New School of Design Thinking aims to change mindsets

15 February 2016 | Story Yusuf Omar. Photo Michael Hammond.
Richard Perez is the founding director of the UCT design thinking school, which aims to instill a culture of using design thinking to tackle social problems.
Richard Perez is the founding director of the UCT design thinking school, which aims to instill a culture of using design thinking to tackle social problems.

With boot camps and training programmes, UCT's new School of Design Thinking aims to instill a mindset of finding innovative ways to solve real-world problems.

The new UCT School of Design Thinking, which is being launched in the first quarter of 2016, promises to equip students with the ability to think laterally when tackling social problems and real-world challenges.

“Students will be trained to become effective problem solvers,” says Richard Perez, the school's founding director.

The first pilot, for postgraduate students from UCT, will begin on 8 March. The initial 30 students are from a range of academic backgrounds and will spend two full days a week for 10 weeks completing the course.

More pilot programmes will be introduced during the course of the year, including short design-thinking bootcamps, training programmes for postgraduate students, introductory courses and open days for undergraduate students, and executive training.

The 'design thinking' school will also be partnering with other UCT entities to offer exposure to design thinking and design-led innovation.

“The school's overall objective is to promote design thinking as an enabler of innovation and new outcomes that can meet the needs of users in complex socio-political and economic contexts,” says Perez.

Design thinking training's basic tenets, he explains, are collaboration, human-centeredness, creative thinking and learning through doing.

It is a way of thinking that provides students with tools, a process, and, ultimately, a mindset, that equips them to work together to create solutions to real-world challenges, says Perez. Students work in trans-disciplinary teams, closely mentored by coaches, in a customised studio space.

Design-led innovation is seen as both a career and entrepreneurial competency. Students in design thinking programmes are trained in a methodology that gives them a competitive edge as they enter the marketplace, adds Perez.

Design that solves real problems

Perez explains how people often associate the word 'design' with “styling and artefacts”, rather than seeing it “as a process towards developing new solutions and outcomes” that might serve society.

“The establishment of a school of design thinking will help to raise awareness around the potential of design and what the design-thinking process might mean for addressing the complex economic and social challenges that face society today.”

The school will also be working with the UCT community to address the contemporary challenges facing the academy, adds Perez.

This dovetails with the school's ethos of transcending the boundaries of traditional disciplines – postgraduate students from any field can apply, as can members of the public and private sector.

The UCT chapter of the school is the third Hasso Plattner Institute of Design Thinking in the world, joining the well-established schools at Stanford and Potsdam Universities. While the schools share similar philosophies – thinking across disciplines being one of them –  the UCT school will use models developed by these sister institutions to draw up a way of working that suits students' needs “in our own dynamic context”, says Perez.

“The institutes of design thinking at Stanford and Potsdam offer different models of education and training. Stanford offers a variety of constantly changing modules, of different duration, to postgraduate students of the university. Potsdam has a more set programme – comprising a three-month introductory course, followed by an advanced course of the same length – which is directed at participants from all universities.”

Coaches from the Potsdam school will be supporting the UCT team in delivering its first pilot programmes.

Learning in class and on the job

The School of Design Thinking at UCT is aiming to be the regional leader in education, training and research in design-led innovation, says Perez. To see this through, it will build partnerships and programmes with both private and public sector entities that include traditional class training and experiential training.

The school at UCT will offer senior postgraduate courses and exposure to design thinking processes and methodologies, while also conducting its own research into the trends and application of design thinking.

Future programmes will be advertised via UCT's communication channels and through the design thinking school's online platforms, which will be launched towards the end of the first quarter of 2016. Enquiries can also be sent to

Who else works at the

Perez will be joined by two programme managers, Dr Rael Futerman and Dr Keneilwe Munyai, on the training and education programmes of the UCT Both obtained their DTechs in Design. Rael, whose doctoral studies focused on Participatory Design and who leaves a lecturing position in the Department of Industrial Design at CPUT, will join the UCT in March. Keneilwe?s doctoral studies focused on Design for Sustainability. She leaves her position as a lecturer in Design at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) to join the UCT in April. Other team members are Claire van Wyk, a Masters in Environmental Science student who acts as strategic liaison between the school and the broader UCT academy; Lorelle Bell, a communication consultant, design writer and impact entrepreneur who is responsible for strategic communication and branding; Mehul Sangham, an IT specialist, self-described existential detective and graduate of the GSB's first MPhil in Inclusive Innovation course who is providing design thinking research support; and Robert Kellas, an educator and entrepreneur (and GSB MBA graduate) who is providing business model research support.

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