J. Dontrese Brown, a motivational creative design professional and a former creative director, spoke last Thursday April 2 in the Public Affairs Center about the power of design thinking in building a more innovative world. The talk was titled, “We Are Not Who You Think We Are: Storytellers, Creative Problem Solvers and Drivers of Innovation Through the Power of Design.”
Kai Entrepreneurship Wesleyan (Kai Wes) and the “Innovation Through Design Thinking” student forum collaboratively hosted the talk, which was co-sponsored by the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship.
Brown formerly served as a creative director at Victorinox Swiss Army, where he played a key role in guiding the creative development process for the company. He was also the director of membership and engagement for the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) in Connecticut. He studied and then taught graphic design at Georgetown College in Kentucky, where he was the first student to graduate with a BFA in graphic design.
Brown started his talk by stating the importance of the difference between a design doer and a design thinker. He left Swiss Army because it required him to be a “design doer,” rather than the design thinker he wanted to be. After his departure, he began consulting for a living, which allowed him to help others revolutionize their ways of thinking.
“We are not who you think we are; we are storytellers, problem solvers and drivers of innovation through the power of design,” Brown said. “That is what we do. Now we are talking design thinking. We were so used to being those problem solvers and storytellers to a certain point. Give me a problem, I’ll solve it and then it’s done; now the challenge is thinking beyond that and pushing the envelope a whole lot. Because that’s the way society is going and that’s the way innovation is taking us.”
Brown centered his talk around three questions: What is design thinking? How do we use design thinking? And where is it going?
Brown defined design thinking as having a sense of purpose that helps society.
“Design doing is basically being told what to do, sitting in your studio and thinking linear,” Brown said. “One idea to the next idea to the next idea…. Design thinking is being a hub. Imagine spokes on a wheel, and that you’re that hub, and all those spokes are your ideas. We’re no longer thinking in that linear line that limits us to our solutions. Now we’re thinking of all these other avenues, all these other things based around the project or the problem that we need to solve.”
Brown explained that design thinking consists of four key elements, the first of which is to “define the ‘right’ problem.” This step involves locating the question that needs to be answered. The second element, “create and consider many options,” suggests the method of five versus one, which encourages looking at a problem from five different perspectives as opposed to one for more profound results. Then comes “refine selected directions,” which suggests asking questions until one gets to the core of the issue, and then creating solutions around it. The last element, “pick the winner, execute,” is about testing the prototypes that have been created.
Brown concluded the talk with a quote by Henry Ford: “If we had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
“[Henry Ford] pushed the thought process,” Brown said. “He was already design thinking. He wasn’t thinking about what’s happening right now; he was thinking about what is going to happen years down the road. We’re not going to be on horses in 5, 10, 15 years. That’s what you have to think. Surround yourselves with people who think differently than you, take chances and be aware of your mistakes, and follow the process. But most importantly, find out what the real problem is. ‘How many designers does it take to change a light bulb?’ You have to think, ‘Why the light bulb?’”
Mika Reyes ’17, co-president of Kai Wes and one of the leaders of the student forum ‘Innovation Through Design Thinking,’ explained how the talk fulfills both groups’ mission of promoting diversity in entrepreneurship pursuits on campus.
“First of all, we wanted more people of color on board in our initiatives of Kai Wes,” Reyes said. “Second, the nature of the class or the session is open to all different personas…. Design thinking is something that can be applied to lots of different ways of thinking. Third, design thinking [and] professional graphic designers…are not as frequent on campus, so we’re hoping to contribute to this community a bit more.”
Mia Deng ’17, another leader of the forum, discussed the importance of design thinking to a liberal arts education.
“I think design thinking is the new liberal arts,” Deng said. “It is a package of all the soft skills that Wesleyan is nurturing: communication, teamwork, embracing failures, and working with creativity, which in general is interdisciplinary thinking. It’s also a good channel for us to start with one problem and tap into all of these skills and practice with them. The fact that we as students are already able to design and implement, potentially see tangible results, and see the impact that we can have on our community itself is really valuable.”