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The D.School Treatment and a Harp Lesson

September 20, 2011

Stanford is very proud of its "D.School," the nickname for the much grander-sounding Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford.

The Kool Aid-drinking that goes on when people talk about the D.School is somewhat deserved as I found out today, while undertaking the first day of a two-day "bootcamp" aimed at introducing the members of my Knight Fellowship program as well as around 80 other Stanford fellows in fields as diverse as government, business, environmental studies and healthcare to the principles that underpin "design thinking."

As far as I understand it from a single very intense day of undertaking two projects -- one around re-engineering the process of giving a gift to someone and the other (still ongoing) about finding ways to engage members of the public more deeply in the power and importance of saving money -- design thinking is basically a methodology for getting entrepreneurs to think in more fluid ways about problem-solving. It's a user-focused approach which defines a need according to the experiences and feelings of the target audience for a service or product, rather than the desires of the inventor.

I found the business of talking to people to identify their needs and then distilling the fact-finding interviews into a single compelling point of view relating to an issue that needs to be solved to be a powerful way to go about solving problems on the whole. The fast-pace of the work (we often had just a few minutes to complete a task) was terrific because it forced us to be intuitive and playful, which is exactly what you need when you're developing ideas. I also appreciated the fact that in this process, no idea is too silly. In the space of about 30 minutes from initial user interview to prototype, I managed to build an eccentric "mind reading" helmet out of a deflated inflatable globe, six pipe cleaners, some tin foil, two bulldog clips and a piece of plastic twine, aimed at helping a gift giver know how the recipient of a gift really felt about the gift and the act of receiving it.

What I found less compelling about the D.School way, was the amount of extrapolation that goes on as the design team works to understand the "subtext" that underpins what people on the street tell them in interviews. We spent a sweltering two hours wandering around the Stanford campus in pairs asking people for their stories and feelings about finances in general and savings in particular. Then we tried to figure out the users' most pressing need and why they might have those needs. A lot of guesswork was involved which went beyond the stated facts from our reporting. This made many of us journalists in the room uncomfortable.

I don't think I'm going to drink the D. School Kool Aid to the last drop. (I was considering signing up for a semester-long design thinking course but I think I'll give that a miss.) However, I feel like I learned a great deal in one day and I'm curious to see how things pan out tomorrow when we go on to devise, prototype and test solutions to the overhauling savings question. Hopefully I can apply what I learn on this two-day program to ideas I want to explore in some of my own problem-solving projects.

In other news: I had my first harp lesson yesterday. The teacher, a formidable 89-year-old lady with leathery hands like pterodactyl talons, had me practice opening and closing my fists and fingers like pistons. I got to pluck a few strings. I had fun. The teacher explained the rivalry between the "Salzedo" school of harp playing (which is what she practices) and what she called "The French School." This is confusing because according to Wikipedia, Salzedo was also part of the French School. But the main distinction she drew was that Salzedo had his students play with their elbows up in the air (quite tiring, that methodology turns out to be, though perhaps helpful in terms of generating a really resonant, strong tone) while other methodologies favor players positioning their downwards. I'm excited to continue with my studies -- I'll be practicing on Stanford's two harps when I can. Needles to say, I won't be buying a harp anytime soon.


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