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Why a Chemistry Major Needs to Know Design Thinking

Doreen Lorenzo, who is leading efforts to integrate design thinking into the curriculum at UT Austin, explains what design thinking is and why all students should learn it. 

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Design thinking has generated as lot of buzz in recent years, but a lot of people still don’t know exactly what it is or why people outside of design — like a chemist, for example — should learn to think like a designer.

Doreen Lorenzo, director of the School of Design and Creative Technologies and the Center for Integrated Design in the College of Fine Arts, wants to change that.

Lorenzo is leading efforts to integrate design thinking across The University of Texas at Austin’s undergraduate curriculum. She says it’s a problem-solving skill set that all students should learn and a way of approaching problems that can be used any field.

Students from any major at the university can take design-thinking classes through the Center for Integrated Design or enroll and choose a major in the new School of Design and Creative Technologies, which launched and began enrolling students in fall 2017.

We spoke with her to understand why design thinking is a useful and important skill for anyone, from doctors and scientists to business leaders and government policymakers.

What is design thinking?

DOREEN LORENZO: Design thinking is a way to solve problems and find solutions based on human insights. Human-centered problem solving puts the human front and center — not the technology, not the engineering, not even the numbers.

Medicine is a great example of an area where human-centered approaches are being adopted to improve outcomes. Before recent times, patients were just sick people coming in and out of an office with one ailment or another. Bedside manner was nice to have among doctors but not a necessity. That’s now changed. Doctors are being taught in medical schools to consider the patient more holistically and with empathy. The patient is a human seeking help — she is a mother, a wife, a daughter, not just another sick person coming through a rotating door. This fosters a better relationship between the patient and doctor and helps to support the goal of general well-being.

What are some misconceptions about design thinking?

LORENZO: Many people associate design only with the visual representation. But design is no longer just about creating artifacts; it’s about systems thinking. I want students to be able to look at problems in the world that could be solved through design thinking and be able to work in teams to solve those problems. This approach can be applied to government and public policy, health care, education, cities and, obviously, business.

Why do students need to learn design thinking? How could it be useful for a chemistry major, for example?

LORENZO: Organizations today need to move faster than ever. No matter what sector you’re in today, you have to understand your audience, consumer and user. Design thinking allows you to do that. This interdisciplinary approach is just how businesses are being run today.

Once these students are in the real world, they won’t ever just be working in a chemistry or business silo.

They’ll be forced to work and collaborate cross-functionally with peers from across an organization — think about bringing a new invention or drug to market, for example. They’ll need to understand how their own functions and the functions of another team can come together and solve problems that require a chemist and marketer, for example.

What do you do at the Center for Integrated Design?

LORENZO: The center brings design thinking into the core of the university curricula. That means connecting people from diverse disciplines through human-centered design thinking. The center is collaborating with the Design, Engineering, Information, Business, Computer Science and Architecture programs. It has created a multidisciplinary curriculum that allows all UT students the opportunity to study design methodology and apply it in creative and entrepreneurial scenarios.

How is UT offering opportunities for students to study design thinking?  

LORENZO: One big way we’re making design thinking available to students across the university is that we’re creating a Bridging Disciplines Program in Design Strategies that is open to all undergraduates. The Bridging Disciplines Programs (BDPs) at UT allow undergraduates to earn a certificate that’s like an interdisciplinary minor by taking 19 credit hours in focus areas like global studies or social entrepreneurship. The BDP in Design Strategies offers students the chance to dive into a variety of topics such as Sketching for Thinking and Communication, Introduction to Prototyping and Design and Artificial Intelligence.

We’re experimenting with new academic models and offering microcredit courses. Rather than the traditional three-credit course that lasts a full semester, these one-hour credit courses last five weeks and are taught by an industry professional.

We’re also collaborating with companies like IBM, USAA and McKinsey to offer classes that are taught on-site in these professional design studios where students work on real-world problems in these companies.

[[See what a student had to say about taking the Radical Collaboration @ IBM Design class.]]

What makes design thinking unique at UT?

LORENZO: UT is one of the few schools willing to tackle design thinking at an undergraduate level, and with such a large student body, this can make the impact significant. UT has amazing, vast resources of knowledge and information. That’s why I came here. I wanted to make an impact, and I felt that the size and scale of UT could make a significant impact on the design industry and beyond if done right.

The market is changing so dramatically that education has to make sure that it stays in step.

Doreen Lorenzo

Doreen Lorenzo is the Assistant Dean, School of Design and Creative Technologies and Executive Director, Center for Integrated Design at the College of Fine Arts at The University of Texas at Austin.

In March 2016 she joined the university where she was charged with spearheading an ambitious approach to design studies across the campus. The former president of both global creative firm frog and online invention platform Quirky, Lorenzo is a recognized thought leader on business and design issues. She has advised Fortune 100 companies on design and innovation issues for decades and speaks publicly about her signature leadership style and the power of empathy to drive business results.

She is also a co-founder of mobile video insights firm Vidlet, as well as a board member and advisor of several other startups, and a columnist for Fast Co. Design and Medium.

She was named one of fifteen innovators shaping Texas in the February 2018 issue of Texas Monthly.