I came across an intriguing and unique perspective on this question through the video of a talk given by Liz Gerber, a professor in the Segal Design Institute at Northwestern University.
Liz’s talk covers her thinking on how we can use design processes as a way to change people’s belief in their ability to innovate and create change. And not just any innovation and change — but how we address some of the more difficult challenges facing society (for example, the obesity epidemic).
In the the video, Liz makes the comment that when discussing social change issues, you often hear non-designers say things like “I don’t know how to solve that problem,” or “I don’t know where to start.” But rarely do you hear something like that from a designer. Designers seem to have a fearlessness (Gerber’s word) when confronted with challenges that might require them to experiment and fail before finding a solution. So how do we teach people to have the fearlessness that ultimately leads to innovation?
Gerber’s answer is a mastery experience — actually doing design for social change. And in her case it takes the form of Design for America, a program for undergraduates at Northwestern where cross-disciplinary teams of students collaborate with local community groups and non-profits to solve real problems.
There is a great moment in the video during which one of the DfA students relates his experience and the impact it has had on his “innovation self-efficacy.” I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of these students as they work on their projects and his story and insights are common across them all. It is easy to be affected not only by the enthusiasm, but the real results that are coming out of their efforts.
For me, the challenge of learning from design process is first learning how to turn off your natural inclination to jump to a solution. There is a real payoff in dedicated empathic observation, and in combining observation with smart data gathering and analysis, before you begin to brainstorm potential solutions. Challenge #2 is in learning from prototype. Again, it’s a skill to detach your emotions from a prototype design and learn from how your target population actually engages with the prototype before moving forward. It’s good to fail. You learn. And you learn to become fearless.
Photo Mazaltan Diver Sequence By Jennifer Williams from Hayward, USA (Mazatlan Diver Sequence) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons