Design Thinking for the Next Generation

Design thinking is frequently leveraged as a tool for work—you learn the skills and apply them to your job, your projects and, ultimately, your organization. And it’s absolutely great for that! But what if building the skills and mindsets of design thinking could be used for a greater purpose than just creatively solving problems at work?

Working with the Jeannette K. Watson Fellows from the Watson Foundation provided just that opportunity.

Getting to Know the Watson Foundation


So what is the Watson Foundation? It’s one of those organizations that helps boost your faith in humanity’s future. Created by the family of former IBM CEO Thomas Watson, the Watson Foundation has spent nearly half a century helping develop the next generation of humane and effective leaders—and they’re awfully good at it. Among the ranks of Watson Fellows are Oscar-nominated and Tony- and Emmy-winning director Julie Taymor (The Lion King on Broadway, Frida, Across the Universe, and more), US Ambassador to Uganda and Burkina Faso and Assistant Secretary for Global Affairs Jimmy J. Kolker, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and columnist Kai Bird, and… you get the idea. The Watson Foundation turns out folks that change the world for the better.

They offer two fellowship programs: The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship and the Jeannette K. Watson Fellowship. For this project, we specifically worked with the latter. The Jeannette K. Watson Fellowship is a 3-year program for undergraduate students in New York City that offers internships, cultural events and seminars to help students develop their personal and professional potential and expand their vision.

Fresh Ideas For The Freshman 15

So where exactly did we fit in? Well, during their second year, the fellows are tasked with identifying a need in their community and creating and testing solutions—just the kind of project that can use a little creativity! And we got to help them work through their project by teaching them some methods, mindsets and skills of design thinking.

We did that by walking the fellows’ through a shared challenge brief: how can we create a culture of optimal health and wellness on university campuses. As many of us know, college is not necessarily the most healthy period of your life and all of those motivational posters in the dorms turn out to be pretty ineffective. In other words, this brief was no walk in the park and the Fellows were going to need all the creativity they could muster.

So, they spent three days building their design thinking skills and digging up ways to make college campuses healthier. They got out into the field to interview mental health experts and students to learn about the challenges of university life. They also got to test their prototypes and solutions on other students. Basically, they worked through the whole design thinking process to find solutions for this tough problem.

“People do steps from design thinking naturally, but I like that we have a framework now with the whole process that’s been proven to be effective.” – Sarah Franco, JK Watson Fellow, Class of 2017

Design Thinking As A Life Skill

Figuring out how to make universities healthier is a noble goal and the fellows did an amazing job. But the really impressive outcome wasn’t finding ways to fight the Freshman 15—it was the way these students approached learning about design thinking from the get-go.

Lots of people take on design thinking as a process for creatively solving problems within their organization. Students, on the other hand, fall outside the context of a particular job or set of organizational goals. That allows them to learn and leverage design thinking in a different way. Without the constraints of the work setting, they have the space to focus on the principles, attitudes and mindsets of design thinking—not just the process. Coming at it from that direction means the skills are easier to integrate into your day-to-day life—you can apply them all the time without consciously going through the design thinking process. It just becomes part of the way you think!

Of course, none of this is to say that the process isn’t important—it is, and it’s part of what the fellows learned. The exciting thing was that when they had the freedom to really focus on the specific skills of design thinking, the process came to them naturally.


It’s Never Too Early To Start Design Thinking

It was incredible to have the opportunity to work with these bright, motivated fellows and see the impact of an open approach to learning design thinking. Sara Nolfo, Program Manager of the Jeannette K. Watson Fellowship, thought it was a great experience for these gifted students. “The Design Gym facilitated an engaging program that got our fellows thinking and solving problems in ways they didn’t expect. Afterwards they told us they used the process at their internships with great success, getting their supervisors and coworkers involved as well. They also applied what they learned in a great brainstorm session that helped them reflect on their future postgraduate goals and plans, one of the most difficult problems many of us face: What am I going to do in my life?”

We’re proud to have that kind of feedback and at the end of the day, we learned as much from them as they did from us. These fellows will go on to do great things and we can’t wait to see what they do with their new skills!



The Design Gym
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