Should design be taught as an entrepreneurial skill?

An ambitious program known as Design for America has spread from Northwestern University to seven more well-known campuses this fall--from Columbia to UCLA--where MBAs and MFAs will explore socially responsible design in the business context (and vice versa)

Only a few years ago, the idea of business-school students collaborating with industrial design students in the classroom, often to create new models of socially responsible businesses, seemed novel. And in the time since, skeptics have wondered whether there was any proof that applying so-called "design thinking" into MBA curricula or addressing economics in MFA studios really would pay off. And was this just a trend at top schools such as Stanford University, which had a rich history of creative student entrepreneurship?

Last week, however, Design for America (DFA), an ambitious academic initiative seeking to apply the creative research-and-development skills of designers to realistic entrepreneurial projects in the healthcare, education, and environmental sectors, finished opening a network of DFA studios at eight well-known schools and their affiliates. The list: Barnard/Columbia; Cornell; Dartmouth; Northwestern; the Rhode Island School of Design/Brown; the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of Oregon, Eugene; and Stanford. That the DFA program has spread from Northwestern, where it began in 2009, cross-country (including Stanford, which already had an established interdisciplinary design program), suggests that for the next generation of young entrepreneurs, design can be seen as a powerful strategic business skill. Or at least it is being taught that way at a growing number of institutions.

While the DFA program isn't part of a formal education at these schools, participating students work on projects guided by faculty and professional mentors, with whom they "co-create" their DFA curriculum. During the academic year, the students specifically address ideas and skills learned in their for-credit classes. During the summer months, they spend six weeks' worth of full-time days making their product and service ideas real in their university-area communities.

It's not just business or design students who participate; psychology or engineering majors, for instance, are welcome. The concept is to cross-pollinate.

Already, Northwestern students who have completed DFA studio work have seen some real-world recognition for their efforts, in terms of funding and partnerships. One DFA project, a teddy bear that students designed as not only a comforting toy for children diagnosed with diabetes, but also a means for practicing giving insulin shots, has received numerous prizes, including a 2011 Dell Social Innovation Competition Fellowship. It is now undergoing user testing in the NorthShore hospital system in the Chicago area. Another Northwestern DFA project, Swipe Sense, offers an efficient hand-cleansing system for doctors and nurses in hospital settings. It has a patent pending and investors.

Will the enthusiasm for teaching design as a key component of an entrepreneur's education--and its opposite, entrepreneurship as a key component of a designer's education--continue to spread to other university classrooms? The founders of DFA, Northwestern professor Liz Gerber and students and faculty at Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering and the Segal Design Institute, think so, as they hope to open 50 DFA campus outposts in the next five years.

In the meantime, here's a video of current students enrolled at the schools that recently opened DFA studios, talking about the program. Yes, it's a promotional video (shot during a summer conference at Northwestern leading up to the newly launched DFA programs). But their statements illustrate how potential leaders of socially responsible businesses consider the role of design as an important skill in their future lives.

Images: Northwestern University/YouTube

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com