Six people stand in front of Founders Brewing Company

Crafting Collaboration

Design thinking class partners with Founders Brewing Co.

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What started as a casual conversation over beers morphed into a collaboration between a Grand Valley class and one of the nation’s largest breweries.

In March, Founders Brewing Co. introduced its limited release “Old Fashioned” beer, which was created in partnership with Darien Ripple’s design thinking class over three semesters.

This beer marks the first time in Founders’ history that an outside group constructed a marketing plan and had a hand in choosing ingredients for a beer. 

Liz Wonder, sustainability coordinator at Founders and a 2013 Grand Valley graduate, said the idea was born as she and Ripple discussed sustainability within academia and the brewing industry. “It started really casually, we just wanted to see what was possible,” said Wonder. “Three semesters later, here we are.” 

Ripple, an associate professor of integrative, religious and cultural studies, guided his class through applying the human-centered principles of design thinking when developing pitches for Founders’ leaders in spring 2020. 

“These students have gone through the whole design thinking process, from empathy to ideation to putting out a final product,” said Ripple.

Ashley Savage, a senior in Ripple’s class, noted that the design thinking process can be a test of patience. “The design thinking process doesn’t happen overnight,” said Savage. “With that being said, it has been a very rewarding project and I have learned a lot over the past year when it comes to understanding myself and how to collaborate effectively.”

A black and white photo of the founders brewing company
Stacks of founders beer cans

After presenting numerous ideas to executives from Founders, the class began to dive into analyzing marketing, finance and sustainability aspects of product development.

Wonder described the process the students experienced as a realistic yet condensed version of what the Founders team does when developing their release schedule. “The students took our process and just went for it,” said Wonder.

The idea behind the Old Fashioned branding included a focus on the timeless, Michigan-made roots of the product, including selecting sustainably sourced ingredients. The beer includes locally grown cherries, plus a type of hops with a citrus-like flavor. This allowed Founders to skip shipping fruits from elsewhere in the country, saving on emissions.

The beer’s marketing plan also included sustainability-oriented measures. A QR code was shared in Founders’ taproom that consumers could scan to learn more about the Old Fashioned project, where the aging barrels came from and the origins of the Michigan-grown ingredients. 

“Did they come into it with a sustainability mindset? Maybe not,” said Wonder. “But they’re coming out of this project with a better understanding of the scope of industry sustainability.” 

Students in the design thinking class came from a variety of majors, including engineering, marketing, economics and integrative studies. Ripple said this range of backgrounds, combined with the unique methodologies in the course, has given students real-world experiences they can carry into their future pursuits. 

“Picture being a 21-year-old who is a junior at Grand Valley, and one day you’re meeting with the CEO of Founders and the next week you’re talking to the vice president of finance or director of marketing,” said Ripple. “That is a powerful mentorship experience for these students.”

Ripple is already looking into another collaboration for Fall 2021, saying he wants to continue finding real-world projects for students to engage in to better understand the design thinking process.