DT, explains Perez, is an approach and mindset that addresses complex challenges in a holistic and innovative manner. Its human-centred approach places end-users and their needs are at the heart of things.
Building prototypes is part of the Design Thinking process that allows students to test ideas with end users. Prototypes in the real world would allow companies to test a product before taking it to the open market, improving the chances of success.
Core to the d-school is its Foundation Programme in Design Thinking. Run twice a year, this 12-week programme sees (predominantly post-graduate) students from diverse disciplines – from engineering to humanities, IT to commerce and health sciences – spending two days a week working on complex real-world challenges pitched to them by project partners such as Transport Cape Town, Standard Bank, and V&A Waterfront.
The d-school has also worked with UCT’s Engineering faculty to embed a DT component in their existing design curriculum. “The focus here is to get the young engineers to be more human-centred in their approach to solving problems. What’s important is ensuring that they design the right thing before they design it right,” says Perez, referring to the more challenging act of defining the right problem before proceeding to look for solutions.
Before his role at the d-school, Perez was the Director for World Design Capital 2014 at the City of Cape Town, where he was tasked to introduce DT to the organisation. The then executive mayor Patricia de Lille had been a believer of design’s power to solve problems differently.
Perez shares that the biggest misconception among students is that they think DT is a theoretical “thinking” programme when in fact, there is a lot of doing involved. “The biggest hurdle is educating them to see that the real value of design is not the end-artefact or end-service, but the thinking process and activity the designer had to follow to get there,” he adds.
With class sizes capped at 25, students are mentored by coaches where they learn the tools and process of DT through project work. It is through hands-on work that they begin to develop a DT mindset.
This includes learning to be comfortable with working with diverse teams. “Students will find themselves, after graduation, in environments where they need to work in multidisciplinary and multicultural teams. The d-school gives them the opportunity to form such teams in an environment where they are tasked to address complex real-world challenges,” said Perez.
Students on the d-school’s Foundation Programme challenge real world problems with project partners from the non-profit and private sector environment. They test their ideas through building prototypes that are tested with end-users.
The design thinkers also learn to embrace ambiguity and uncertainty (and maybe some chaos), and adopt an iterative fail-and-try-again mindset – all hallmarks of DT. “We teach them to hold the problem space for as long as possible and not rush into solution mode; to build and test prototypes, and allow solutions to emerge over time,” he explains.
As South Africa continues to look for ways to tackle its many pressing challenges, the role of d-school in nurturing a generation of South Africans (from diverse cultures and backgrounds) who see themselves as effective and creative problem solvers cannot be understated.
Advice for Educators
How can we better integrate design thinking into our schools? Richard Perez offers three tips.
- DT is a very intuitive mindset so do not over-complicate it. It should be social and fun.
In order to ground its value, make references to organisations that are using DT very successfully, in ways that are making real impact.
Assure students that DT is not only for “creative” people and work to break down these barriers so that everyone feels they can contribute.