Easing people’s lives with innovative designs

Students at Stanford University’s design school are taught to forgo computers, solve real-world problems like infant mortality and clubfoot.

Updated: January 12, 2014 12:02:51 am

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

While the projects had different end products, they had a similar starting point: focusing on how to ease people’s lives. 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, the students are taught to forgo computer screens 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 start-ups. 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.

The school has 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. D school is adding full courses and “pop-up” classes, focusing on more narrow problems. The aim is to give students tools to change lives. 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 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 is having students start small, and as they gain “creative confidence” with each success, they can move toward bigger, seemingly intractable problems.

One of D school’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, 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.

This year, Ian Connolly and Jeffrey Yang, D School students, formed a partnership with Miraclefeet, a non-profit 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 expensive, difficult to put on properly, usually an eyesore, which contribute to low compliance rates. So they developed a prototype that consists of two colourful, detachable shoes that clip into a brace and are much easier to put on.

Kothari also said his plans took a new path. Before he took his first D school 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 materialised. Design was always an afterthought.

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