The world as prototype

What makes Stanford different, according to the people at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, otherwise known as the, is “design thinking,” the philosophy that good process ensures good ends and that problems can be solved through observation.

Sarah Stein Greenberg
Burmese childen gathered around a water pump frame developed with the help of people from the

“At Stanford, we have the image of a ‘T,’” said Bernard Roth, a pioneer in robotics, haptics and kinematics. A problem-solver starts with a principal skill, the vertical leg of the “T,” but uses other tools to branch out. The approach “is similar to life itself in that it builds on experience and applies that to problems. Problem-solvers don’t need expertise in any one discipline. We use observation, figure out needs, then go back to our own disciplines with a broader array of skills.”

That “T” Roth referred to originated with Ideo, the famed design company launched by fellow founder and its principal public face, David Kelley. It all started more or less in 1958, with the establishment of the Product Design Program shared by the Mechanical Engineering and Art departments. Kelley was a student in that program, and he (and several of his classmates) ended up teaching here. Kelley went on to found Ideo, which was modeled on Product Design, and that spooled back into new teaching methods at Stanford. Years later, Kelley and artificial intelligence pioneer Terry Winograd began teaching courses on product design and human-computer interaction (HCI), and one thing led to another, which led to the

They key word at the is “prototype,” used as both a noun and a verb. Basically, it’s nonstop inventiveness to meet human needs.

George Kembel, another Product Design graduate, is executive director of the, which belongs to the School of Engineering but draws faculty and researchers from beyond. Kembel is an expert in idea generation and prototyping and—no surprise—has a bit of entrepreneurship in his background as well.

“Stanford was unique in balancing mechanical engineering and art,” he said. “Most places emphasized one or the other. People here learned to reconcile the differences and create a more human experience. The products were essentially foils to teach students to be more human-centered.”

Essentially, there was a shift from design to design thinking, from products to experience. The idea is that any problem can be approached from an experiential, observational, hands-on manner. Watch and listen, figure out the problem, then solve it.

The design people have had plenty of opportunities to put this into practice close to home, as they have moved three times already and are looking forward to two more moves before finally landing in the Peterson Building (next to Mitchell Earth Sciences) in 2009. Each time is an opportunity to prototype themselves, Kembel said.

The Birch module, the’s previous home, was windowless, cramped and messy, though with a certain charm. They turned the space around four times, Kembel said. In December they decamped to Sweet Hall, where they have far more room, and the process continues, defining space with movable furniture, whiteboards on wheels and what appear to be transparent shower curtains marking off study and meeting areas. Treating space as if it was a product or device to satisfy human needs, they’re “prototyping [their] way to the new building,” in Kembel’s words.

In charge of the latest move (and glad it’s over) was Scott Doorley, one of three design fellows this year. The one-year fellowship program follows a master’s degree, which in Doorley’s case was in the School of Education’s Learning, Design and Technology program.

Doorley was on his way to a life in human-computer interaction (see related article) when he veered a bit, courtesy of design thinking. His focus is more on the human end of HCI than on the computer end. For him, “it’s about mediation, how people interpret things when they’re experiencing them.” In other words, he’s more interested in the human than in the computer.

“I’m interested in process and purpose,” he said, “and that’s why I came to Stanford. I felt so relieved when I got here because there are lots of people working on creating things—models, techniques, systems—to help people communicate. It’s happening all over campus.”

Fellow Sarah Stein Greenberg also sees design thinking as a form of mediation.

“The way I’m wired, I’ve always been drawn to the interface between different worlds,” she said.

While earning her Stanford MBA and preparing to wear a business hat in the world of social advocacy (she had previously worked at Planned Parenthood), Greenberg came across Jim Patell’s course Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability. That led her to the and, eventually, to small rural farms in Southeast Asia.

“I saw immediately they were using the vocabulary I had been seeking all this time,” she said. “It’s very user-centered; you get your words and ideas from the people who are affected. I always thought projects had to be complete, finished; prototyping was new to me.”

Following Patell’s class, Greenberg spent six weeks working with farmers in Southeast Asia to figure out their needs through design thinking, which allows the farmers themselves to be the ultimate arbiters. The irrigation device designed as a result of those conversations, plus a quarter’s worth of collaborative work, is today up and running.

Once she leaves Stanford she’ll be doing the same thing as a management consultant—relying on team thinking.

“Even teams with the best intentions disband without the fruits of their labor because they don’t know how to collaborate,” Kembel said. “They have different values; they speak different languages. Design thinking is a fantastic glue to bring people together, whether to solve problems in K-12 education or poverty in rural Burma or whatever other problem you have.

“Let’s spend time with the dollar-a-day farmers, observe, discover their needs, generate big ideas, develop prototypes and then take them back to the farmers. Some fail, others are OK, and you might do a project 10 times.

“You fail early and often in order to later succeed.”

The realization that design thinking could be good for everyone was one of the impulses behind Adventures in Design Thinking, first co-taught in summer 2006 by Winograd, Roth and Tina Seelig, executive director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program in the Management Science and Engineering Department.

The course grew out of the Commission on Graduate Education’s recommendations that graduate students be given opportunities to interact with colleagues and faculty members from different disciplines. The one-week, hands-on class drew 32 students from a broad range of departments and, according to Roth, “it was the best teaching experience I’ve ever had at Stanford or anywhere else”—and he has taught for nearly 40 years.

“I can assure you it was really interesting to see all the different students talking about different ways of using fruit, the subject of that day’s project,” Associate Vice Provost Mark Horowitz reported to the Faculty Senate, not entirely seriously. Fruit, or wallets, or sketching, or telling stories or just about anything else can be a vehicle for teamwork and problem solving from the perspective of design thinking.

The students’ evaluations were at times ecstatic. Most said the course made them think differently about themselves and introduced them to people outside their field whom they otherwise never would have met. One said it was “life-affirming”; another said the course provided “life tools.” The response inspired the instructors to plan a similar class this summer.

Kembel says design thinking literally changes lives. He could be right.