A Closer Look: Design School

Design School 1From her perch on a counter in a second-floor classroom of Sawyer Library, Pamela Mishkin ’16 draws four buckets on a dry-erase board. She, Matt LaRose ’16 and Chris Owyang ’16 (all pictured, above) are explaining how they’d redesign the college’s online course catalog, which is clunky and difficult to navigate.

It’s the second week of Design School, a new Winter Study course taught by math professor Satyan Devadoss and Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) Class of 1956 Director Christina Olsen. Based on the famous Stanford Design Program, the course synthesizes “classical academics with Silicon Valley technology and a startup culture,” giving 15 students four weeks to tackle large-scale problems at the college using a process called design thinking.

Design thinking begins with empathy—“spending a lot of time understanding people’s needs through observation, immersion and interviewing,” says Eugene Korsunskiy ’08, a graduate of the Stanford Design Program and former lecturer there. Now coordinator of design initiatives at the University of Vermont, he visited the Winter Study class in early January to share his insight.

The students first practiced design thinking on small projects. One assignment was to improve the experience for people who eat alone in the dining halls. Students rearranged tables at Mission, placed prototype book holders at some of the tables and then watched what happened for five hours. For another project, a group created in the basement of Paresky a grocery store that they stocked with fake groceries. Visitors were invited to share feedback. (Items like toothpaste turned out to be highly desired.) The data students collected for both projects helped them brainstorm and reshape their ideas.

They then moved on to larger problems, like the course catalog. Unlike the current one, where search functionality is limited and results are listed alphabetically, the students’ proposal is based on weighted keywords. So a search of the word “art” would yield a list of results topped by courses in the art department, followed by those that include the word “art” multiple times in their descriptions.

“The search is creating the space for you to explore,” Mishkin says.

The course catalog project will be the basis for real-life changes at Williams. Mishkin and LaRose, Devadoss’ research assistants, have been working on the catalog redesign since early October. In the spring Devadoss will present their best ideas—refined by their work in Design School—to an ad-hoc committee he chairs that’s part of the college’s Committee on Educational Policy. The plan is for changes to be in place before registration opens for the fall semester.

Other Design School projects—such as rethinking Lasell Gym and the entrance to WCMA and its Rose Study Gallery to improve visitors’ experiences—may also have wider potential than just teaching design thinking. “The museum projects, too, could really happen,” Devadoss says. “This is a real process—and they have the ear of the director. You can’t ask for more.”

—Francesca Shanks