Huebner and Szuhaj: What We Talk About When We Talk About Innovation

A candid discussion on what it means to innovate

by Ben Szuhaj and Julia Huebner | 2/9/18 2:10am

This column was featured in the 2018 Winter Carnival Issue.

JH: Ben, I was thinking — nothing these days seems original.

BS: Oh, you mean how we have a “9th Star Wars” and a 37th “Kidz Bop?”

JH: Only 37? What a shame. But yeah; same goes for tired conversations with the same talking points on campus: the Greek system is problematic; Dartmouth Dining Services is corrupt; Phil Hanlon is an uninspired leader.

BS: Can’t argue with that!

JH: I guess the same goes for the “Design Thinking” class [Engineering Sciences 12] that you’re in, Ben. I’ve seen three terms now of “Design Thinking” projects, and the same solutions keep coming up. For example, the foamcore model roller coasters: I’ve seen the “Olympic” theme every term, sometimes twice per term! Engineering professor Eugene Korsunskiy isn’t bothered by that. He said that the value is in the process of design, not in the deliverable.

BS: I think he’s right. Teaching kids a process that could help them one day to invent or create truly original solutions is important in its own right.

JH: Totally. And I would love to create real, original designs someday. But doesn’t it bother you that this day is not today?

BS: For me, that day is today. Whenever I sit down to write, I get to create something original. Like right now. I bet the sentence “Mauve snails only leave their slime residue in the catacombs of the Galapagos” has never been written.

JH: The more you know! But seriously, is there any utility in creating completely original sentences just for the sake of creating them?

BS: The utility doesn’t rest in the sentences themselves — it rests in the human potential to express ideas in a vocabulary that is truly inexhaustible.

JH: You must be an English major.

BS: Actually, I am!

JH: How did you find yourself in Thayer for this “Design Thinking” course?

BS: “Design Thinking” is one of the courses required for my human-centered design minor. It’s actually pretty typical for English majors to pick up human centered design minors.

JH: Why’s that?

BS: Well, think about it. The tenets are strikingly similar. The process of reading and interpreting a text is similar to that of studying a user in design. The process of writing a paper is similar to solving a design challenge. You are given a prompt to solve within a set of constraints. You need to pay attention to detail, conduct research, prototype, write and rewrite. But above all, when writing or designing, you need to have empathy.

JH: I totally agree. If there’s one takeaway from “Design Thinking,” it’s the importance of empathizing with the user. If you don’t have a firm grasp on the user — their latent and stated needs, their fears, their environment, their societal norms — you’ve got nothing. The best designs are user-facing, user-focused.

BS: Exactly. As a creative writing minor, I feel like I can’t write anything worth a damn without understanding people ­— how they work, think, feel, act, act-out, interact.

JH: I wonder, in 20 years, if human-centered design will just be, well, design. It seems unfathomable that any company or person could create successful non-human-centered products. To some extent, isn’t all design human-centered? Aren’t we all designing for humans, or at least, designing with humans in mind?

BS: Ideally, yes. All design is human-centered. And in a way, all design sort of is. Everything we engineer is engineered to benefit people, or at least some people, but that doesn’t mean that the user experience is as intuitive, delightful or quality-of-life-boosting as it should be.

JH: Yeah. Even though we design with humans in mind, the “human-centered” part, in my opinion, is grounded in empathy. Human-centered design is empathetic design. It’s design that knows the user so well ­— their pain-points, their desires — that the solution seems intuitive or even obvious.

BS: What do you mean?

JH: You know how we joke about how anyone survived before smartphones? Or before Tamagotchis? Take the Walkman, for instance. Of course, in hindsight, the iPod seems like an obvious invention — being able to listen to personal music from anywhere, available on-demand through a virtual music store, is delightful. That was Tony Fadell’s idea. He combined the technology of the MP3 player with a music sales service. No one wanted the iPod until everyone needed it. Now we have a slew of iProducts, Spotify, etc.

BS: Yeah, and honestly, I think that’s what creativity is. Combining two fields, two products, two services that nobody else has thought to combine. Or maybe other people have thought to do it, but you actually have the guts to go and do it. In fact, you could argue that every invention, book, movie — any creative thing really — is just the sum of two, three, four other works similar to it. The iPod? A MP3 Player plus a digital music store. The movie “Alien”? It’s “Jaws” on a spaceship.

JH: And Dartmouth is Harvard in the woods!

BS: You sure you want to draw that comparison?

JH: I’ll plead the Fifth. But honestly; it’s crazy to think that my friends taking human-centered design classes could be the next Fadell. As you know, I’m a teaching assistant for “Design Thinking” this term. The other TAs are a few of the most insightful undergraduate and graduate students from all corners of campus. No wonder everyone is positive — it’s our job to tell our friends that if they dream it, they can design it. Imagine throwing out all the constraints, all the circular logic, all the politics. You can bridge “What Is” and “What Can Be” through just, well, thinking. Most of my own ideas are garbage, but the process is freeing.

BS: Your prototypes might be trash, but so are my first drafts. You have to start working to warm up. That’s something I’ve learned in my creative writing classes: You can’t wait for inspiration to strike before getting to work. The painter Chuck Close says it best: “Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”

JH: That should go on my dorm room wall.

BS: Yeah, it’s Instagrammable. But yeah, I think that’s why, in our “Design Thinking” class, we have to keep daily lists of “Something Beautiful” and “Something Unexpected.” I get our professor’s thinking. We see moments that have the potential to inspire us everyday, but we usually forget or overlook them. Writing down particularly evocative moments in one place is a great way to concentrate the inspiration you’ve been gathering your whole life.

JH: I had a similar experience last spring. I took “Impact Design” [College Course 18], a project-based class in which students designed delightful experiences for elderly couples in the Hanover area. To prepare for class, we were asked to tweet about delightful experiences on a daily basis. I’m looking back through my old “delight Tweets” now: “Impromptu piano on the green!” or “Went for a run with a friend on Friday. 15 mins later, we’re having a mud fight on the bank of the Connecticut.” Let me tell you, Ben: I was annoying as heck last spring. I wouldn’t shut up about delight because my grade depended on noticing it around me — not so much that I resented it, but that it was always in the back of my mind. And because my headspace was oriented to find delight, it was easy for me to notice delight and be delighted. I don’t know a better prescription for happiness.

BS: So you’re saying to be happy I need to tweet more?

JH: Usually, to be happy, I’d suggest to tweet less. But in this case …

BS: I get your point. Focusing on happy things will make you happier. Dwelling on sad things will make you sadder.

JH: And fixating on the Hanover cold will make me colder! Sometimes I wonder why more classes aren’t like “Impact Design,” why more classes don’t feel human-centered.

BS: Realistically, some are and some are not. Ideally, the seminar experience should allow you to communicate your thoughts and listen to your peers and professor, to grow as an intellectual and a person not simply by reading a text, but by discussing it with others, to see their points of view, to agree or disagree, to engage in dialogue.

JH: You mean, what we’re doing right now?

BS: Meta. If I’ve learned anything from Dartmouth, it’s how to engage in constructive dialogue.

JH: I’ll endorse you on LinkedIn for that one.

BS: My deepest gratitude. But to my point. Sure, seminars may be human-centered, but that doesn’t mean all classes need to be. It’s unrealistic to expect intro classes to be intimate and conversation based. And that’s okay. Just because there is value in human-centeredness — in dialogue, in face-to-face interactions, in the intentional and sometimes forced generation and articulation of new ideas — just because there is value in all those things, does not mean there isn’t value in absorbing older, more canonical ideas, whether that be by listening to a professor lecture in Psychology 1 or by reading a biology textbook by yourself.

JH: Oh no. This is beginning to sound like the STEM versus humanities argument.

BS: Maybe … But I don’t think of them as being diametrically opposed. The two overlap.

JH: That’s right. I’ve used ethnography in a creative nonfiction class and creative nonfiction in an engineering class and engineering in my on-campus job. God, that sounds self-serving.

BS: Or a great pitch for the value of the liberal arts!

JH: Aren’t those synonymous?

BS: Says the admissions tour guide.

JH: Kidding aside, you’re right. That is the power of our curriculum. And the human-centeredness of campus — the bonding of Homecoming to the camaraderie of Winter Carnival to the willingness of professors to mentor students — makes Dartmouth, Dartmouth. It’s common knowledge that you “come to Dartmouth for the people.” Maybe that’s the purest form of human-centeredness right there: our everyday experiences — our freestyle conversations made public in The Dartmouth — with each other out here in the woods of New Hampshire

BS: I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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