A Design Thinking skeptic goes to d.school: You won’t believe what happens next

I regularly confess that I am a Design Thinking skeptic. And yet, when I found myself standing in a class at the d.school, I said to the instructors “I am ready to be converted to your religion.”

Our instructors: Seamus and Grace

The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, also known as the d.school, has an elevated — almost magical — status on Stanford campus. It’s the place where engineering, design, and creativity comes together with law, medicine, and humanities, and where companies like Matter.vc and Pulse have come to life. Many graduates that I’ve met over the years are so enthusiastic about the school’s teachings and their efficacy, that I’ve often joked that it is like a church with a secret religion. But within that devotion is something very alluring: the promise of skills that prepare people to tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges — that is Design Thinking.

To find out more, I spent several mornings in at the d.school over a period of six weeks in a unique class called Abstract to Concrete. It’s unique because students arrive with nothing — not even a notebook — and leave with nothing (no homework!). Each class is action-packed and introduces a handful of tools from the Design Thinking toolbox in rapid succession. Over the entire course students are exposed to more than a dozen activities meant to inspire or facilitate creative action.

One of the many activities of Abstract to Concrete that required creative thinking on the fly.

Because of my skeptical nature, I asked Mago Torres, a Stanford JSK Fellow and investigative reporter, for a fresh take on two of the activities from the class: Tell Your Grandma and MacGyver. This is what she had to share:

“With Tell Your Grandma one of the aspects that was most relevant to me was figuring out how to work with people that you haven’t worked with before.” “[My partner for the exercise] started us off and the objective was to explain something to her grandmother. In our case it was climate change. As my partner made her attempt at explaining the concept I came up with more ideas and when it was my turn I was able to build on her work to make a stronger description. I saw the same pattern unfolding in other teams.”
“With MacGyver, the instructors gave our team random words — baby, helicopter, etc. — and the challenge was to come up with a typical scenario from the TV show MacGyver using these words. Then each team would give their MacGyver challenge to another team. Each team’s objective was then to solve the scenario using a limited set of objects provided to them. My takeaway — which I believe is true for the whole course — was to be comfortable in the process.”

I took away two similar learnings from my time in Abstract to Concrete:

  • That the simple act of just getting into action is the first step toward more concrete actions. For example, many of the small exercises that the class would start with helped me to break through my resistance and helped to build momentum for the more complex creative challenges that came after.
  • The magic of “parallel processing” with other people on the same creative challenge. Specifically, experiencing how other people solved an identical challenge in a different way opened my eyes to new ways of thinking about the challenge itself.
Nothing like starting with the easy questions in life. A typical moment in Abstract to Concrete at the Stanford d.school.

When I asked Mago how she might convince a skeptical journalist to invest time in a course like this, she said “I believe that journalism is not exclusively about what you do — for example investigative reporting or hard news — but also how you do it. And, for me, this class was very revealing of how to motivate teams when you face different kinds of challenges in the newsroom.”

I don’t know if my inner skeptic is ready to fully convert yet, but it’s hard to argue with that wisdom.


If you’d like to hear more about Abstract to Concrete, feel free to join Mago and me for a short discussion of what we learned this Friday, February 23rd in the JSK Garage, 4th floor of McClatchy Hall, at 12PM.

And, as always, shout with questions.

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