We Design Thinking

Jefferson has developed a world-class reputation for graduating designers with a demonstrated capacity for developing robust solutions for real-world problems.

For a change, let’s start at the end of the story—in fact, three happy endings.

A 4-year-old boy cruises down the sidewalk in his new Lightning McQueen motorized kiddie car, delight in his eyes, a huge grin on his face. His blaze-red vehicle was an off-the-shelf model that had been custom-retrofitted for the child, who has severe neuromotor and developmental deficits and only can walk short distances with a walker. Before, he could neither control the car nor sit comfortably. Now, specially designed modifications enable him to drive it smoothly and safely, with a sense of joyful independence he’d never before experienced.

An avid photographer, who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy type III, a genetic disease that causes lack of motor function, muscle weakness and muscle atrophy, now can easily adjust and maneuver his camera while in his wheelchair. An adjustable camera stand, which was conceptualized and developed by a transdisciplinary team of University students, attaches below the armrest, so it doesn’t impede the chair’s maneuverability, yet can be adjusted for three planes of movement and operated by remote.

Fifth-year architecture students work with a Philadelphia-based architectural firm to envision the future of building skins combining bio-inspired approaches, textile material strategies, and computational design methods and digital fabrication. Their goal is to discover novel materials strategies that address environmental concerns of energy efficiency, scarcity of natural resources, greenhouse gas, recyclability of building systems, and human comfort and well-being.

Here’s where each of these stories started: a concrete problem that directly affected the well-being of real people. Each problem was multifaceted and complex, requiring multiple kinds of knowledge and skills to solve. And each story’s happy ending depended on the skills and creativity of a team of Jefferson designers and their collaborators, employing an approach called “design thinking.”

We’re putting as much emphasis on the thinking as on the designing.

— Michael Leonard

Design thinking is a specific way of approaching problems and solutions. It has come to define a 21st-century approach to all forms of design. And it’s particularly suited to solving multifaceted problems in a complex, changing society.

To understand why requires a quick primer: The design-thinking process employs a series of steps through which designers explicitly define the problem, describe many potential solutions and their impacts, and develop and test concrete ideas; each of these steps is deeply analyzed—and often reiterated—before the designers define and present a clear and compelling solution.

“Design thinking demands that we take a holistic view of challenges—that we put our arms around as many relevant aspects of the human experience as we can and develop ways to connect them for maximum impact,” explains Michael Leonard, dean of Jefferson’s School of Design and Engineering and associate professor of industrial design. “It encourages us to draw on many areas of knowledge and perspectives and to test many options to understand what about them works or doesn’t work in a given situation.”

The result of this process is frequently novel, fresh and innovative. That capacity for driving new thinking and product innovation is one of the process’s major benefits.

Although its intellectual roots go much further back, the term design thinking was coined in the 1960s, and its principles were developed and honed during the succeeding decades and applied in myriad settings. By the early 2000s, corporations began employing design thinking to make their strategic planning and problem-solving exercises more productive and the results more innovative. Design-thinking principles also had become the intellectual foundation for many graduate-level design programs. Jefferson, however, pioneered the use of design thinking as the framework for undergraduate education in the design professions.

It was the intellectual cornerstone for the Design, Engineering and Commerce (DEC) core curriculum launched in 2011—which introduced students to integrative design thinking in their first-year courses. And over the last decade, the University’s design programs have developed a world-class reputation for graduating designers with a demonstrated capacity for developing robust solutions for real-world problems.

So far, so good. But what’s on the mind of every design school dean is the future.

“The challenge is how to keep our design curriculum and teaching methods current with the quickly changing world around us,” Leonard explains. “Technological development is having a staggering impact on economics, communication and culture. And we’re only beginning to understand the changes being driven by global challenges, such as climate change and population migration. Our responsibility as educators is to ensure that the designers we train are fully prepared to address change in its many facets.

“Of course, we’re going to train them in the latest software and technical tools, but that’s the easy part,” he continues. “More challenging is enabling them to intuit unforeseen opportunities that new technology offers. Most challenging is teaching them to anticipate the effects of different kinds of change flowing together—and how to get ahead of the wave it will create.”

The best way to stay ahead of the change wave, Leonard believes, is to seize the power inherent in design thinking.

Illustration of lightbulb

Collaboration and Research

One of design thinking’s central principles is research—broad and deep information gathering. “It is essential to build a multifaceted understanding of the problem and the people who will be affected,” Leonard says. “You have to analyze as much data and as many perspectives as possible from as wide an array of sources as possible. It’s how you confirm—or reshape—your definition of the problem, and it provides raw material from which to build solutions.”

Leonard has conducted decades of hands-on research on the problem of how to create and maintain a world-class design-training program.

He’s been both practicing and teaching design virtually from the moment he finished his own undergraduate training nearly 40 years ago. His multifaceted career has yielded a deep evidence base on the training required for young designers to excel.

In presenting him with the Philadelphia University President’s Award for Excellence in 2011, former Jefferson Chancellor Stephen Spinelli Jr., PhD, observed that Leonard was both one of the best educators and the most experienced industrial designers in the country—and emphasized how inextricably intertwined those facts were.

“I entered the field at a notable time, and my early experiences taught me lessons that I have carried since,” Leonard says. “They inform both my practice and my thinking about design education.”

Indeed, the early 1980s were a difficult period for newly minted designers: The country’s economy lagged, and companies’ resources were strained. But the situation fostered a habit of financial discipline for Leonard—which served him well when he launched his own practice. At the same time, personal computers and other new technologies were just entering the workplace.

“It meant new design tools, lots of new products to design from the ground up, and the chance to work on ergonomics of brand new kinds of machines,” he recalls. “Working with wholly new products made me understand the importance of testing assumptions and the value of getting user feedback throughout the design process.”

And, it drilled home the importance of another fundamental principle of design thinking: collaboration.

Collaboration and research go hand-in-hand. Complex problems only can be addressed by people who have requisite knowledge and experience. Research can address some of that knowledge, but interpreting it often requires specialized skills and experience from a variety of professionals. The more complex a problem, the wider the collaboration must be. The synergy between research and collaboration may be the most important dynamic in the design-thinking process.

That’s why Leonard advises students to “Keep their Velcro out. Be ready to link up with someone in another field to do something new, better, different. Eagerly engage professionals who can broaden the reach of your knowledge and abilities, and vice versa.”

One of design thinking’s central principles is research—broad and deep information gathering.

Design Thinking, Renewed

The world of the 1980s, when Leonard began his career, was vastly different from today. But the challenges young designers faced then—navigating economic and cultural challenges and the impact of new technologies—are parallel to those that emerging designers face now. The key distinctions are today’s hyper-pace of change, the ever-increasing complexity and the 21st-century expectations that students bring into the classroom and studio. But something else has changed in the decades since design thinking became the profession’s central intellectual pillar: The way design thinking itself is viewed and interpreted.

“For too many people, design thinking is being defined in broad conceptual terms, and they end up missing many of its essential components,” Leonard explains. “A multifaceted concept is being reduced to a handful of oversimplified equivalences:

Design Thinking = Quality
Design Thinking = Innovation

“As a result, the term is slowly becoming a buzzword—a rhetorical spice sprinkled on someone’s concept; a way of alluding to sophisticated ideas without actually engaging with them. And the design-thinking process is in danger of being viewed as something passive—a set of plug-and-play ideas or an autopilot mode for developing a successful design.

“But in true design thinking, designers are active. They reach out for ideas, facts and perspectives. They’re continuously engaged in a thoughtful, intentional process.”

Part of the challenge is that society uses words like “innovation” and “quality” indiscriminately. “Designers can’t just call their work innovative and high quality,” Leonard says. “Those are characteristics that customers get to bestow, based on whether and how they use the product you’ve designed.”

In this context, even the word “thinking” is something of a buzzword; people tend to overlook the “thinking” part of design thinking. “Today, when we describe our approach to training designers, we say, ‘We design thinking,’” he notes. “We’re putting as much emphasis on the thinking as on the designing.”

This isn’t merely parsing semantic nuances. Definitions matter. The ways that design-thinking principles and processes are presented directly affects students’ abilities to hit the ground running and to excel.

In practical terms, then, what does “we design thinking” mean?

First, it emphasizes design as a process. The integrative design process has both key steps and a reiterative design nature. What makes design thinking effective is the process of working through all of these steps. Doing so reminds designers where they need to invest intellectual and creative energy.

It highlights the active role they must play. And it asserts that ideas start with gathering information and feedback—encouraging designers to bring their audience into the thinking process and to place themselves in the audience’s vantage point.

“We tell students that the word design is both a noun—that is, a product of their effort—and a verb—the process through which they exert their effort,” Leonard says. “As teachers, we measure our success by how well we help our students engage in design-as-verb. Indeed, we throw them right into the deep end of the pool, immediately asking them to apply their skills through the process. We encourage them to have a ‘dive right in’ attitude. And our goal is that they grow increasingly confident in using the process to guide their skills and to identify where they need to add or enhance skills.

“Our intent with ‘we design thinking’ is to help our emerging designers build the capacity to drive their own lifelong process of gaining knowledge. We want them to recognize that good design changes the way you look at the world, the way you interact with the world. That designing is, in itself, an education. We want to make them hungry for that new knowledge.”

“We design thinking” also is a way to restate what innovation is and to clarify how it comes about.

“Innovation is the result of deep engagement with a problem and with the people who want it solved; it emerges from deep knowledge and a careful analysis of needs and opportunities,” he says. “That’s why we don’t teach our students to be innovative, per se. We help them learn to pull things apart and observe all the relevant factors at work.”

Leonard’s own “7/14/28 Method” for analyzing a product or service is one tool—a simple and effective one—that Jefferson students learn as they master the iterative thinking-through process. It has the designers break down the product’s use into seven steps, then get more granular and identify 14 steps, and again into 28 steps.

The exercise forces designers to understand in great detail how the product is to be used and how its user views each step. Inevitably, the designer learns which are the most important steps, which the most troublesome, which can be superfluous—and whether a wholly different approach might enable the user to accomplish his or her goal faster, better and easier.

“7/14/28 is not rocket science; it doesn’t demand extraordinary creativity,” Leonard muses. “It’s just a small, simple process within a larger process that can drive new insights and effective solutions.”

But it’s exponentially more powerful than throwing buzzwords at the problem. And it’s an elegant example of what Leonard means by “we design thinking.”

The average Jefferson undergraduate design student will have completed eight corporate presentations and worked with dozens of professional designers and corporate staff members.

Leveraging the Context

Context is essential in the design process—and key to Jefferson’s design programs. The unique environment in which the University’s students learn is, in part, a natural extension of its Nexus Learning approach. Nexus Learning is project-based, collaborative, real-world focused and brings industry partners into classrooms in novel ways. Reflecting this approach, Jefferson’s design programs are both more hands-on and collaboration-focused than those of most other design schools.

“From day one, we treat students as professionals,” Leonard says. “That means engaging them in the kind of projects they will be tackling after they graduate.”

The average Jefferson undergraduate design student will have completed eight corporate presentations and worked with dozens of professional designers and corporate staff members.

The design-education context also has been enriched by the Philadelphia University and Thomas Jefferson University integration. The creation of the new Jefferson has provided a unique environment, offering students a novel set of opportunities for applying their skills.

“This is a natural connection, building on clear commonalities between the design and health professions,” Leonard says. “We share a mission: improving the human condition—helping people feel better, be more comfortable, work more effectively. We both are grappling with how best to train professionals to apply specialized knowledge to complex problems; and how to leverage processes—rather than rely wholly on memory, intuition, creativity or individual experience—to achieve optimal results.”

Those commonalities and the shared context mean that—perhaps for the first time—designers will have regular, direct access to the practice of medicine and public health. It gives them ongoing opportunities to assess how healthcare products and services work and to identify potential points of improvement. Moreover, designers and health professionals will be able to offer each other new ways of assessing problems and unique approaches to asking and answering questions.

“I know that our design students can make important contributions to enhancing health care,” he says. “In my experience, most doctors have ideas for new products that could improve care, but they haven’t had easy access to people who can help develop, test and evolve products. And, certainly, patients would be grateful to have designers thinking about ways to make the ‘waiting experience’ more pleasant and productive.

“Overall, the prospect of deeply infusing design thinking—and the ‘we design thinking’ approach—into health professions education and healthcare delivery is creating excitement throughout the institution.”


Ultimately, one of the most important elements of the design-thinking process is the one that appears in parentheses, repeatedly: reflection. It’s another prompt to engage in the thinking part of the designing. It’s a reminder for the designer to consider what he or she sees, hears and feels as information flows back from prototyping and testing and user feedback. And reflection also serves as a continuing reminder that Jefferson’s goal is to foster students’ capacities to excel on both sides of the design-thinking formula: being creative and analytic, proposing solutions and analyzing problems.

Upon his own reflection, Leonard is confident in the University’s approach. Its design students’ extraordinary track record suggests his confidence is well placed. Companies that traditionally employ only designers with a master’s degree are hiring Jefferson bachelor’s degree holders—knowing they have both technical skills and a clear, practical understanding of how to move the design process ahead effectively and expeditiously.

A growing number of organizations are asking to sponsor projects in Jefferson classrooms; and, increasingly, these projects address companies’ most important lines of business and most challenging problems.

“Recently, I sat back and thought about the implications of what we’ve been able to do here,” Leonard says. “We have created one of the largest and most effective ‘idea development’ centers in the United States. From across Jefferson, we have brought together an enormous number of highly trained, creative, engaged professionals—people who can solve problems, address new opportunities and bring novel perspectives to long-running debates.

“Together, we are turning hopes into ideas, ideas into action and action into concrete results.”

Headshot of Michael Leonard
Michael Leonard has played a key role in creating Jefferson's award-winning DEC curriculum and building the University’s industrial design program.

The Full Arc

Michael Leonard earned his BS in industrial design from what’s now Philadelphia’s University of the Arts (UA) in 1980. That same year, he began lecturing on industrial and interior design at UA and, over the next two decades, taught there, and at the Art Institute of Philadelphia and Drexel University. He became an adjunct professor of industrial design at then Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science in 1997 and joined the full-time faculty in 2008.

Along the way, he won half a dozen awards for his teaching, including the Philadelphia University President’s Award for Excellence, which recognized his work in the classroom, commitment to mentoring students and standing as a role model for faculty colleagues. He also was named the inaugural David and Lillian Rea Chair of Design and Engineering—acknowledging his key role in creating the award-winning DEC curriculum and building the University’s industrial design program.

One reason that Leonard’s been such an effective teacher and academic leader is that he rarely paused in his own learning. He holds an MA in education focused on digitally based learning and an MS in higher education focused on project-based design learning.

Leonard’s first professional position was managing product design at Exxon Office Systems. But within two years, he’d launched his own firm and has maintained a private industrial design practice for nearly four decades, turning product concepts into physical reality and making existing products better. He has worked with clients ranging from major manufacturers to biomedical companies to the U.S. Army. And he’s designed a breathtaking array of products: from insulin devices to gaming consoles, bathroom sinks to Sesame Street toys, dental floss dispensers to automated supermarket checkout systems. That body of work has drawn admiring attention and been featured in exhibitions and publications, such as Design World Magazine, Design News, ID Magazine and Popular Science.

, , , , ,
Design and Style, Science and Technology