The following article by Brennen Jensen originally appeared in the fall 2015 issue of Carey Business magazine:
It’s a sunny Thursday afternoon and Richard Best, MBA ’14, is where you can often find him these days – wandering beneath a midtown Baltimore expressway bridge among feral cats, weedy trees, and refuse. It’s a shadowy netherworld where few venture besides vagrants and street artists drawn to spray-painting the blocky cement pillars. Most might find it a grim, dispiriting location.
But Best doesn’t think like most people.
Last year he was among the first students to complete the Design Leadership program, a 20-month, dual-degree program offered by the Johns Hopkins Carey School of Business and the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). He earned both his MBA and a MICA Master of Art degree. So armed, he is now the founder and executive director of Section 1, a nonprofit organization working to create what he calls the “world’s largest urban art park” out of these 3½ acres of scruffy, abandoned urban land.
“It’s a new way of looking at problems, opportunities, and challenges,” says Best, of the Design Leadership program.
Students in this first-of-its-kind (and still only-of-its kind) program divide their time between the two campuses. In the morning, they might be at Harbor East firing up their laptops for business-course stalwarts such as Corporate Finance or Statistical Analysis. Then, come the afternoon, they are across town on the art school campus taking classes such as Creativity and Innovation or Cultural Awareness and Relevance.
It’s an academic marriage that brings together the latest thinking on bedrock business skills and an art school-based immersion in the overarching concept known as “design thinking” – the collaborative, human-centered approach to creative problem solving employed by successful designers and innovators.
“The breadth of business knowledge that an MBA provides, along with the understanding of design thinking, is what’s unique about this program,” notes Mary Somers, Carey associate director of admissions.
“Design thinking” first gained prominence in the tech world some 25 years ago and has increasingly become a buzzword in boardrooms across the globe.
Richard Best’s road to the Design Leadership program began with career burnout. After earning a pair of undergrad engineering degrees and serving four years in the Army doing military intelligence (including a deployment to Afghanistan), Best ended up as a defense contractor working with drones and related technologies.
“WE TAKE DESIGN THINKING AND DESIGN STRATEGY AND BRING IT INTO THE REALLY EARLY PART OF THE DEVELOPMENT OF NEW PRODUCTS AND FEATURES.” MOLLY NEEDELMAN, MBA ’14
“I decided to transition into a career that I was more passionate about and actually added value to the world,” says Best, who also bills himself as a self-trained street artist specializing in murals. “I always loved art, but I also love business, so I found this program, which seemed a good match for my business side and my creative side.”
He discovered the site of his future park, just east of the MICA campus, through friends in the street art scene. It had been hiding in plain sight all along, as tens of thousands of people stream past it every day – overhead on the expressway and on the light rail and Amtrak lines surrounding the tract. To most, save the street artists, it was just another orphaned, urban no-place.
“In the Design Leadership program, we were taught to think about human-value and social-value creation and human-centered design,” Best says. “And here in the center of this very creative community right behind MICA and the Station North Arts District was this derelict space that only a community of artists had found value in. I saw potential to create an immense amount of value for Baltimore and set a precedent in creative place making.”
Best began working on plans for the park while in the program, incorporating it into one of his elective classes. He estimates it will cost as much as $3.5 million to birth the park, which will include performance venues, sections for curated and open-paint street art, and spruced-up green spaces. There’s a lot of designing to come. But right now, Best says, he is utilizing the MBA side of his education: working up budgets, forging partnerships with area stakeholders, negotiating with philanthropies and venture capitalists.
That Best channeled his Design Leadership degrees into an actual arts project, however, should not confuse you about the nature of the program. Though there are some creative, hands-on aspects to the curriculum, Design Leadership students are not formally taught to paint, draw, or sculpt.
“While MICA is a fantastic art school, there are people in the program with no interest in an MFA or an artsy degree,” says Molly Needelman, who graduated with Best in 2014. “What we’re doing is a little bit different.”
Needelman has landed an enviable job at Google in the glittery San Bruno, California, headquarters of its YouTube property. She’s a user experience strategist. “We take design thinking and design strategy and bring it into the really early part of the development of new products and features,” she says. (She can’t say much more than that about her work for the tech giant, though it might show up on our sundry screens in the next few years.)
Reimagining Venture Capital
Elizabeth Galbut, who graduated from the second Design Leadership class (of 2015), is taking her experiences in still another direction – as a venture capitalist in Manhattan. She’s a founding partner of SoGal Ventures, the first female-led millennial venture capital firm for emerging diverse entrepreneurs in the U.S. and Asia. (She’s already made a splash, as she was invited to participate in the 2015 Forbes Women’s Summit, an exclusive annual gathering of 250 notable women leaders.)
“Currently, only 6 percent of venture capitalists are women, and the amount of venture capital that goes to women-run companies is extremely low,” Galbut says. “So I’m using design thinking to reimagine what the venture capital industry will look like in the future. What’s more, any start-up that is successful is going to have to have good design. So as a venture capitalist, it will be extremely valuable to bring my design expertise to these companies and help ensure that my funds gets higher-than-average returns.”
“JUST HAVING A GREEN, GRASSY FIELD AND A BENCH NO LONGER SEEMS RELEVANT. HOW DO WE CREATE OPEN PUBLIC SPACE DESIGNED TO HAVE CREATIVE DISPLAYS AND TO CELEBRATE WHAT THE LOCAL COMMUNITY IS ABOUT?” RICHARD BEST, MBA ’14
While at Carey, Galbut founded A-Level Capital, a student-led venture capital firm powered by JHU students. Over the next five years, the group plans to invest in up to 80 start-ups hatched by Johns Hopkins students and young alumni.
Another potential point of confusion about what exactly the Design Leadership program is or does: the word “design” itself. When it pops up, you might immediately think fashion design, interior design, graphic design. But design can be much bigger than mere aesthetic concerns – or hem lengths, paint chips, and font sizes.
“You have to think about systems being designed,” Needelman says. “Health care reform has been designed. Cities are designed. Your experience when you go through an airport has been designed. Everything around you that’s been touched by people has been designed – whether poorly or well.”
Among the pioneers in “design thinking” is the design and innovation firm IDEO, in Palo Alto, California (whose founder, David Kelley, created Apple’s first mouse, among other now-iconic items). Design innovation, it’s said, has a sweet spot – the overlap among three essential components of a successful solution: desirability (something people want), feasibility (something technically possible), and viability (something that makes economic and business sense).
Explore, Make, Critique
How do you teach design thinking – to position people to grasp opportunities and develop innovative solutions and ideas? Well, there is no hard-and-fast toolbox, because design thinking eschews such limitations. But David Gracyalny, MICA’s Vice Provost for Professional and Continuing Studies, does say design thinking has three broad components: exploring, making, and critiquing.
Students in the program work on a variety of real-world problems and challenges. They’ve helped local sealant and adhesive giant DAP come up with new consumer-driven products, pondered new ways for the hoary U.S. Post Office to function, and explored strategies to improve the shopping experience at the city’s Lexington Market.
The first step is to drill down deep into the problem itself. “I think a big thing that design thinking encourages people to do is to spend a lot of time asking the right questions and exploring the problem,” Needelman says. “It’s like what Einstein said: ‘If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.’”
This can involve research and interviews, collecting data, and examining any social, economic, political, or cultural issues. But there is still a place for hunches and conventional wisdom to go into the mix as well. “Students also work collaboratively through multidisciplinary teams that allow students to think through topics across domains,” says Gracyalny. “These approaches open the discussion to a more novel analysis of the problems structure.”
For Best, the exploring phase led him to realize he wasn’t just designing another city park. He was reimagining how parks might look and function in the 21st century.
“Just having a green, grassy field and a bench no longer seems relevant,” Best says. “It’s sterile and does not encourage discourse or force people to come together. How do we create open public space designed to have creative displays and to celebrate what the local community is about?”
The “making” component of the process, perhaps best exemplified by the Prototyping class, presents hands-on opportunities to physically create manifestations of ideas. It’s the program at its most “artsy.” It might involve cobbling something together with paper and glue or taking full advantage of MICA’s advanced facilities, such as 3D printing and laser cutting tools.
“It was really the first time I learned how to build something with my hands,” says Galbut. “With consulting work, you build these huge strategies that a company has to implement, but you’re not actually building the thing itself with your hands. It was meaningful for me to learn the process of actually creating and designing a product and then being able to build your own prototype.”
‘Tolerance For Failure’
Often this means building several different versions of a given design – going back to the drawing board again and again. “Tolerance for failure is key to this process, encouraging multiple iterations of a concept,” Gracyalny says. “This tolerance allows for better and more fully realized solutions to emerge from the process and also develops student capacity for perseverance.”
“I’M USING DESIGN THINKING TO REIMAGINE WHAT THE VENTURE CAPITAL INDUSTRY WILL LOOK LIKE IN THE FUTURE. ANY START-UP THAT
IS SUCCESSFUL IS GOING TO HAVE TO HAVE GOOD DESIGN.”ELIZABETH GALBUT, MBA ’15
And finally there is critiquing. Presenting your ideas to other people and hearing their feedback.
“You have to take some brutal critiques through the process,” says Waves Mowatt-Kane, another graduate from the program’s first cohort. “You might think your design is fantastic, and then when you get in front of an audience they aren’t seeing at all what you intended, but it really can be an ‘Aha’ moment. You just can’t be married to your first iteration.”
Mowatt-Kane came to the program with an undergrad marketing degree and years of experience in the tech industry, including at AOL. Since graduating, she’s been the program director for customer experience at Amtrak. One of her current tasks in this role, she says, is to unify all of the passenger railroad company’s digital channels – ticket kiosks, websites, and mobile offerings – to make them seamlessly integrated and focused on customer needs.
“Our goal is not to just implement another software program – it is more than that,” she says. “We want to combine qualitative and quantitative research.”
A traditional approach to this task might have begun and ended with examining the existing data analytics. When did a high percentage of people drop out of the online purchase path? What items did they click or not click on? What pages did they skip? What sort of program patches can be made to fix these perceived areas of complication?
“As part of a design-thinking approach, however, we will ride on trains, and we will be in the stations doing observations,”
“YOU HAVE TO TAKE SOME BRUTAL CRITIQUES THROUGH THE PROCESS. YOU MIGHT THINK YOUR DESIGN IS FANTASTIC, AND THEN WHEN YOU GET IN FRONT OF AN AUDIENCE THEY AREN’T SEEING AT ALL WHAT YOU INTENDED.”WAVES MOWATT-KANE, MBA ’14
Interest in the program continues to grow. There are 20 students in Ball’s class, up from 13 in the charter class. It’s worth noting that Design Leadership students take their MBA classes amid the greater Carey student body, but while at MICA, they take classes together as a cohort.
Carey’s Mary Somers says she is delighted that interest keeps climbing, and she anticipates increasing enrollments each year, perhaps even leading to two cohorts of 20 students. While a growing number of schools are teaching design thinking, the Carey/MICA partnership remains the only one leading to both an MBA and an MA.
“We want people to not only solve problems in these creative ways using design thinking but also to have a very strong business foundation so they can understand an organization’s financials, they can create strong and clean budgets, and they understand marketing,” Somers says.
And there’s more to the leadership piece than just gaining the business skills necessary to assume positions in management.
“Everybody likes to think of Thomas Edison as some solitary genius, but if you know the true history, he was in this place, Menlo Park, filled with other brilliant minds that he could tap into,” says Gracyalny. “He was highly collaborative, even though he was leading them. Steve Jobs might be another great example of this.”
“There might be people in our program who will go out and feel they are that singular genius,” he adds. “But knowing how to put teams together and collaborate – that’s going to be the key to success.”