Monday, March 28, 2016


Design Thinking is important to creating a sustainable world.


ESIGN THINKING is a field that uses designer’s sensibilities and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and viable to create innovations. Designers use all sorts of methods to empathize with people, to create definitions of problems, create prototypes for improvement, and for gaining feedback from those who will use the products of the designers.

One exciting design trend is to mimic nature to take advantage of the millions of years of R&D that nature has conducted. This technique is called biomimicry. Consider how to improve a water turbine. This shows how studying a snail and leaf can help designers create a water turbine that reduces energy by 85% and noise by 75%.

There are ways you can learn about design thinking. Wake Forest University’s Charlotte Center offers a certificate program called Design Thinking for innovative Business Problem Solving. The program includes six sessions during which participants learn about design thinking, its methods, and hear from experts about their use of this important way of thinking. The program includes a jazz band (to discuss collaboration), artist (to talk about presenting information visually), a theater director (to discuss how to make a play compelling), and a designer (to talk about prototyping).

This way of thinking can be applied to new products, services, processes and even becomes a way of doing business. For example, we can find ways to improve the ways in which we work by looking for more user-friendly environments. The designers would observe how people interact at work and attempt to discover ways that work environments could be more appealing, productive, and where people use less resources that deplete the earth’s natural capital.

Two methods I like are looking at a situation and asking questions of “what?” “where?” “who?” “when?” “how?” “how much?” and “why?” These observational questions can lead to understanding about a situation — for example, a work situation. Using this lens to observe work can then be followed with interviews of workers. All of the time the designer is looking for ways to create desirable, feasible, viable and sustainable ways of improving work situations. Another method is develop prototypes of the intended innovations. These prototypes could be physical products, flow-diagrams or even a small skit to portray the intended improvement. Prototypes are then presented to clients and users for their feedback. In fact, every innovation can be considered a prototype — something that can be continuously improved.

Lest you think this is a fad, consider that many large organizations have embraced design thinking. Among the firms most involved are Pepsi,SiemensProcter and GambleKaiser PermanenteIBM, and many more. Design firms such as IDEO and Continuum are becoming corporate consulting. IDEO even help to set up at Stanford University. This “school” involves students from business, engineering and art and architecture who work on problems using design thinking. The University of Toronto Rotman School of Business uses design thinking as the basis of its MBA program.

We include this way of thinking in our MA in Sustainability program. Find out more about our program!

Article by:

Daniel S. Fogel, Sustainability Graduate Programs Director

Graduate Research Professor in Sustainability

Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability

Wake Forest University

1834 Wake Forest Road, Winston-Salem NC 27106


Dr. Fogel specializes in strategic management, especially innovation processes in firms, including those located in emerging and transition economies and in emerging industries. His research and teaching interest are on sustainability practices and principles, international business and strategy development, and innovation for large organizations. He has worked extensively as a consultant nationally and internationally for diverse organizations, such General Electric, Motorola (Brazil), Lockheed Martin, Lucent (Brazil), TESS (Brazil), AT&T and Bank of America. His awards include research grants, several teacher of the year awards, a Fulbright Scholarship to Brazil, the 1988 Winner of the Yoder-Heneman Award, and several times the Distinguished Professor Awards.