An Innovative Approach

By Christine Cox | Spring 2015

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How would you feel if somebody asked you to create a product prototype? In 30 minutes? With useless stuff like popsicle sticks, egg cartons, fake grass and feathers? 

The students in Wendy Angst’s Innovation and Design class weren’t intimidated or even hesitant. They couldn’t wait to get started.

Last fall, Angst, management associate professional specialist, took 40 students on a field trip to visit three Chicago firms that specialize in innovation and design: Deloitte, IDEO and IA Collaborative. The group included undergraduates, Notre Dame MBAs and an engineering/ design major. Angst wanted them to see firsthand how companies engage in innovative and creative problem solving using many of the same methods she had taught them in the classroom throughout the semester.

The Innovation and Design course focuses on helping students gain proficiency in the design thinking methodology to identify and address complex business problems. They are introduced to emerging consultant and corporate models, and learn about such topics as how to harness creativity toward generating “new-to- the-world” solutions and applying human-centered design methodologies to a client problem. Ultimately, Angst wants to help students assemble a “design-thinking toolkit” — a deep understanding of the tools and methodologies associated with design thinking that they can develop into a marketable skill. 

“Design thinking solves ambiguous problems,” said Angst. “It’s important for business students to learn this because business problems are increasingly not well-defined, especially with the world changing so rapidly. They need to be able to innovate and provide solutions for consumers. And for the planet, really.”

Design thinking means abandoning traditional ways of problem solving, where a student learns to first form a hypothesis and then lay out the steps to a desired outcome. Conversely, design thinking is human- centered, open-ended and exploratory. The point is not to try to come up with solutions right away, but to understand what the need is first. There are five critical steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test. In practice, this means students must learn to listen deeply, share wholeheartedly and get comfortable with failing utterly over and over again.

“You’re just trying to immerse yourself and under- stand from a user’s perspective with the underlying thought of making their lives better,” Angst explained. “There’s a great quote: If Henry Ford would have asked people what they wanted, they would have said a better horse. People often don’t know what they want or need.”

Students learn these skills by examining real-life situations and even by working with existing companies and products, such as Whirlpool’s Gladiator GarageWorks line. They spent time interviewing people about their garages and their lifestyles in order to ultimately create strategies and products that would help consumers get the most and best use out of their garages. 


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