Design Thinking Workshop Encourages Students to Think Outside the Box

Michael Hendrix, standing at center, talks with Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design students and faculty during the Design Thinking workshop last fall in Vol Walker Hall. The workshop was co-hosted by the Fay Jones School and the Honors College.
All photos by Shelby Wood

Michael Hendrix, standing at center, talks with Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design students and faculty during the Design Thinking workshop last fall in Vol Walker Hall. The workshop was co-hosted by the Fay Jones School and the Honors College.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Imagine a situation. Think of a quirk or need that might exist. Design a product to address that need using the materials at hand — in this case, twigs gathered from Old Main lawn.

This is the basic framework for design thinking taught by Michael Hendrix, a partner at international design firm IDEO, during a two-day workshop for University of Arkansas honors students last fall.

The Design Thinking workshop was co-hosted by the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design and the Honors College, with activities based in Vol Walker Hall. The two schools hope to host a similar collaborative event each year.

Hendrix led students through two separate workshops: Design Fiction, a half-day workshop on Oct. 22 open to Honors College students universitywide, and Designing for People, an in-depth day-and-a-half session on Oct. 22-23 for honors students in the Fay Jones School. Architecture, landscape architecture and interior design students took part.

Hendrix also presented a public lecture on design thinking, "Design and the Priesthood of Black Turtlenecks," on Oct. 24 in Ken and Linda Sue Shollmier Hall.

Design thinking "happens when people use the methodologies and sensibilities of a designer to create solutions for people's needs," Hendrix said. IDEO specializes in human-centered design — an approach that keeps people at the center of the designer's inspiration and motivation.

Hendrix led students in the first workshop through a creative exercise similar to the ones his interdisciplinary team at the IDEO design studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts, engages in weekly.

Students fashioned the twigs they collected into an array of fanciful products, including ear bud clips, a navigational aid, a miniature modem and a dating service for squirrels.

"This might seem a little frivolous, weird and playful — but it's really important, I assure you," Hendrix told the 32 Honors College students who took part. "This is about the mindset important for design thinking versus the methodology."

He encouraged students to get out of their analytical minds and into the creative flow that comes from the subconscious. "Get active. Think with your hands. Think with your body. Iterate. Iterate. Iterate."

Students in the longer workshop tackled a more complicated challenge: How might the U of A campus be served exclusively by human-powered transportation?

Students researched the issue, brainstormed ideas and created prototypes to test their designs, following the four stages of design thinking — inspiration, insight, ideation and implementation.

Hendrix encouraged students to work quickly on their prototypes, and then sent them out onto campus to get feedback from potential consumers. The goal was to eliminate some ideas and refine what was left - or "get to the wrong answer quicker," and so find ideas that work, Hendrix said.

Potential solutions included a network of above-ground tunnels to shelter people from the elements, a zip-line flight onto campus, an elevated bike trail and Woo Pup Sooie, a dog-walking service to encourage pedestrian traffic.

"Embracing the quick, messy model (for making a prototype) turns out to be a good idea," said Evan Hursley, a fifth-year architecture student who worked on the tunnel system dubbed Hamsterdam. "Designing a process versus a building has been interesting. Most of the time we're working with a building in mind."

The design thinking process can be applied to businesses, digital technologies, brands, services and products, Hendrix said. "Once you start to embrace design not only as a skill set but as a thought process, you can apply it more broadly than you thought."

Students in both workshops said they learned from being challenged to think outside the box.

"I've enjoyed the chance to loosen up," said Erin Cox, a third-year landscape architecture student. "Michael's done a really good job of walking us through this, but leaving enough ambiguity that we have to figure it out on our own. It's a good way of learning.

"One thing that's different is the wild ideas. Our teachers push us to be more innovative, but to make that an integral part of brainstorming is different," Cox said. "It becomes a creative adventure without any kind of goal in mind."

Jennifer Webb, associate professor of interior design, said she planned to redesign her next assignment to reflect some of Hendrix's techniques.

"Design thinking is part of what we teach every day," she said. "It is a design tool for reframing the question or problem, for helping us get beneath our assumptions. That's what this workshop does. It speaks not only to problem solving; it speaks to innovation."

Noah Billig, assistant professor of landscape architecture and honors program director for the Fay Jones School, said Hendrix's ideas spoke to students in all three areas of the school - architecture, landscape architecture and interior design.

"We're all designers. We all share those conversations and similar processes. It's useful for all students."


Bettina M. Lehovec, communications writer
Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design

Michelle Parks, director of communications
Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design


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