We were so excited to visit Stanford’s d.school (Institute of Design at Stanford) in late February and, frankly, it was better than we imagined!
The design thinking approach is at the center of the school, in every sense, with a heavy focus on learning by doing. The school (which is a collaborative program offering a few classes each semester to graduate students from across Stanford) lives in a modest building tucked into the heart of Stanford’s campus. The first thing you notice is the large, all glass garage door that creates a wall of windows and enables a quick conversion to indoor-outdoor space and expansion of the relatively small footprint. Peer through the door and you see a workspace that might be among the most innovative environments in Silicon Valley. The bones and guts of the old building are exposed, floors are clean concrete and the space is largely open, with smaller collaborative workspaces flanking the perimeter walls of the building. Signs of inspiration appear everywhere and studio spaces can easily be created, morphed, and collapsed - everything is on wheels! There are moveable walls (all of which act as whiteboards), rolling table top work surfaces, and all different styles of chairs. In the corner of every room there is a “reset” picture indicating how to ready the space for the next thinkers and problem solvers. In fact, we heard that there is such dedication and care for the space that the school started out with two full time janitorial staff and ended up only needing one because the students are so fastidious about taking care of this unique space!
Students buzz through the building, tinkering over structures and brainstorming solutions with post it notes flying. Collages of group thought processes line the walls - it's like an art studio for ideas and concepts - making it hard to imagine how learning and innovation wouldn’t happen in a space like this. And we were struck by the absence of technology. Apart from individual laptops or cell phones, high tech machines were conspicuously absent. The tools of choice were whiteboards, markers, post its, paper and other arts and crafts materials, being used with glee and great purpose. The collaborative thinking leads the design process here and technology is only introduced (as a tool) once students are past the appropriate phases of iteration and innovation. This is a place where students and faculty prepare to lead and partner with machines - not be led by them!
What can we learn from the d.school? Learning spaces do not need to be incredibly complex or expensive and furniture is a tool that can satisfy the mind and enhance the work. The key is flexibility and fluidity of space, tools and, ultimately, thinking. The d.school is a reminder that while environment matters deeply, it does not need to be high-tech, costly or filled with the latest resources to foster great learning, innovation, and creativity. Ultimately, what matters the most is the kind of learning that the space enables. Foundational principles like creative problem solving, collaboration, grounding the work in relevant, real world contexts, and the notion that failure is not only okay, but encouraged are what makes the d.school so innovative and important.