring faculty and students from different departments together to tackle interesting needs and innovations," said David Kelley, the institute's founder and the Donald W. Whittier Professor of Mechanical Engineering. "These collaborations will enable us to mine deeper than individual disciplines can alone."

When it to comes to interdisciplinary interactions, Kelley asserts that the lack of a shared language or methodology between biologists, engineers, educators and businesspeople creates a stumbling block. "Design thinking will be the glue that binds all these people together," he said, referring the institute's novel design methodology that draws many points of view into the conversation.

Birds of a featherKelley is not wading in uncharted waters. As founder and chairman of the high-profile industrial design firm IDEO in Palo Alto, he brings a wealth of experience to the table. Under his leadership, the company pioneered the design of many of the most ubiquitous innovations from the past two decades: the original Apple mouse, the Palm V handheld device, the Sam Adams beer tap handle and rubber toothbrush grips.

And in philanthropist Hasso Plattner, Kelley has found the partner needed to turn the dream of a design institute into reality.

"From my earliest days developing business software, I have always believed that design has to start with the user," said Plattner, co-founder of SAP, the world's largest maker of business process software. "Businesses around the globe need to look for innovation by focusing on their customers."

Plattner's donation contributed more than half of the estimated $50 million needed for the institute. Renovation plans are in the works for the institute's soon-to-be home base—47,000 square feet in the Petersen Building. Stanford is shooting for a 2007 grand opening.

Although the Institute of Design will operate out of the School of Engineering, it is an entirely separate entity from the Product Design Program, which has been granting undergraduate and graduate degrees since 1958. Rather, the institute will encourage enrollment of an eclectic mix of graduate students spanning the breadth of disciplines and reward class participants with a Certificate of Design Thinking.

Students dive into the design poolWhile the institute officially launched on Oct. 3, its coursework has been honed and polished over the past three years. Projects from prototype classes have included designing learning tools for autistic children, examining the future of video gaming and building low-cost solar LED lamps to bring light to homes in developing countries. In connection with the Light Up the World Foundation, four students spun-off a company, Ignite Innovations, which has since field-tested its lamps overseas and begun manufacturing in India.

The institute's project-oriented curriculum will evolve each year based on student interests. Kelley says the "big picture" lesson—empathy for what diverse disciplines contribute to an endeavor—can be taught using a variety of projects.

"In past years, students wanted to become Bill Gates. They asked, 'How can I get rich?'" said Kelley. But he has noticed a recent shift in students' interests. "They are becoming more socially minded."

Four student-proposed initiatives will guide this year's curriculum. They will focus on K-12 education, environmental resource sustainability, wellness and health, and social entrepreneurship in the developing world. Students also will tackle corporate projects in connection with industrial affiliates.

Kelley says that industry-sponsored projects are invaluable to students. "They offer an experience that is real, brutal at times. [Industry spokespeople] are frank about what will and will not work for their company and customers." Terry Winograd, professor of computer science, added that such interactions also offer recruiting opportunities for companies as well as networking potential for the students.

The institute will launch its first course, a design "boot camp," this winter. Intended for those interested in taking courses within the institute, the boot camp will bring students up to speed on the essentials of design thinking. This preliminary course will be followed by three courses planned for spring quarter aimed to attract about 150 aspiring innovators.

Each course falling under the design institute umbrella will be co-taught by three faculty members representing different disciplines who will guide small teams of graduate students, each of whom comes to the table with a distinct expertise as well. While the projects will vary, each course will demand that students meld innovative thinking with analytical thinking to find solutions to new and age-old problems.

"I use the word innovation instead of creativity," says Kelley. "People tend to think that creativity is something that you are born with, something God-given. I don't buy it. I believe that you can practice, practice, practice and become better. All you need is the confidence to believe you can."

Anne Strehlow is a science-writing intern for the Stanford News Service.