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Beyond The Whiteboard: Rethinking How Business Schools Teach Design

At Yale, Michael Bierut and Jessica Helfand are teaching tomorrow's executives to think like designers—but also to be better clients.

Beyond The Whiteboard: Rethinking How Business Schools Teach Design

Photos: Steven A Henry/WireImage/Getty Images, Flickr user FontShop

"Design thinking" has become the watchword for an entire generation of MBAs who think that becoming the next Steve Jobs is as easy as a whiteboard filled with disruptive ideation. "This broad definition of design thinking [practiced at many businesses] is a single-faceted cliché of what design really is, and how it can contribute to business," says Pentagram partner Michael Bierut.

Along with his Design Observer colleague Jessica Helfand, Bierut is now joining the faculty at Yale School of Management (Yale SOM) to help teach students a deeper, humbler, and more empathetic approach to business design that goes beyond the usual buzzwords.

And while the duo admit they don't have some "grand unified theory of design" to teach business majors, they outlined their approach to me, explaining why they think design education is increasingly important for business majors—and, well, everyone else, too.

Design Is A Second Language

One way Bierut and Helfand intend on differentiating their approach from other business school design curriculums is by teaching design not as a "step-by-step methodology." Rather, it's more like a second language.

Admittedly, comparing design to a language is sort of cliché. But learning design like you learn a language isn't. The goal, Bierut says, is to teach business majors "to speak about design fluidly, with equal mixtures of humility and confidence, so that it can bring them not only commercial success, but to life itself."

In other words: more humility, more empathy, more understanding, and a hell of a lot less jargon.

Shaping Students To Be Better Clients

A major reason that Bierut and Helfand say they think design should be taught in business schools is because what passes for design thinking in most companies is actually very shallow. "In business, design has become very systemized," Helfand says. She equates some of the techniques that businesses rely on (such as whiteboard brainstorming) as hoary, plug-and-play techniques that are just surface cover for a lack of real understanding about what makes design work.

Down the line, this superficial knowledge of design can cause problems between designers and clients, who are not really speaking the same language, even though they might think they are. A better alternative, Bierut says, is bringing designers into b-school classrooms early—as a way of training their future clients with the goal of "informing a rich, multifaceted view of the way design and business can interact with each other."

Everyone Should Learn About Design—Even Wall Street Bros

It doesn't take a lot to understand why Bierut and Helfand think that design should be taught to MBAs—the fields of design and business intersect all the time. But it's not just business students who should receive a design education, they point out. It's everyone.

Design, Bierut tells me, should be taught like any other subject in a classic humanistic education. It's all about educating what Bierut calls "the whole person," not just a part of them. Whether you're a nurse, a firefighter, or a future day trader or senior VP, Bierut and Helfand think that design is something that can enrich every person, and help them be successful not just in their careers, but in their lives.

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