Design guru Mark Dziersk, wearing obligatory black, steps to the whiteboard at the front of a class in Northwestern University's engineering design center. He sketches a cartoonlike head of a cat, followed by a rectangle with handles to represent a refrigerator. Then he turns to the class. "Take out some paper," he instructs. "You have 30 seconds to write down 15 ways in which a cat is like a refrigerator."
The students, whose backgrounds are predominantly in technical fields—electrical and mechanical engineers, IT pros, PhDs in chemical engineering, software developers—look a little panicked. Sensing their desperation, Dziersk ups the ante. "I'm coming around, and if you don't get 15, I just might flunk you," he threatens.
Yikes! The clock's ticking, creative paralysis is setting in, papers are blank. Then Dziersk laughs. "Okay," he says, "sort yourselves into teams of three, and we'll try this again." Remarkably, this time, the ideas flow as speedily as the ice machine on a Sub-Zero. "They both hate water." "They can be either black or white." "They purr." "They smell." "They're hard to get rid of."
Dziersk's exercise in the value of a team approach to creativity is this week's appetizer for his class, Essentials of Industrial Design, part of the university's Master of Product Development (MPD) program. As the hour unfolds, these 36 button-downed, short-haired left brainers—not a nose ring in the room—even find their inner thespians, acting out skits demonstrating the emotional appeal of various product ideas. You can almost see the sweat bead on the engineers' foreheads.
And that's just the point. The five-year-old program was created as an out-of-your-comfort-zone hybrid to fill the gap between the finance, marketing, and leadership courses students get in business school and the topics they'd cover—materials selection, specification, and validation—at the university's engineering school. A soupçon of wacky design thinking leavens the innovation process and teaches creative risk taking.
Why do we need this? Basically, because 80% of all new products fail in the marketplace. Walter Herbst is MPD's director and chairman of Herbst LaZar Bell Inc., one of the country's preeminent product-design firms (it did the iconic NFL coaches' headset for
To that end, the program, composed primarily of students who divide their time between MPD and their day jobs at sponsoring companies (
As the class ends, students pick up pads of tracing paper for the next week's assignment, which is to sketch multiple iterations of a product's design. "Remember," Dziersk says cheerily as they file out. "Creativity plus risk gets you the grade."
A version of this article appeared in the May 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.