“It used to be you went to school and became a graphic designer or an industrial designer, but that’s all changed,” says Doreen Lorenzo. “Now design is about problem solving and critical skills. Long gone is the sole inventor.”
Lorenzo should know–she’s been a leader in the design industry for nearly two decades, serving as president of both the prestigious design firm Frog and the invention platform Quirky (she also writes a column for Co.Design). At the beginning of March, Lorenzo announced that she has taken a position at the University of Texas at Austin to oversee an initiative to integrate design thinking into the curriculum across the university.
As director of the Center for Integrated Design, Lorenzo will work with faculty in fine arts, business, engineering, architecture, and computer science to create a program that will allow students to study design from a multidisciplinary perspective and earn either a certificate or degree. The idea is to encourage students to use the school’s many different resources to learn about design as a problem-solving system, a concept that the professional world has already embraced.
“Business moves fast,” Lorenzo says. “It used to be, you had these 18-month, two-year product cycles–that’s all changed. Now you have rapid innovation, you’re constantly iterating, you’re constantly designing. You almost don’t have time to teach people all the fine nuances, so the more that we can make our students able to jump in and help, the more valuable they are going to be.”
This is something Lorenzo learned first-hand working at Frog, the innovative design and strategy firm behind projects such as Humanitarian Data Exchange and the Kidaptive learning app. During her 16 years there–7 of which she served as the company’s president–Lorenzo saw the company grow from a boutique firm with 50 employees to a global company with 1,000 employees and 11 offices worldwide. She ran Frog as a team-based organization, hiring people with a variety of skill sets and experiences. “What I saw from the design world very early on, from working at Frog, was that you needed to work in a very integrated fashion,” she says. “In order to get a product out the door, you needed different people to come in and work with you.”
Integrated design eventually reached the business world, which today recognizes the importance of problem solving and working across disciplines. Now you can’t sit through a boardroom meeting without hearing the words “design thinking.” “Businesses caught on, everyone’s a software company now–you have to understand software and technology because that’s how you get up to speed,” Lorenzo says. “Academia has slowly been getting up to speed.”
Some integrated design university programs do exist–MIT Media Lab and Stanford’s d.school are two well-respected examples–but they are relatively small. UT-Austin is one of the biggest public universities in the country, so the program will be implemented at a much larger scale. Other programs also tend to be at the graduate level, training students who’ve already had work experience. At UT, Lorenzo will reach students before they enter the workplace, where “design” doesn’t just mean making a product. It might mean solving a human resources issue or operational problem. “If we can give them critical thinking skills and teach them problem solving and how to work cooperatively, they have a better chance at success,” Lorenzo says. “And they have a better chance of finding something they never knew about. They don’t have to wait until graduate school.”