Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Creative Design for Affordability -- My First True Design!

As I've noted in previous posts, perhaps the biggest reason I feel qualified to write a blog centered around Design Thinking is that I co-founded a course on the subject.  Creative Design for Affordability at Cornell was loosely based around the much-publicized Stanford class "Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability," out of which a number of truly inspiring, potentially world-changing companies have been born.  The company D.light Design sells low-cost lighting products in the developing world:

And Driptech, founded by one of my Net Impact panelists (I recently moderated a panel on affordable design at the Net Impact National Conference), Peter Frykman, sells low-cost drip irrigation systems, mostly in India and China (so far):

When I decided to attend Cornell's Johnson School, it was my dream to bring such a vision to my new institution.  After all, I believed that Cornell had a lot in common with Stanford -- a strong engineering program, a small, intimate business school, and a commitment to sustainability and social change.

Of course, Stanford's d.school was founded by IDEO founder David Kelley and other high-powered professors in Engineering, Business, and the like.  And Silicon Valley is, of course, the world's premiere innovation and entrepreneurship hotbed. 

Starting something something similar in Ithaca, New York should have been a breeze, right?  Wrong.  What I failed to appreciate was what a monumental challenge it would be for a lowly student like myself to start a new class -- even after I'd demonstrated demand for it!

But my classmate, Charles Lo, and I just refused to take no for an answer.  And eventually our doggedness was rewarded. 

*Note:  The course is now in its second year.  I'll make my next posting about how it's changed (hopefully for the better) in its second iteration.

Here is a description of what the class was last year (written by Jenn Li, one of the great Cornell students that is continuing the class into year 2):

Creative Design for Affordability Class Expands the Boundaries of the Traditional MBA Curriculum

By Jennifer Li JGSM '10

Posted: 4/1/09

A passerby strolling through the atrium on the evening of March 11th might have noticed what looked like a class in session. A charismatic lecturer was leading attentive students in a lively discussion. The passerby, however, might have been confused by some of what he saw. For example, large posters covered the walls. Colorful Post-it notes were strewn across these posters haphazardly. Students huddled around tables, working busily with piles of common household items-bubble wrap, binder clips, Play-Doh, and pipe cleaners. The passerby might have wondered, "Where are the spreadsheets? I thought this was a business school!"

The absence of spreadsheets is exactly the effect Jeff Gangemi and Charles Lo worked to achieve. While they come from very different backgrounds (Gangemi is a former BusinessWeek writer and Lo is a Ph.D. biologist), the two second-year Johnson students found common ground in their desire to bring more creativity into the traditional MBA curriculum. Under the tutelage of Johnson School Economics Professor Alan McAdams, Gangemi and Lo have worked for more than a year to start the class, "Creative Design for Affordability" (CDfA).

The concept for the CDfA class sprang from a similar class at the Stanford Institute of Design called Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability. Both classes seek to use the inventive design methodologies used by firms such as Design Continuum and IDEO to design practical and affordable solutions centered on the needs of the user. While the course includes a series of guest lectures to examine the steps involved in new product development, it also enables students to participate in these steps firsthand from inception to implementation.

What the passerby witnessed on the evening of March 11th was a three-hour design workshop led by Daniel Buchner and Gaurav Rohatgi from Design Continuum. Founded in Boston, Design Continuum is a design and innovation consultancy famous for projects such as the Reebok Pump, the Swiffer for Procter & Gamble, and the initial design direction for the MIT Media Lab's $100 Laptop.

Buchner kicked off the workshop by introducing a type of reasoning highly valued by designers: "abductive" thinking. While inductive thinking proves what is through observation and deductive thinking proves what must be through reasoning from principles, "abductive" thinking embraces the concept of what may be. Buchner argued that abductive reasoning is critical to the creative process because it enables designers to think of "what if?" even when they are unable to prove that it "is" or "must be." He also urged the students to doggedly listen to the voice of the customer, in whatever form it takes, and let that voice guide design decisions.

Armed with this crash course in design philosophy, students watched a video showing a typical customer's experience removing a new mobile phone from its packaging and preparing it for use. Then, using insights gleaned from the video, student teams used the bubble wrap, binder clips, Play-Doh, and pipe cleaners to design a prototype for the packaging of that phone that would provide an ideal out-of-the-box experience for the customer. Students quickly gained exposure to both the challenges and rewards of the design process.

In addition to workshops and guest lectures, student teams will be working on a design challenge throughout the semester to provide an affordable solution to an area non-profit and an eco-friendly start-up business. In both cases, the teams will use only easily-accessible, low-tech items to build three successive prototypes that meet the needs of their customer, each one improving on the one before. "Using such simple, common items will allow anyone to successfully engage in the brainstorming and product development process," says Lo, co-founder of the CDfA class.

Some teams will work to develop a bicycle-powered corn grinder for Compos Mentis, an area non-profit farm that teaches life skills to adults with mental illnesses. The remaining teams will work with Comet Skateboards, a local start-up that builds skateboards and apparel with eco-friendly materials. In both instances, the challenge entails developing products that are gentle on the environment and affordable to the consumer or end user.

The uniqueness of the CDfA class has drawn students from across the Cornell Campus, including the graduate schools of business, engineering, sociology, urban planning, public affairs, and biology. Dan Jackson, a second-year student in the Cornell Institute of Public Affairs, says he was attracted to this class because "it's been a while since I've taken a graduate level class that allowed me to be creative, and I wanted to understand the process in which good design is rendered affordable." The multidisciplinary composition of the class enables the teams to incorporate many perspectives into the design process, which is a critical element of Design Continuum's design thinking.

Future guest lecturers include experts in product development and human factors engineering for Kodak, as well as professors from across Cornell University representing Engineering, Industrial and Labor Relations, and Business.


© Copyright 2010 Cornell Business


  1. Hi
    INteresting and exciting stuff !
    I'm wondering if you are using www.sustainableminds.com ?
    It is an extremely powerful tool that should be employed by anyone involved in designing,developing or producing anything.

    please check it out and get back to me. Thanks

  2. Jeffery,
    I am also working on starting a similar course at Northwestern. I would love to get your insights and guidance.

    Please contact me at swapnil.dsp@gmail.com


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