School's students focus on how to make lives easier

New York TimesJanuary 5, 2014 

— Akshay Kothari’s first assignment at the – formally known as the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University – was to rethink how people eat ramen noodles. His last assignment led to a news-reading app that was bought by LinkedIn for $90 million.

While the projects had wildly different end products, they both had a similar starting point: focusing on how to make people’s lives easier. And that is a central lesson at the school, which is pushing students to rethink the boundaries for many industries.

At the heart of the school’s courses is developing what David Kelley, one of the school’s founders, calls an empathy muscle. Inside the school’s cavernous space – which seems like a nod to the Silicon Valley garages of lore – the students are taught to forgo computer screens and spreadsheets and focus on people.

So far, that process has worked. In the eight years since the design school opened, students have churned out dozens of innovative products and startups. They have developed original ways to tackle infant mortality, unreliable electricity and malnutrition in the third world, as well as clubfoot, a common congenital deformity that twists a baby’s feet inward and down.

Those successes have made the the envy of universities around the world. Sarah Stein Greenberg, a alumna and managing director, said she received inquiries every week from universities looking to mimic the curriculum.

The school has also become one of the most highly sought destinations at Stanford. Some of the most popular classes get four times as many applicants as there are seats available. To meet the demand, the is adding full courses and “pop-up” classes, which focus on a more narrow problem. “Where Did You Go Olympia Snowe?,” a recent pop-up class, challenged students to solve the seemingly most intractable problem of all: rekindling bipartisanship. Olympia J. Snowe, a former Republican senator of Maine, even made a brief guest appearance.

Kelley, who also started the design firm IDEO, said the goal is to give students – many of them analytically minded – the tools to change lives.

Life’s messy problems

One emphasis is to get students to leave campus and observe people as they deal with life’s messy problems.

That is how Kothari, a mechanical engineering graduate student, started his ramen project. He spent hours at local ramen shops watching and talking to patrons as they inevitably spilled broth and noodles. Together with a group of other students, he built a prototype for a fat straw that would let patrons have their ramen and drink it, too.

The school challenges students to create, tinker and relentlessly test possible solutions on their users – and to repeat that cycle as many times as it takes – until they come up with solutions that people will actually use.

An important element of the school, Kelley said, is having students start small; as they gain what he calls “creative confidence” with each success, they can move toward bigger, seemingly intractable problems. It is not all that different, he said, from teaching someone to play the piano.

One of the’s most highly sought courses is “Design for Extreme Affordability.” Over two quarters, students team up with partners from around the world to tackle their real-world problems. So far, “Extreme” students – as they are called – have completed 90 projects with 27 partners in 19 countries. This year, students will work with partners in Cambodia, India, Nepal, Nicaragua, Senegal and South Africa.

One of Extreme’s more successful projects is Embrace, a low-cost miniature pouch, not unlike a sleeping bag, that helps prevent newborns from developing hypothermia. Embrace’s inventors say the pouch has helped prevent 22,000 infant deaths.

Derailed career plans

This year, students Ian Connolly and Jeffrey Yang formed a partnership with Miraclefeet, a nonprofit based in North Carolina, to design a brace for children with clubfoot for less than $20.

The two spoke with the mothers of children born with clubfoot and discovered that existing braces are prohibitively expensive, difficult to put on properly, and usually an eyesore – which all contribute to low compliance rates.

So they developed a prototype that consists of two colorful, detachable shoes that clip into a brace and are much easier to put on. In August, Yang and Connolly traveled to Brazil to test 30 prototypes until they found one that was a winner. Production is underway, in low volumes; by 2015, the students hope to have manufactured 15,000 braces.

Yang said the project “completely derailed my career plans.” He had planned to pursue a career in academic research. Now he hopes to get a job in product design.

Kothari also said his plans took a new path. Before he took his first course in 2008, he said he spent most of his spare time in front of a computer, brainstorming ideas for websites and mobile apps that never materialized. Design was always an afterthought.

“I had never thought of myself as a designer,” he recalled. “If you needed to crunch some numbers, I was your guy.”

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