SFO: Visiting Stanford d.school

My visit to the Stanford dschool, felt more like a pilgrim than just a visit.  I mean (A) it was felt pretty far and I got a bit lost …literally, and (B) since first learning about it in 2008, I’ve always wanted to go.   It’s been an instrumental part of my career development, in my Toronto/IwB days, in many projects and a key part of my original QMX role.

The school runs weekly tours, and I had stumbled upon a information session for prospective students so I tagged along to that.  The tour started with some improv “yes and..” activity in pairs which is a great ice-breaker and also a perfect demonstration of a dschool process.

It felt great to just see the space in-person and to resolve my curiosity, but I also took away 2 main insights from the tour


The first stop was the foyer, where all students who take classes add their polaroid to the wall.  The guide explained it is purposeful because the school is focussed on the the people not their design products.   It is not about innovation but rather on the innovators

What a subtle but great message! It made me realise why design-thinking falls over at work and in other places where a working culture still has a design focus on output not process.  It is often the object/end product which appears to be driving budgets, success measures, and seems to more valued, more understood or more judged/critiqued.   So if design-thinking process isn’t providing something radical, or not project managing to deliverable output, it can too often be misunderstood or not seen as “valuable”.  I guess that’s why design thinking is often attached to change management or brand management as it only successfully works in the right culture


D.school have written a whole book on the spaces and furniture they use and it really resonates when you see it in person. The book is called Make Space.  Each studio room has a series of movable things and a “reset” reminder that means people always take it back to a clean slate.  This forces the next people to create the spaces they need and want.  It does this to help create flexible areas for collaboration (such as boards on walls) and to also break down the “sage on stage” teacher-student models.  As I reflect on the layout of offices and boardrooms I’ve been in, I can’t say they are always conducive to this.  In fact I would some goes completely against it.

Design- thinking and design innovation makes most sense to me when it moves outside just product thinking to holistic systems thinking, and again the studio furniture is a perfect example of that. Systematic, modular, flexible and personalise-able just like many other design innovations are in tech, furniture, fashion etc




Despite my own shifting relationship with design thinking in my day-to-day job, the visit did remind me of the wonderful energy and hope it has. I don’t think the high energy of great collaborative teams and processes really goes away, and it is in those creative times and spaces I find most rewarding, memorable and still worth finding and fighting for.


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