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Mason School Annual Fund

Innovation Thrives in Studio

Students are learning to think beyond the usual boundaries, thanks to a new course, “Sustainability Inspired Innovation and Design,” taught by William & Mary  associate professor Michael G. Luchs of the Mason School of Business.

“The design we’re talking about is Design with a big D,” said Luchs. “It’s understanding people’s needs more deeply by getting customer insights and then coming up with entirely new products and services that meet those needs. That not only benefits the consumer, it benefits the company.”

The course is among the many creative opportunities for learning that are supported by private gifts to the Mason School Annual Fund. It is being taught again this fall. 

Luchs, whose background and training is both as an engineer and a psychologist, sees design thinking as a nexus of the two.

The process involves a lot more than simply coming up with ideas, Luchs said.  It’s working with an interdisciplinary team in a cross-functional way to completely rethink a company’s products and services.

“Our students are learning the tools of collaborative innovation and learning divergent thinking skills,” Luchs said.

By analyzing companies on the basis of four principal categories — people, environment, culture and economy — and coming up with new products or services, students also become comfortable with what Luchs calls “the iterative mindset” used currently by many corporations and businesses.

Iterative mindset, Luchs explained, means being willing and unafraid to take an idea to people, or customers, for feedback. The feedback typically leads to changes and adjustments — or new iterations — of the proposed products and services that eventually are successful in the benefits they bring to consumers and to the companies.

“We’re striving to give our students an accelerated start to their careers by showing them how best-in-class companies define and solve problems,” Luchs said. “This process of design thinking also helps students develop confidence in their creative ability.”

Grace A. Martini ’14, a business and environmental policy double major from Cary, N.C., said she counts Luchs’ course among her favorites at William & Mary.

“It forced me to be creative,” Grace said. “Part of me, despite having a liberal arts education, forgot how to be creative.”

She said the class taught her how to be inventive and solution-oriented, which are valuable skills she can take with her to her jobs beyond graduation. She will be teaching for two years in Memphis, Tenn., with Teach for America before joining Deloitte as a federal human capital consultant in Washington.

Students inspired by the course have created a Design Thinking Club, which has attracted more than 100 members from across campus. With guest speakers and activities, they have explored design thinking in technology, strategic planning and industrial design.   

Luchs’ course is taught in the Mason School’s new Design Studio, which was cited by Bloomberg Businessweek in ranking William & Mary’s undergraduate business program No. 1 in the nation for marketing for 2013. In April 2014, the Mason School’s undergraduate business program was ranked 7th among public universities and 22nd best in the nation overall by Bloomberg Businessweek.

The studio, which looks more like an innovative warehouse space than a traditional classroom, signals to students and visitors alike that fresh and imaginative ideas are not only welcomed, but encouraged.

“I loved teaching before,” Luchs said. “But I really enjoy it when I have a studio and get to do the things we do in there.”

Luchs said design thinking led to the creation of the course and the studio, and funding from a private benefactor helped make it possible.

“We worked with a benefactor to prototype the studio on a very tight budget,” Luchs explained. “We learned from the prototype — including from course evaluations by the students — and the benefactor has followed through with a more significant financial investment once we had proven out the model and the space.

“I think applying that approach has been successful for us,” Luchs continued. “And it might resonate with other donors — strategically giving a smaller gift, seeing some results from it and then following through with something more substantial.”

Already, the next iteration of the design course is being conceived, which may include new courses and programs across campus that apply the design-thinking methodology and mindset.

Two related courses, “Solving Creative Problems” and “Design Thinking for Strategic Advantage,” have been taught in the Design Studio during the past year. Additional courses across campus — and integrated programs that apply the design-thinking methodology and mindset — will continue to be explored in the coming year.

Private gifts from alumni and friends to the Mason School Annual Fund allow the business school to pursue such innovative opportunities as this.

The revolutionary course also has earned national recognition and kudos. In June 2013, Luchs won the nationally coveted Page Prize for Sustainability Issues in Business Curricula from the Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina for the course. The judges specifically noted the truly interdisciplinary approach of blending materials and students from various disciplines to gain broader perspectives. They also cited the course’s hybrid approach of melding traditional classroom instruction with the experimental instruction of the Design Studio.

To Luchs, the award was validation.

“It says we are making the educational experience for students relevant and giving them skills, mindset and attitude that are really going to serve them well out there.”