Huntsman Alumni Magazine

Fall 2010

Business + Design thinking = new course

By Cami Boehme


The word “design” means different things to different people. To some, design is about making things look pretty. To others, it is about making something functional. To a growing number of others, design is much more. Increasingly, design is becoming to be seen as a process that enables individuals and organizations to better define problems, research solutions and create possibilities.

For a group of 90 business students in a new pilot course at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business, design thinking will form the foundation of their learning experience as they explore business concepts and universal and timeless principles that undergird personal and professional success. The course, called Business by Design, is an interdisciplinary approach to giving students an introduction to business. The course will focus on the interdependency of business functions, with the goal of expanding the students’ understanding of business beyond their chosen major or focus.

In his book, A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink suggests that design has “altered the competitive logic of business.” This is in part, he says, because design takes products, processes and services beyond simply what works and turns them into something people love. Referencing research that demonstrates increased profits as well as increased market share, Mr. Pink makes a business case for design thinking as an integral element of the innovation processes that sustain value creation. He also asserts that design impacts all aspects of society, not just business and that “cultivating a design sensibility can make our small planet a better place for us all.”

But does introducing design into a business curriculum really make sense? It does when you embrace the idea that design thinking, unlike the products it often produces, is not tangible — it’s a process. Design unquestionably fits in a business curriculum for Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. He is the author of two new books, The Opposable Mind, and The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage.

“Business people don’t need to understand designers better,” Roger Martin says. “They need to be designers.” He says design, as a process and a way of thinking, provides a sustainable advantage because it creates a culture where an organization finds a constant balance between relying on existing successes and exploring new innovation. It fosters a culture that embraces questioning, challenge and discovery.


Design thinking at its core, is simply a way of looking at the world and a way of improving what is. One entry of an exhibit titled “The Good Design Manifesto” created by Richard Shed, at the Design in London Festival, said it simply with a definition that good design “is finding new places where what we can dream meets what we can make happen.” Another said design “is about improving things … just a little or a lot. The price, the functionality, the desirability or the ease of manufacturing: it doesn’t matter as long as it’s better than the last one.”

In the Business by Design class, students will apply the methodologies and philosophies of design thinking to explore contemporary business issues. Observation, empathy and human-centered design will be integral to the course. An openness to rapid prototyping, and the Stanford Design School philosophy of “fail early and fail often” will help students foster an attitude of collaboration and innovation in their academic experience and their careers.

“When first encountering a mystery, design thinkers have to look at everything, because they don’t yet know what to leave out,” Roger Martin says in The Design of Business.

This fall’s class employs this logic in its very design. An interdisciplinary team of faculty members representing each Huntsman School academic department and Professor Bob Winward from the Caine College of the Arts worked together for over eight months to create concepts and activities that would merge many varied themes into a transformational learning experience. The course design process included visits to Stanford’s Design School and the California College of the Arts and a design thinking seminar hosted by IDEO, a product innovation firm. Students will also interact with professionals from the FranklinCovey Group to better understand principle-centered leadership based on the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

The class itself is a prototype, with instructors encouraging open feedback from students on a daily basis about what works and what does not. Although the class uses design thinking as a foundational framework, it is not a class about design thinking. The course concepts focus on understanding the broad context of business. The class will also discuss analytical rigor, entrepreneurial spirit, ethical leadership and global vision — the four pillars of the Huntsman School — as students foster a greater sense of purpose in designing their own path of discovery that will serve to animate their dreams and aspirations.