Design Thinking Education for the 21st Century

Last week, Tim Brown’s post ‘5 New Design Careers for the 21st Century’ struck a chord. He talked about how when he made a career choice 30 years ago, the options were limited. ‘You either got an engineering degree and then went to design school, or you went to art school and studied graphic design, architecture, or industrial design. like I did.‘ He went on say that today things are very different with the still strong presence of Silicon Valley, interaction and user-experience designers. Options on exciting design careers are available for graduates of non-traditional programs as well

Specifically, Brown talks about five new careers ‘The Designer Coder,‘ ‘The Design Entrepreneur,‘ ‘The Hybrid Design Researcher,‘ ‘The Business Designer,’ and ‘The Social Innovator.

In my role as an educator and researcher in the design and design thinking fields, I observe the following:

1. The emerging careers that Brown refers to certainly exist but accessing them is not as easy as it sounds. It is a process of trial and error and involves failure and uncertainty along the way, just as design thinking is as process.

2. Each of the new careers are hybrid in nature – where design combines with coding, for example, or design combines with business, design is combined with anthropology, or design is combined with social enterprise. These careers are often based in cross-sector environments of private, non-profit and academic.

3. Finally, these emerging careers are supported more strongly in practice than in education/academia. Very few academic programs allow for such a hybrid experience on campus where a student can emerge with these diverse skills sets while applying it in practice. Ironically many of these disciplines live in close proximity to each other on academic campuses as for example, the one I work in, at the University of Minnesota. Some collaborative efforts are underway at our university including our Higher Ed Redesign Initiative that is a collaboration between the College of Design, College of Education and the policy organization, Midwest Higher Education Compact that covers 12 states.

I see a tremendous potential for universities to support the new careers including the ones Brown mentions, and meet the needs of our next generation students for the 21st century. Of course, this is going to take seeing the value of training for a T-shaped professional (one rooted in their discipline while also being able to synergistically collaborate with other disciplines). In addition, it is going to take opening of the often thick walls of disciplinary boundaries and academic structures. Finally, it is going to take strong collaborative relationships in real-time with the world of practice as it morphs and changes in new and exciting ways.

The reinvention of higher education is already underway forced by issues of access, cost and quality. What if design education applies design thinking on itself and responds to the needs of our times and our students?

Now that would be real innovation!

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