Thursday, June 28, 2018




T’S SAID THAT A CLASSROOM OF TEACHERS IS A CLASSROOM OF LEARNERS. I work to create a culture in the classes I teach that lives and breathes this idea. Further, we aim for a generative, respectful, and psychologically safe place to learn about and explore the world of creativity with each other. As a great mentor showed me, learning is a partnership.

Design Thinking & High Performing Teams Student Storyboard element — 2018

I teach a diverse group of students. Their backgrounds and majors ranging from Psychology to Chinese. With this in mind, I asked 15 business students, 15 entrepreneurship students, and 10 graduate students to storyboard the learning experience they had over the course of the semester in my design thinking classes. I was asking for 40 takes on Human Centered Design. I received 40 unique journeys. I learned that their perspectives are completely diverse, although sometimes seemingly indistinguishable. “We’re unique by fractions of an inch” as indie music artist Owen puts it. The nuances of our differences are one of the wonderful things we noticed. Giving the students a chance to voice their experiences and their journey was a fascinating look at what design can do for the challenges we face in our lives and in organizations. It also gave us all a chance to reflect in a medium foreign, but fresh, to many students: visually.

With “a classroom of teachers is a classroom of learners” in mind, I asked them to “design their design work” and propose a new ability, method, or mode of Human Centered Design. Perhaps even more importantly, the students had the opportunity to make design their own. The design thinking process, popularly presented: Empathy | Define | Ideate | Prototype | Test, is an awesome introduction and a source of much-needed vocabulary. I realize some cite it’s flaws. However, they can be overcome. That introduction, for many of my students, is a new worldview, not just a process. The pedagogy and approach to design at leading schools like Stanford is changing, shifting to a focus on abilities more than process. I see a similar evolution in practice and through my teaching. We work to answer the question what can you do? Not what do you know? I can prototype ideas, I learn from failure, I can come up with scores of ideas (even bad ones that inform great ones), I can gain empathy, I can define problems, I can use constraints to boost creativity.

So what abilities did they propose as their own? 40 different ideas from “regroup” to “start over”….. and “fail, now what” to “redefine.” I’m working to include their ideas in the next iteration of my course design. However, what I found most interesting, and perhaps not that surprising, is that psychological safety and the dynamic of the team was the secret sauce.

Design Thinking & High Performing Teams Student Storyboard element — 2018

What I learned was to give them autonomy, give them the opportunity to design their design, and to be completely in tune with the psychological safety of the team. It’s really all about psychological safety. If you can foster that, the ideas flow and the innovation is real. Forget about being on task, let the students shoot the breeze. With that, and in their own way, they’ll find a safe place to create the future.

A Prototype of the Course’s Journey Map

Director of External Affairs,
Graduate Programs in Sustainability

Professor of Practice

Jon Clift is an Assistant Professor of Practice with the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Affiliate Professor of Practice at the School of Business, and Director of Outreach for the Sustainability Graduate Programs. He empowers students, colleagues, and clients to explore problems and develop new to the world ideas. After spending nearly a decade in the design field as a creative strategist working with startups to Fortune 100 clients, Jon knows we are all creative, and believes that with grit and a growth mindset we can all unlock our creative confidence.

Jon has developed branding solutions for some of the world’s largest firms from VF Corporation to Walmart, implemented transformative courses and curricula at Wake Forest University, incorporated human-centered design and systems thinking as core competencies in graduate programs, and worked with student teams to develop impactful solutions for entrepreneurs, non-profits, and global corporations.

Jon holds a Masters of Environmental Management in Business & the Environment from Duke University.