I am new to Smith College, and the story I am about to tell describes one of my first wintry October mornings in Northampton.
It was a morning like no other. My ears prickled from the cold. My inadequate windbreaker felt “broken” in the wind. As I trekked from the parking garage to my office in Neilson Library, I sensed something sugary close-by. To my right, smack outside Pierce Hall, was an elaborate table spread. Yes, I was right about the distinctive smell of sugar in the cold air. Donuts! I walked over and joined the small group that had instantly formed at 9am, summoned by the spread of donuts, hot cider, and perfectly round red apples.
I lingered a while, savoring the sugar crystals and the chance to meet new colleagues. The librarians introduced themselves to me. We talked about the library redesign project and about exploring collaborations. Sweet! I thought—not only to the taste of fried dough, but also to the smooth making of connections that the table of donuts was facilitating. Then I heard a sarcastic, triumphant quip from behind, “Look…Design Thinking!”
I turned around, game-face on, but it wasn’t me the voice was addressing. The jokester was pointing, with flourish, to his balancing act of an apple balanced on a donut balanced on the rim of a tall steaming cider cup.
I laughed awkwardly and I said, “Oh, I thought you meant me.” One of the librarians deftly explained, “Zaza’s the new co-director of the Design Thinking Initiative.”
I have since had the chance to work with the cold morning jokester, and he’s proven to be untiring in his helpfulness. I thank him for the prodding that inspires this entry, and that opens opportunity to clarify what design thinking is and isn’t to me.
This wouldn’t be the last time I fielded questions or comments about design thinking. When I introduce myself, often people ask, “Tell me in PLAIN.SIMPLE. words what design thinking means.”
Put simply, design thinking means being able to look at a question analytically, systematically, at the same time that you can picture how the question could be reframed or turned on its head. Shifting from “What is?” to “What if?” and back again.
Here’s an example: The library redesign project starts with the question, “What should the new Smith Library look like?” To address it, you must ask countless new questions: Well…What is a library? What ought you be able to do there? What if we allowed new things to happen here? What is Smith? Who are we? What is unique about us? Who do we want to be 25 years from now? The library redesign project makes the process of design more immediate to people, more obvious in how it can disrupt everyday routines but also create new connections.
At the root of design you will find planning and action, intentionality, conventions and the breaking of conventions. In the media, there is a lot of excitement about design thinking because it can be activated in business to create profit, to open unexplored niche markets, to invent new needs. I choose to co-opt that easy pairing of design thinking with capitalist exploitation of markets, and ask instead: How can design thinking be used for reform, for creating more sustainable and equitable social systems? Activated the right way, design thinking can transform the relationships people have to power, infrastructure, and municipal or national authority.
The Design Thinking Initiative is an invitation for all at Smith to take initiative in questioning what spaces, what objects, what narratives, what experiences can serve as sites for intellectual inquiry. Just as you may open a book and expect a certain level of intellectual engagement, adopting a design thinking mindset means looking at anything that has been human-built as a site for intellectual play, as a space where you can engage your curiosity.
Let’s apply that curiosity to the classroom, to our meetings and to the ways our committees run, to the curriculum and to other sites where learning is happening.
For an institution, design thinking is an opportunity for self-reflection, and a moment of self-transformation, a moment of morphing into a different version of ourselves.
As the new co-director, I invite you to join in, to take initiative. I invite you to add your comments to this conversation below.