How the Design Studio can be the future of collaboration

By Dominique Narciso 10 September 2015

The inaugural class of the Institute for Design and Public Policy, a first-of-its-kind collaboration between RISD and The Collaboratory, an innovation unit housed in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Photo by: Jo Sittenfield / RISD

In one week, I traveled on an unlikely journey with diplomats, researchers, public servants and entrepreneurs in one of the most prestigious fine arts universities in the world, The Rhode Island School of Design. We were the inaugural class of the Institute for Design and Public Policy, a first-of-its-kind collaboration between RISD and The Collaboratory, an innovation unit housed in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

We were 24 individuals, divided into three multidisciplinary teams of eight — a model used by NASA for innovative thinking. Several weeks prior, we had received our challenge brief, a four-pager giving us context into the democratization of energy. Our goal was to learn the emerging trends in the energy and electricity space, understand the challenges and opportunities for policymakers, identify impacts on citizens globally, and ultimately design a portfolio of 10 policy proposals that could work at multiple levels and with diverse scales.

On Day One, we were introduced to the Design Studio model, both a space and a process for discovering the architecture of a problem and working collaboratively and iteratively on the architecture of possible solutions. Our Design Studio would transform from one wall of sticky notes into a room full of visual drawings, ideas, graphs, photos and innovative solutions addressing our design challenge. None of us were energy experts, but by the end of the week, we definitely became design thinkers.

So, how can you create a Design Studio experience for developing collaborative solutions? Here are some top tips:

1. Step outside of your world.

Everything around you influences the way you think and the way you perceive the world and, therefore, the way you solve problems. To develop new ideas, you need to immerse yourself and your teams in new environments and around different people. Our first two days, we learned from artists, energy experts, a low carbon footprint environmental activist, a passionate anthropologist who studied Darjeeling tea farmers, and two off-the-wall millennial trend seekers. We also did site visits to a windmill test center, Greentown Labs and a military outpost.

Try to change your environment, talk to new people, do field trips and tours, dedicate a “collaborative workspace,” or do something out of the ordinary to get inspired.

2. Learn with childlike openness.

The Design Studio gives you an opportunity to be a student again. Before the institute, we were asked to interview individuals who influence or are affected by the democratization of energy. We spoke to people from all walks of life, expanding our understanding by seeing through another person’s eyes. We took notes, photos and acted like “mini anthropologists.”

You too can be a learner — be curious, ask lots of questions, and really try to understand the problem from another human’s perspective.

3. Get the system in the room.

The global problems we face today — climate change, inequality, food insecurity — are complex, multidimensional and ever changing. As described in the Design Studio, they are “wicked” problems. Collaboration is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. We need cross-sector collaboration with system leaders who can make change happen.

Ask yourself whether you have the right kinds of people in the room. Do they have direct experience with the challenge? Do they bring a unique discipline to the table? Are they open, optimistic and believe that change is possible?

4. Stay at the belly of the problem, for a while.

Many of us who were academically trained in the west have learned linear problem-solving approaches. Design, on the other hand, is about the nonlinear, divergence and convergence, conflict, negative tension and confusion. Basically, unlearning how we traditionally solve problems. Staying at the belly of problem, is about being uncomfortable and not knowing where you will end up. This is probably one of the most challenging aspects of the Design Studio, really sitting with the challenge and asking more questions, digging deeper into the root causes.

Be patient and trust the process. Investing time and space to think allows the problem to be framed better, which directly affects how policies, programs and systems are designed for generations.

5. Design a portfolio of solutions that are achievable and aspirational.

How do you currently generate ideas? Where do these ideas end up? The Design Studio gives you the space to physically put your ideas up on the wall for everyone to see. Designing a range of solutions will require generating ideas from other people’s ideas, building off one another’s energy, and creating something new, novel and different that couldn’t have happened just by keeping your ideas in your head. This is where all the colorful Post-it notes, mini drawings, Sharpie markers and whiteboards come in.

When your team is ready, give them the space and permission to be as creative as possible, to not judge and to be surprised by what happens. Create personas to see if your ideas are functional for diverse users, use current trends and pop culture to spark imaginative thinking, or check out the Design Kit for ideation tools.

6. Have fun and imagine big.

The Design Studio is an iterative, nonlinear, collaborative process. You will not know the answer when you begin. This “not knowing” gives you the opportunity to explore the possibilities and emerge with wildly innovative solutions that come from trusting and going through the process of creation. Optimism plays a huge role here — and having the ability to master the art of possibility helps us design a better future versus extending our past.

Be silly, have fun, think crazy “what if” scenarios, and believe that it is possible. This is the only way we can progress and envision an aspirational future for humanity.

What are you going to do to design a better intervention, product, process or system that puts humans first? I challenge you to think like a designer and step outside your world, be fearless, embrace ambiguity, challenge your own assumptions, learn from others kinds of people and always ask: “How can we design better?” Humans are natural designers and problem solvers, but we must learn to use our collective intelligence and collaborative abilities to bring us closer to the future we aspire to have.

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About the author

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Dominique Narciso

Dominique Narciso is a design thinker and creative leader in international development. She is the founder of AidWell, a startup working to catalyze cross-sector collaboration through an online crowdsourced mapping platform. She previously worked for a range of organizations including the Peace Corps, Social Impact, State Department, and Mercy Corps in community development and social enterprise. She has a master's in foreign service from Georgetown University and a dual bachelor's degree in communication and women's studies from UCLA.


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