Q&A Summer 2015

John Berry

by Matthew Makowski
photo by Amanda Pitts

There’s a relatively new buzzword appearing in the worlds of business, nonprofit, design and academia known as “design thinking.”

Academic institutions are striving to incorporate design thinking into their curriculums to provide students with experience in interdisciplinary problem solving, while businesses and nonprofits are seeking graduates with skills that include working on diverse teams to meet real-world needs.

With 40 years of professional design experience working with global manufacturers, international architectural and design firms, art and design colleges and professional associations, John Berry joined Grand Valley last year as director of the Design Thinking Initiative to bring the concepts of design thinking to students, faculty, staff and the West Michigan community.

He was the founder and executive director of Design West Michigan, a design advocacy group that brings together diverse design professionals to advance the recognition of design as a key component of economic growth. Berry also developed the bachelor of fine arts in collaborative design program at Kendall College of Art and Design and spent 16 years as vice president of Corporate Communications at Herman Miller.


GVM: How do you define design thinking?

JB: There’s confusion broadly on what design thinking is because the word “design” gets in the way. People hear the word “design” and they assume automatically it’s about making or building something. The application of design thinking is really a human-centered approach to solving problems and meeting needs using an organized method of defining, observing and considering those impacted. Design thinking is a process and not a formula, and it’s messy. It is comprised of five elements: empathizing, defining, ideating, prototyping and testing. It starts with understanding what the needs are of those you are trying to help.

John Berry

John Berry

The key is empathy and understanding from the very beginning that you need to listen to, get input from, and be open to realizing what you might think is an answer isn’t really the answer. From there it goes into defining the context within which the problem fits and then into wild brainstorming. Ideation is gathering all of these wonderful thoughts that may be just the right answer. Prototyping does not mean necessarily building something, but it might. It also can be prototyping an organizational structure, a process or a storyboard. From there quick ideation occurs so everyone has a shared understanding of what the solution is and then testing ultimately striving toward implementation.

GVM: It sounds like the concepts within design thinking aren’t new, but the actual term “design thinking” seems to have only recently appeared. Where did it originate?

JB: The term “design thinking” didn’t really come about until the mid-2000s. It was and continues to be promoted by the design and innovation consulting firm IDEO, and then more of an acceleration of that as the IDEO founders got involved with Stanford University. Together they developed a program called the “d.school,” which provides the experience of the design thinking process to graduate level students. Businesses are lining up to hire people coming out of that program because they realize that’s the kind of flexibility and creative thinking they need. Innovation, entrepreneurship and collaboration have become the modes that organizations operate.

GVM: Why is design thinking being implemented at Grand Valley and what is the end game of the university’s Design Thinking Initiative?

JB: The end game is to enhance the employability of students by finding ways to provide that design thinking experience. Additionally, faculty and community partners can benefit. One of the goals of our Design Thinking Initiative task force is to make sure the experience is thorough enough so that employers see the value of our students’ design thinking experiences regardless of their specific college. That means getting to a credentialed program. One recent result is the creation of a new class called “Design Thinking to Meet Real World Needs,” which will be offered this fall.

GVM: You mentioned there is a Design Thinking Initiative task force. Who is on that team?

JB: The team consists of five students, five faculty members and five community members representing both businesses and nonprofit organizations. Collectively we’ve looked at why Grand Valley should have this initiative, how it can be implemented, and what the obstacles are in front of implementation.

Four components of design thinking

EMPATHIZE: Understanding the real human needs.

DEFINE: Using empathetic insights to frame a problem, putting the issue in a broader context.

IDEATE: Brainstorming while encouraging wild ideas without fear of judgment.

PROTOTYPE: Either a rough physical approximation of an idea or a quick storyboard, diagram, chart, or other visual representation of an idea.

TEST: Extending an idea into an environment that solicits feedback about the prototypes created.

GVM: What are some of those obstacles facing the Design Thinking Initiative?

JB: Getting to a clear understanding of the words used and what they mean is a major obstacle. We see the need to create a glossary of design thinking terms, and achieving the recognition that design thinking is a process and not a formula are really the biggest challenges. Another obstacle is helping individuals get rid of their fear of making mistakes; and, assuming there’s only one way to solve a problem can be a limiting factor for real innovation. In my experience, you have to be more open-minded.

GVM: What kind of community support has Grand Valley’s Design Thinking Initiative been receiving?

JB: The community support has been overwhelming. I have wonderful statements of value from local employers, including Wolverine World Wide, Herman Miller, Steelcase and Haworth, all expressing interest in Grand Valley students who have design thinking experience. Organizations in the nonprofit world like United Way and Goodwill are also anxious to have Grand Valley work with them. There’s incredibly high interest from the city of Grand Rapids as well. I’ve had conversations with Mayor George Heartwell and City Manager Gregory Sundstrom who are saying they believe strongly in design thinking and think it’s a powerful component to the growth of any municipality.

GVM: In your opinion, what does Grand Valley’s future look like after the implementation of design thinking?

JB: I would hope that Grand Valley is known as a center for creating individuals who have the additional capability and experience to work in this collaborative, open and diverse way. I would love to see some kind of center or hub where students, faculty and the West Michigan community can gain access to the design thinking process and gain value from those experiences. I hope it just becomes ingrained in the processes of the university. I do believe design thinking, when understood, is applicable not only to the way people work, but also how they live and how they interact. It’s a social and professional benefit.


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