Faculty Take Improv Lessons and Brainstorm with Industry Leaders from Smart Design to Prepare for New Curriculum

While preparing for the first semester of the College of Design, Engineering and Commerce, Philadelphia University professors have been channeling creativity from unusual sources.

Several members of the faculty worked with The Second City’s Bryan Bowden on campus May 19 a three-hour improvisational workshop on Improv and Creative Pedagogy, or methods of teaching. The faculty did everything from arranging themselves into shapes of letters to telling stories one word per person at a time.

“All of the professors were great sports,” said Heather McGowan, assistant provost for DEC development.  “They jumped right in and had a great time.”

Also participating in the workshop was DEC Fellow Barry Kudrowitz, who earned a Ph.D. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a dissertation on humor and creativity. His recent research, “Improvisational Comedy and Product Design Ideation: Making Non-Obvious Connections between Seemingly Unrelated Things,” looked at the abilities of professional product designers and improvisational comedians in generating creative ideas. 

“My findings suggest that improvisation comedians are better at coming up with creative product ideas than professional product designers and that improvisational games tend to increase the quantity of ideas in a brainstorming session,” Kudrowitz said. He believes that not only can creativity be taught, but that it is like a muscle that needs to be exercised.

McGowan organized the event after experiencing the power of improv exercises in enhancing her own career. She began taking improv lessons in the ‘90s and noticed that they helped her think more creatively at her job as an industrial designer in Chicago.

As part of the new DEC curriculum, some professors will forgo the traditional lecture format for a team-teaching approach, infusing their expertise into the classroom while complementing the skills and knowledge of their fellow faculty members. Collaboration is taken seriously, not only for student projects, but in the way that students at PhilaU are educated.

“The way the faculty have come together to design the curriculum for the new College shows how dedicated they are to the revolutionary approach we are aiming for,” McGowan said. “They are taking collaboration to a new level.”

In addition to The Second City improv classes, faculty members participated in a workshop with employees of Smart Design in New York.  An award-winning design firm that created  the popular Good Grips  kitchen utensils for Oxo,  Smart Design has become successful by reinventing everyday products to make them easier to use — measuring cups that can be read from above, cheese graters that work on both sides and potato peelers with grips resembling bicycle handles among them.

More than just a design and engineering product development company, Smart Design utilizes a wide range of disciplines to accomplish its goals. The company does everything from using ethnography to finding latent consumer needs to creating specific branding strategies for its products. The company makes decisions from high-level engineering decisions right down to how to enhance the buying experience. The faculty brainstorm workshop focused on Smart Design’s research techniques that are used to discover hidden opportunities.

Smart Design’s approach mirrors that of PhilaU’s new collaborative College structure, making their industry expertise valuable to PhilaU professors’ educational expertise. By combining design and engineering skills to produce products that have a competitive advantage in the marketplace, Smart Design utilizes the interdisciplinary approach that has become the hallmark of successful 21st-century businesses.

Senior Innovation Engineer Yvonne Lin and Design Research Engineer Tara Marchionna ran the workshop.  Marchionna and Lin each created their own interdisciplinary education by acquiring degrees in both industrial design and engineering. Their interest in assisting with this workshop was to offer the experience they need at Smart Design but never had in their education.

Marchionna noted that dual degrees don’t necessarily prepare students for the complexity of today’s work environments. “Despite having degrees in both industrial design and mechanical engineering, I never had a professor or class that teaches what we do at Smart Design,” she said. “I wanted to pass on this experience to the next generation.”

 “A lot of what we do in the design research world is much broader than the design of objects. It is not something typically taught in a class,” Lin agreed.  “Our techniques at Smart Design have been honed by professionals coming from all different disciplines. We must be able to look at complex problems for clients in a wide range of fields from Nike to Johnson & Johnson to Procter & Gamble to Ford or Starbucks. For those reasons, I think Philadelphia University’s College of Design, Education and Commerce programs are exciting.”

Philadelphia University students entering programs in the College of Design, Engineering and Commerce this fall will soon have their own opportunities to tackle real-world problems like Smart Design does, through the Integrative Design Processes (IDP) course – the innovative first-year course developed as part of the new DEC curriculum.

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