IBM Develops A Design Class For Non-Designers

At UT Austin, undergrads from an array of disciplines are learning about design thinking by exploring the same problems IBM is actually working to solve.

IBM Develops A Design Class For Non-Designers
Doreen Lorenzo, Mark Rolston, and Doug Powell. [Photo: courtesy of the author]

In March 2016, Doreen Lorenzo—the former president of both Frog and Quirky, and a columnist for Co.Design—joined the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin. She was charged with spearheading an ambitious approach to design studies across the school. And among “the first people I went to see were my friends at IBM,” she recalls. “Here was this enormous institution down the street from this other enormous institution.”


IBM is indeed an enormous presence in the Austin design community—which itself has boomed as the city has become a tech and creative hub. The company, which has had operations in Austin for 50 years, has made it the headquarters of its design efforts over an array of businesses, employing over 400 designers who work on everything from Watson AI to cloud services to security.

Starting this semester, Lorenzo’s dialog with IBM has resulted in a UT course called “Radical Collaboration.” Part of the university’s new School of Design and Creative Technologies, which Lorenzo leads, the class is taught by IBM designers in their own Austin studio, with the aim of giving UT undergrads an appreciation for the value of design thinking before they even enter the workforce. Lorenzo and IBM distinguished designer Doug Powell talked about the project this week during “Making Design Work For Everyone,” a session which I moderated at IBM in New York during the Fast Company Innovation Festival.

From the start, the goal was to create a design class for non-designers. “If you had come to us and said, ‘We have 25 design students,’ it would have been not a very long conversation,” Powell told Lorenzo as I chatted with them before the festival session. Instead, only three of the inaugural semester’s students are design majors. “The rest are computer science and business and psychology and social sciences,” says Powell.

Instead of heading for a classroom on campus for the Tuesday-night course, students pile into a bus and take a 30-minute trip to IBM, where the challenges they tackle are ones that IBM is actually trying to solve. In fact, the program is a compressed version of a three-month bootcamp that newly hired designers go through at the company.

“These are not sexy projects—they are intentionally not sexy projects,” says Powell of the course’s real-world curriculum. One example: An effort to integrate Internet of Things technology into industrial laundering machines. “It’s a classic IBM problem in the plumbing of the business world,” Powell explains. “These students are out there interviewing the maintenance guy for a hotel chain’s laundry system.”

The fact that IBM designers are in charge adds immeasurably to the experience, says Lorenzo, wryly adding that tenured UT professors don’t always share her enthusiasm for the value of handing classes over to business professionals. “They come in with stress, they come in with problems, they come in with things that are happening,” she says of IBM’s staffers. “The students tell me they love the stories.”


In recent years, the profusion of IBM-trained designers has provided the Austin design scene with “a beautiful pipeline of talented people—hiring has become really, really easy,” says Mark Rolston, cofounder and chief creative officer of Austin design firm Argodesign and another participant in the “Making Design Work for Everyone” session. Now, with IBM’s involvement in the “Radical Collaboration” course, freshly minted graduates in a range of fields will bring some of the company’s perspective with them. Though some may end up working for the company–which recruits more students from UT than from any other school–other organizations could benefit as well.

And Lorenzo emphasizes that the lessons UT is learning from embedding students at IBM could spread to other areas at the school in a big way. “We had 9,000 undergraduates start this past year,” she says. “This moves the needle when you do it right. It’s not only creating the type of employees that businesses need but reinventing education in a way it needs to get reinvented.”

About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.