ENGINEERING NEWS

Design Innovation at Northwestern: A Human-centered Endeavor and a Creative Process

For the past 20 years, Northwestern students have used design innovation skills to uncover richer insights that lead to more meaningful products, services, and systems.

Design Innovation: At Northwestern Engineering, students learn to harness non-quantifiable qualities — like empathy and deep human understanding — to solve seemingly unsolvable problems.

To find the real problem behind the perceived problem, sometimes you have to look past the data. 

At Northwestern Engineering, students learn to harness non-quantifiable qualities — like empathy and deep human understanding — to solve seemingly unsolvable problems. 

This concept is called design innovation. And at Northwestern, it's booming.

Design innovation creates value using tools and frameworks such as empathy, visualization, prototyping, and iteration. The process for solving a problem often begins with messy, ambiguous needs, which are examined through immersive observations and interviews. Students learn to identify the right problem, generate many ideas for solving it, iterate on those ideas, and implement the optimal solution.

Ironically, as an approach to solving big problems, design innovation appears smaller, more personalized, more specific, more human. Not only can this human-centered approach identify the underlying issues with the greatest impact and meaning, it can also produce fast, thorough, transformative solutions that have the power to change lives.

“We are coupling the word ‘design’ with ‘innovation’ because we are seeking to innovate in a variety of spaces,” said Greg Holderfield, director of Northwestern’s Segal Design Institute. “But we’re using design-centric tools both to find and frame the problem and idea and iterate solutions.”

For the past 20 years, Northwestern students have used design innovation to uncover richer insights that lead to more meaningful products, services, and systems. By acquiring design innovation skills, students are prepared to bring their ideas to life.

“Innovation is creativity that is implemented,” says Elizabeth Gerber, associate professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Segal Design Cluster. “It could just impact one person’s life. It could impact a thousand people’s lives. But it must influence what we do and how we experience our lives.”