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Dean Vic Liptak on Her Introduction to Design Thinking

Posted February 20, 2014 in Classes & Presentations

Written by Vic Liptak, Dean of the College.

Although I had long resisted going to college out of sheer contrariness, in March 1982 I found myself at UC Santa Cruz studying philosophy because I had fallen in love with Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations while I was adventuring in Paris the previous year. My epistemology course was an infinite series of arguments about what words like “knowledge” and “belief” mean, so when a poster advertising the spring quarter linguistics course Syntax and Semantics 1 appeared I vowed to learn semantics and blow my philosophy friends out of the water.

Vic Liptak, Dean of KCAD

Vic Liptak, Dean of KCAD

I was naïve and the course title was misleading. There was no semantics; it was pure syntax, the structure of language. And I was in love again, this time with greater awareness that my intellectual hunger was having a feeding frenzy – in the guise of syntax classwork and homework.

We students didn’t know it at the time, and I’ll bet the instructor wouldn’t have called it that, but we were engaged in full-on design thinking, three times a week in class plus group homework sessions that often lasted until sunrise. We were inventing and building a grammar of the English language from scratch, right there in chalk on a blackboard at Cowell College, and it didn’t exist until we proposed it, tested it with real speakers, and went back and fixed it whenever someone came up with a bullet-proof counterexample. That quarter we designed a way of describing language structure. I licked my chops at the thought of Syntax 2 and 3.

Students working

Design thinking can help us approach our work with a broader perspective

I was passionate about working in this indeterminate, open-ended way, and that same desire reignited when I started grad school in architecture. Still naïve, I entered SCI-Arc’s MArch program as a way to tie together my love of art, building, and intellectual provocation. Architecture school continually challenged me to collaborate with classmates through hands-on trial-and-error problem solving as we grappled with evolving, multivalent project statements that had people and dwelling at their core. In short, it was a three and a half year immersion in design thinking.

Students working

Collaboration is key for any design thinking excercise

I did not become an architect, but I used design thinking as I practiced higher ed. In first-year studio, we surprised beginning students with open-ended problems, focusing on people’s needs as the way to see an issue, with design principles and processes working in support of their needs. Studio was completely hands-on and very often required collaboration. I also focused on developing foundation teaching teams that could consistently deliver design thinking as a learning outcome even as student cohorts changed every year and project statements evolved.

We developed a design thinking theorem that served as our logo: Dirty Hands Open Minds. It was nicely ambiguous, capturing something crucial about learning. Doing is expansive. It takes more time and energy to make and test multiple possibilities for every issue, but it broadens your perspective and increases your capacity for inquiry and invention. It allows – even requires – you to fail in order to get closer to solutions that succeed. And you get better at it the more you practice and the more people you practice with.

Students working

Design is an act of problem-solving, and with design thinking we approach problem-solving with as many different perspectives as possible

Design thinking connects creative processes with decision-making and action-taking processes. Not surprisingly this phrase has become a buzzword; Change by Design (authored by IDEO’s Tim Brown) quickly became a B-book bestseller because its compelling message isn’t confined to one field or discipline. Business people, organizations, and companies recognize that they can have greater impact by doing things differently and disrupting their own status quo through design thinking, something we creatives have known for a long time. Because design thinking is a continuous practice, a way of learning and working and doing, it disrupts the tried and challenges the true, requiring something better in their place.

It’s easy for us to recognize the effect of design thinking in our design studios, but we also see it in the art our students produce and the critiques our faculty engage them in; we see it in the curricula our students design for the future of art education; we see it in the impact of the critical discourses of art and design on our culture, politics, economy and society. We recognize its potential in Grand Rapids, Western Michigan, and well beyond. I’ll say it: the world needs design thinking.

Students working

Rapidly brainstorming and prototyping possible solutions - this is design thinking in action!

KCAD aims to matter through its impact, and it has impact by design. Everything we do must connect creative processes with decision making and action taking. Imagine design thinking as integral to education at all levels and essential to the way society evolves its systems! We know the value of hands-on learning and open-ended problem solving, and we place collaboration and people’s needs at the center of what we do. We practice design thinking, iteratively, individually and institutionally. The world is our oyster. Our next move: design think repeat.


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