Designing With a Real Person in Mind

Darpan Bohara '18 prepares to design the perfect notebook in the Interterm Introduction to Design Thinking course.

Never mind a better mousetrap; the students in “Introduction to Design Thinking” were trying to design the perfect notebook.

The 60-minute exercise, done on the very first day of their weeklong Interterm course in Capen Annex, was a rapid immersion in the principles of design thinking—guidelines they would need for even larger design challenges in the (very few) days ahead.

Among the main points:

  • centering design around human needs
  • embracing failure
  • relying on teamwork
  • generating ideas—and then pursuing even better ideas.

Course instructor Zaza Kabayadondo, co-director of Smith’s Design Thinking Initiative, encouraged students to expand their thinking—not only about design, but about their own abilities.

“You don’t have to be an expert in anything to do this,” she said. “You all represent a whole range of disciplines and experiences. Let’s promise to be a community that supports everyone in exploring new ways of thinking and being.”

To design the perfect notebook for a classmate in just one hour, students asked each other questions, defined the needs driving the design, made sketches, built prototypes—and rebuilt them based on feedback.

At one table, Diandra Dillon ’19 was sketching ideas for a notebook for a classmate who said she sometimes has trouble absorbing class lectures.

“How can we freeze time so she can process information?” Dillon pondered aloud.

At another table, Cherylynn Lima ’18 had completely abandoned the idea of a traditional notebook in favor of a digital note-taking pen.

A clock chimed to mark the deadline for each phase of the design process.

“Three minutes left for listing your big ideas,” Kabayadondo warned. “At this point, think triage!”

The soundtrack in Capen Annex alternated between concentrated silence during sketch time and concentrated hubbub, as students discussed their emerging designs with each other.

At a critical point in the exercise, Kabayadondo directed the group to a nearby cart stacked with all types of construction materials. “I suggest life-size prototypes,” she advised them, as students selected pipe cleaners, poster board, duct tape, glue, scissors and other tools to help bring their ideas to life.

After the final bell, Kabayadondo announced that the next class session would start with a show-and-tell of finished notebook prototype designs, which had evolved through interactions with the intended users.

“In this one exercise, you went through the entire design thinking process,” she added. “It’s interesting that nobody’s prototype ended up being the same as their first sketch.”

Students then chose new design thinking challenges they would take up for the remaining days of class—as well as teammates for that task. Prompts included designing for someone who has chosen an unconventional path, someone who wants to overcome a physical challenge, someone with a consuming passion and someone who asks a lot of questions.

To see some of the imaginative prototypes students created for those final challenges, visit the class blog.