Archives For education


I was chatting with my colleague Suzanne recently and she told me about a friend of hers.

Adam is a creative soul. He’s well-read, plays music, cooks elaborate meals, and is highly engaged in arts and culture. He’s an engineer by training, and has worked in senior roles in multiple companies, but he’s frustrated that he hasn’t been able to find the space to be creative at work.

In his late 40s, Adam was musing about going back to get another Master’s degree. But with two kids on their way to college, the idea does not seem feasible financially.

I’ve met a lot of people like Adam who are craving new challenges and new ways of thinking and working. They’re lifelong learners, and they’re interested in amplifying their craft — whether they’re doctors, engineers, designers, researchers, filmmakers, architects. These are motivated leaders who want to stay nimble and sharp, and are finding ways to do it despite their busy schedules.

For this group, there are a number of different offerings. They can take business and design courses at places like General Assembly, or get retraining in technical programs like Udacity’s Nanodegrees. Khan Academy is great for anyone to learn just about anything – from art history to computer science to finance. And for a hit of inspiration, millions of people go to TED Talks.

Traditional higher education is also finding a way to stay relevant to lifelong learners, with online schools like HBX CORe and Stanford’s NovoEd.

Some of the most intriguing opportunities are coming from private sector businesses. For example, the New York Times has announced it will provide communications classes with CIG Education Group. The Economist is also sharing its trove of knowledge through online courses.

With LinkedIn acquiring, we will likely start seeing closer alignment between people learning new skills and companies finding relevant talent.

This is just the beginning. As the breadth and variety of online learning keeps growing, we are exploring this as well, with the launch of IDEO U. We understand that learning has to accommodate people’s lives in a realistic context. We still have much to learn about how best to deliver learning experiences about creativity in an online environment. No doubt there will be more innovation to come in this arena, but we hope many people like Adam will benefit from learning how to unlock their creative potential and sharpen their problem-solving skills.

What are some ways we can create learning experience that fit into people’s lives and serve deep desires, such as being more creative?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)

If You Build It…

March 7, 2014 — Leave a comment


Blocks. Legos. Forts. Kids are natural builders. But most schools don’t offer such hands-on learning. They offer sitting at a desk and listening quietly. That’s a shame, because there’s no better way to learn than by doing. Designer-activist Emily Pilloton gets this idea in a big way.

The founder of Project H, Emily’s dedicated her life to improving K-12 education in America through rigorous training in design thinking, vocational skills, and applied arts and sciences. (The “H” stands for the values at the core of her work: “hearts, hands, and hammers.”) Recently, Emily spoke to me about the two inspirational programs she’s running at Realm Charter School in Berkeley, CA: Camp H and Studio H. Camp H teaches young girls ages 9-12 hands-on design, woodworking, fabrication, and welding skills, while Studio H is a design and build class for 8- to 11-grade students that Emily originally co-founded with Matthew Miller in Bertie, NC. Where literalists see band saws and blow torches, visionaries like Emily and Matthew see these tools’ potential to strengthen kids’ math, design, and visual and abstract thinking skills—and boost their creative confidence.

But don’t just take my word for it. The best way to appreciate Studio H’s potential to transform young minds is to watch the recently released documentary, “If You Build It,” by Patrick Creadon, Christine O’Malley, and Neil Baer. This wonderful movie follows 13 Studio H students in Bertie, NC. Tasked with designing and building a farmers market for their community, “If You Build It” demonstrates how design can give meaning to our lives and shows just how difficult making meaningful change can be. Thankfully—spoiler alert!—their sheer optimism and determination surmounts bureaucratic obstructions and construction challenges.

I left the movie more convinced than ever that a thinking-with-your-hands approach to education provides students with the critical tools they need to build solid futures.

What other education experiments inspire you?

Photo courtesy of “If You Build It.”

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)


Here’s the commencement speech I gave at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Information in 2010. It’s been adapted a bit for length, but my advice to you is the same: start designing your life.

I am a designer and I was trained at an educational institution very different from this. I was trained to play a very specific role as a designer of the products we surround ourselves with.

I was taught to use my skills to create products that are more attractive, easier to use, and more desirable—and I spent the first several years of my career doing exactly that. The only problem was that most of those products were obsolete within a few months or years and most are now occupying landfill.

But I was fortunate. I discovered that I could apply those same design skills to many kinds of problems. Problems that, if solved, might have greater impact on the world. The gulf between what you have learnt here and what you experience over the next thirty or so years likely will be even greater for you than it was for me. There is not much you can do to change that. Perhaps there is something you can do to prepare for it. My friend Dan Pink talks about this problem in his book The Adventures of Johnny Bunko.

He talks about being ‘mindful’ as a strategy for reaching the right balance between actively affecting your future without trying to achieve a futile level of control. I think that mindfulness is at the heart of design, and that’s why I think it is possible to design a life.

I am not going to paint some beautiful detailed picture of a perfect life that you might wish for. Designers sometimes do that. We create a perfect picture of a possible future. We hide it under a metaphorical black cloth and “ta-da!” we pull off the cloth and expect the audience to swoon in wonder. We then expect our clients to go and perfectly execute our vision. And while it may be possible to approach the design of a car or a house that way, it certainly isn’t appropriate when designing one’s life. But I think the principles of design thinking might help you create a life that is more rewarding, interesting, creative, and perhaps more meaningful.

Here are few things you might think about:

Don’t ask what. Ask why.

We have a habit of accepting the challenges that get put in front of us—the latest school assignment, the next business project. Designers have a habit of being awkward on this subject. They ask, why is this even the right question?

They do this because they have learnt there is nothing more frustrating than pouring one’s creativity into doing a great job of answering the wrong question. So invest plenty of time in getting to the right question before you invest your creative energies in finding solutions.

Open your eyes.

We spend most of our lives not noticing the important things. I am sure there are many of us here whose partners regularly accuse us of that! The more familiar we are with a situation the more we take it for granted and in the process miss the opportunity for insight and inspiration, never mind enjoyment.

Good design thinkers observe. Great design thinkers observe the ordinary and in that ordinariness find great insight. Try getting into the habit of stopping once a day to look at an action or an artifact as though you are a detective at a crime scene. Why are manhole covers round? Why do I dress this way to go to work? How do I know how far back to stand from the person in front of me in line? What would it be like to be colorblind?

You will be shocked how inspirational it is to look carefully at mundane things.

Make it visual.

Record your observations and ideas visually, even if it is just a rough sketch or a photo on your phone. Being visual allows us to look at a problem differently than if we rely only on words or numbers.

Pictures put things in context. They show what else is going on. They show the whole idea. Drawing forces you to make decisions about what you want to happen. Don’t worry if you think you can’t draw. Do it anyway.

Build on the ideas of others.

Leonardo da Vinci’s sketch books are full not just of his own ideas but those of other inventors and engineers. He used them as the starting point for his own thinking. Picasso was famous for happily using the work of his fellow painters as genesis for his own masterpieces.

Great ideas evolve. They do not spring fully formed from the minds of geniuses. No matter what your professors might have implied about their own work! Creativity is a social activity and you should feel no hesitancy in standing on the shoulders of others. Just remember to give them credit where it is due.

Demand options.

Just as it is too easy to accept the questions that get put in front of you, so it is far too easy to accept the first solutions you come up with. Design thinkers seek out options, multiple solutions that can compete with each other. Design is a Darwinian process and diversity always creates the strongest ideas. Don’t stop until you have explored at least three ideas you would be excited by.

Balance your portfolio.

One of the most satisfying things about design is that the results are tangible. Something exists at the end of the process that did not exist before. If you chose to apply design thinking to your activities as you go forward then remember to document the process as it unfolds. Preserve those pictures and sketches you use to inspire and create. Keep videos, prototypes, whatever it is that shows how you think.

Assembled as a portfolio, this material will document a process of growth and record the impact of many minds. This will be invaluable not just in the prosaic drumbeat of performance reviews and job interviews, but in your own reflection on your life or when you try to explain to your friends, parents, or perhaps kids, what it is you really do. It is easier to feel proud of your contribution when you have a record of it.

I wish you the best of fortune as you leave here and embark on the task of designing your lives.

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)

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It was good to see a strong focus on education at Davos this year. One session at the Annual Meeting that I particularly enjoyed discussed the addition of creative and artistic education to the traditional STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) agenda. John MaedaCarol BeckerJustine Cassell and Tomas Saraceno made a compelling case for the benefits of cross-fertilization between arts and sciences.

Artist Tomas Saraceno showed an inspiring example of how science can help art achieve its creative goals and, along the way, create new science. Carol Becker, Dean of the School of the Arts at Columbia University, talked about how the arts helps develop, what she calls, the “particularity” of the person. The idea of individuality and unique creative contribution would seem to have a role in both the arts and the sciences.

The overall conclusion from the session was that creativity has an essential role to play in education, whether for the purposes of enhancing technical innovation or for creating well-rounded graduates who can truly contribute to society.

For more thoughts on why design is a perfect lens through which to look at the tensions in education, read my World Economic Forum post here.

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)

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A few months ago education expert Sandy Speicher was kind enough to share her thoughts with me on the question: What’s different when you look at the world ofeducation through the lens of design?

Today I’m proud to share the newly relaunched Design Thinking for Educators toolkit. This toolkit supports teachers in using design thinking tools to become agents of change in their classrooms, schools, and communities by designing more effective curriculum, spaces, tools, and systems. Created in partnership with educators, the toolkit includes real-world classroom experiences and an accompanying workbook to help teachers determine which challenges to address.

Please share this free toolkit with educators in your network, and tell us: What’s your favorite tool in the new Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)