Innovation & Compassion: The Importance of Design Thinking

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Written by Carla Alexander, Content Writer

Students often face complex challenges. When it comes to topics like mental health, success in the classroom, food insecurity, we may stop ourselves and think: how can these issues ever truly be understood? After all, many universities have been in business for centuries, and these issues are still as prevalent amongst their students as they were decades ago. However, there is a way to approach these ‘wicked’ problems, no matter how difficult they may seem: design thinking. 

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Design thinking forms the foundation of our work at the Innovation Hub. Our methodology involves a “human-centred” approach to student issues — but what does that mean, exactly? What is design thinking, and how can it be used to solve the hard-hitting issues that students face? 

What Is Design Thinking?  

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According to IDEO, Design thinking is an iterative problem-solving process that emphasizes empathy for those who would benefit from the solution: those we may call “users” (but in the case of the Innovation Hub, we call them “students”!). As designers, we can try to solve any issue we like, but how useful will our efforts be if we don’t involve our users in the process of designing innovative possibilities? The users can be included in the process in a variety of ways: by including them in the data-collection process, by seeking out their feedback on the solution, or by seeking out designers who are also users. These methods bolster our empathy for our users: by involving them in the process, we better understand their issues and may land on a solution that will solve their needs, and not the needs we assume they have.  

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Empathy is one of the five steps of design thinking (and arguably the most important!). The other four steps are defining the problem, ideating solutions, prototyping a solution, and testing the solution. That process is then repeated until we’ve achieved our goal, whether it be to engineer a solution or clarify a problem; in the case of the Innovation Hub, our goal is to define the needs of students, give them a voice in their own issues, and take steps towards improving campus life. Design thinking also emphasizes the benefit of failure: by constantly seeking feedback and finding faults in our design, we can improve upon those faults and create a stronger outcome for the communities we work with. 

Yellow Submarines & MRI Machines: Real-Life Examples of Design Thinking 

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Many industries are starting to embrace the benefits of design thinking. One story that every design thinking student learns about is Doug Dietz’s MRI machine: one day, while at a hospital, Doug Dietz, the creator the modern MRI machine, noticed a child crying as they made their way to the scanner. Dietz sought out Stanford’s for help, and learned about the benefits of human-centred design. He sought out help from children, child life specialists, hospital staff and experts from a local children’s museum. With their feedback, he was able to create the “Adventure Scanner”: a MRI machine painted like a storybook, simulating scenes like travelling on a pirate ship or riding through a yellow submarine. By centring children and children’s experts in his design, Dietz was able to create an innovative solution that lessened children’s anxiety and made them more comfortable in a hospital setting! 

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Another example is The Good Kitchen: a Danish meal service for the elderly. In Denmark, over 125,000 elderly individuals rely on government-sponsored meals, and many of them suffer from poor nutrition. The municipality of Holstebro reached out to a design firm, Hatch & Bloom, to improve meal services for seniors. Everybody thought that the solution would be simple — improving the menu — but Hatch & Bloom landed on a solution that offered more flexibility, higher quality, and improved choices. Designers tagged along on food deliveries, interviewed seniors, and sought feedback from the kitchens that provided the meals. They discovered that many seniors felt shame at the idea of government-sponsored meals, and that kitchen staff often felt disconnected from their work. By embracing flexibility, improving meal quality, and offering more choices, Hatch & Bloom were able to remove the stigma that many seniors were suffering from, and were able to embolden kitchen staff to become more creative with their work. 

How Design Thinking Happens at the Innovation Hub 

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So how do these two stories relate to the Innovation Hub? They all used design thinking! The Innovation Hub uses human-centred design thinking to unravel barriers and problems that students face, and offer new possibilities through the steps of design thinking in collaboration with students and community partners. By bringing students into design & research opportunities in higher education, we can design with them and their needs – and be innovative by ensuring that we centre student needs, and build lasting relationships with our communities to inspire change in higher education.

To explore how design thinking happens in our work, we encourage you to visit some of our reports and blog posts, and subscribe to our blog to get weekly insights and updates on our work! You can learn more about the foundations of design thinking, check out IDEO’s website. To read more about the Adventure Scanner and The Good Kitchen, check out This Is Design Thinking’s case studies here and here

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