Design thinking is on the way in, and liberal arts colleges are on the way out. Skim the headlines of today’s higher education news, and it would be hard to avoid these impressions.
IDEO Executive Chair Tim Brown describes design thinking as “a human-centered approach to innovation” integrating “the needs of people, the possibilities of technology and the requirements of business success.” News stories highlight its ascendancy in everything from The Stanford D School’s increasing prominence to long-established businesses, such as IBM or Fidelity, turning to design thinking’s promise of profitable products and bottom-line results.
Meanwhile, small liberal arts colleges, from Mount Ida College to St. Gregory’s University to Trinity Lutheran College, report their closures or precarious positions, confirming the overall predictions of bond rating agencies and other prognosticators bearish about traditional models of higher education.
But in developing a new course at a liberal arts college that experiments with its own approach to design thinking, we see a far different reality unfolding. Design thinking may be a way forward for liberal learning, but liberal learning is a way to deepen design thinking and turn it toward truly humanistic ends at a time when the need for such thinkers and doers has never been greater. Only by more richly integrating the norms and practices of liberal arts colleges might design thinking reach its greatest potential and deliver its highest benefit to society.
Design thinking marks a way forward for liberal learning in the high-tech, entrepreneurial world now emerging. That’s because of the real-world pragmatism that design thinking brings to the critical spirit the liberal arts rightly promote and celebrate. If blended adroitly into the traditional richness of a liberal arts curriculum, design thinking helps develop liberally educated individuals who can get things done -- problem solvers of the highest order.
But Brown’s recognition that design thinking is a “human-centered” approach likewise points to how the study of the humanities is an essential part of fully realizing the aspirations of design thinking. The transformational claims made by adherents to design thinking require an inward turn -- those deeper and frankly more difficult investments in empathy, dialogue with different perspectives and original reflection that the best in liberal learning models and engenders. While design thinking expands one’s potential for creativity and innovation -- for what one can do -- liberal learning expands who one can be and challenges one to the wider possibilities of human imagination and formation. It implicates character and purpose beyond design thinking’s vaunted problem-solving capabilities. It directs one’s attention to what problems are worth solving and what aims are worth realizing.
A Wider Angle of Vision
We see this in the course, Claiming the Future, that we co-teach at Franklin & Marshall College. In it, students take on as a collaborative design problem a question that lurks behind so much of their studies and co-curricular commitments here: What meaning and value does your liberal arts education hold for the work and life you hope for? Significantly, though, they approach this question as a design problem while engaged in a seminar discussion of readings on the future of higher education and work. Those readings range from William M. Sullivan’s Liberal Learning as a Quest for Purpose to Gerald Davis’s The Vanishing American Corporation. Such readings are coupled, too, with opportunities for site visits to innovative schools and workplaces, interviews with alumni, and conversations with the authors of some of the books we discuss in our class meetings, which occur over meals. Thus, the frame through which they enter their design problem is one already embedded in a richly reflective environment of face-to-face conversations that unfold over time and in a nonlinear path.
While our students readily take initiative, designing a multifaceted game to inspire engagement in the liberal arts, the excitement over their design project is interspersed with many quieter, even vulnerable, moments. One student shares with us her lived experience of being judged by her professors -- the tensions, the insecurities, the always-present danger of coming up short and what that means for her performance and the risks she is willing to take. Another is wary of the constant busyness of our lives at a highly selective liberal arts college, a busyness that too often elides moments of joy and a larger sense of purpose. Another stands out because she already sees her education within a deep understanding of her own larger purpose, which makes it harder for her to understand those who are still searching for theirs.
As those more exposed, vulnerable moments arise in our discussions, we find ourselves reflecting: What kind of prior self-development do students require if the techniques of design thinking are to serve them best? Design thinking can certainly provide students with the skills to match their aspirations, but it is a liberal arts education that can help students develop these aspirations in the first place and bend these aspirations toward that antiquated but surprisingly resurgent idea of serving others.
Organic connections between character and purpose arise naturally here as the liberal arts ethos infuses design thinking techniques. In an entrepreneurship course drawing upon design thinking, for instance, the professor joins together with the instructor of an improvisational dance class to create a common course module on creativity. The dance class’s emphasis on personal introspection and self-awareness proves a creative stimulus for entrepreneurial thinking around community challenges. The students in both classes join together to propose a rooftop garden for a local hospital. They are discovering the deeper and essential connections between knowing one’s self and saving the world.
A liberal arts education also provides the needed depth and richness of understanding if students are going to link effectively and authentically their skills to the needs of others and the challenges that imperil community and democracies today. It provides a wider angle of vision than those entangled in any single problem can easily provide. Fully grasping a problem involves more than an empathetic stance toward its most immediate stakeholders. It requires a broader and deeper comprehension of the world in which those stakeholders were formed and their needs arose.
This broader and deeper outlook encourages commitments that are not simply course based but also life altering. It is not unusual, for instance, for a student inspired by a design thinking class here to become personally engaged in continuing their project after the course is over. One student, for example, is now working to extend a plan developed in an earlier course to develop a phone app for use in grocery stores that would help consumers choose which foods (starting with proteins) have the least greenhouse gas footprint and which provide the best nutritional value.
Critical Design Thinking
Thus, liberal learning points the way toward a very different kind of design thinking, one now emerging at Franklin & Marshall. It’s not an easier version, but a more difficult one, because it requires a deeper investment of one’s self and simultaneously a relativizing of the self in the context of larger communal aspirations. True “human-centered” design in this vein will be humanistic, artisanal, place based and dependent upon bonds of trust built over time and through collaboration with others from diverse backgrounds. Call it critical design thinking.
Such critical design thinking is a core feature in our college’s work with our local community partners to establish the Center for Sustained Engagement with Lancaster. The center is supporting faculty members’ engaged scholarship and research on poverty and social inequality, environmental sustainability, and social action art in our local city and county. Oriented not toward disruption for the sake of innovation, it aspires to build authentic connections, bridges between self and other that are both the means and the ends of the process, and may well provide some renewal of the democratic ethos.
In engaging problems worth solving and aims worth realizing, liberal arts colleges reveal the interlocked nature of self and other. For who one needs to be can’t be separated from the goals one hopes to accomplish or the communities one seeks to serve. Self is never independent of the world but always engaged in it. If designers know themselves and their worlds better, that can only improve the design thinking process and turn it toward sustainable, honorable purposes.
In sum, a liberal arts education provides its students with an understanding of themselves and their world that will empower their design thinking skills to construct a future that is truly satisfying, just and flourishing. Such an education will engender a problem-solving process that is more deeply reflective and thus more profoundly creative. It will ask more of its practitioners, to be sure, but it will develop the kind of practitioners that have more to offer.
Thus, we see the future of liberal arts colleges and design thinking as more intertwined than is commonly assumed. Recognizing the synergies that can come from bringing them together promises a sustainable and flourishing future for them both.