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Design Thinking and Communication: Signature Segal Course Gets a New Name

Two-quarter freshman course merges design and communication instruction to teach a new set of skills

Students in Design Thinking and Communication (formerly Engineering Design and Communication) show off their project, a treadmill for wheelchair athletes

For 15 years, freshmen in the McCormick School of Engineering have completed a foundational course to learn a special kind of problem solving for the design world and the communication skills needed to achieve it. In many business and academic circles, this process is known as “design thinking”: frame a problem, consider solutions, refine, and execute.

Now the course that teaches these skills, formerly known as Engineering Design and Communication (EDC), bears a name that showcases its key outcomes: Design Thinking and Communication.

“When we started teaching design at Northwestern 15 years ago, these were very forward-thinking ideas,” said Bruce Ankenman, co-director of the Design Thinking and Communication program. “Now the term ‘design thinking’ has become commonplace in the business and academic worlds, and people have begun to recognize it as a vital part of the innovation process.”

The new name will keep Design Thinking and Engineering aligned with current terminology in the field, Ankenman said, while preserving a unique feature of the course: the integration of communication instruction with design process.

Offered through the Segal Design Institute in collaboration with the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, Design Thinking and Communication gives freshmen and transfer students the opportunity to work with real clients to solve problems while learning to communicate their designs to a variety of audiences.

Through partnerships with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, students spend the first half of the two-quarter course working with clients with disabilities. For example, student projects have included a device to help someone open a jar with the use of one arm and a pill dispenser for a man without the use of his arms or legs.

In the second quarter, projects address a variety of problems from health care, industry, and education.

Each section of Design Thinking and Communication is co-taught by faculty from McCormick and Weinberg’s Writing Program. “Since communication instruction is thoroughly integrated into the design process, students learn that better communication actually leads to better design,” said Penny Hirsch, co-director of the program from the Writing Program.

Through a collaboration with Northwestern’s Leadership Center, students also take part in an online evaluation process to improve team-working skills.

“Employers expect team-working skills, but rarely are students actually taught how to work in a team environment,” Ankenman said. “Teaching effective team-building, rules of engagement, mediating disagreements — these are fundamental parts of Design Thinking and Communication.”