‘Innovating the Way We Innovate:’ Students Learn Design Thinking through DEC Dialogues Series

Sara Beckman, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in the Haas School of Business at the University of California-Berkeley, illustrated her DEC Dialogues lecture series on Sept. 7 with a story about diapers.

Beckman spoke to students in the College of Design, Engineering and Commerce’s (DEC) Integrative Design Processes (IDP) class about design thinking. Her presentation was the first in the DEC Dialogues series, which aims to provide students with real-world knowledge and experiences from design thinking experts.

Huggies, specifically, were a concern among executives at Kimberly Clark in the late 1980s because the product was losing market share to Proctor and Gamble’s Pampers brand diapers. To help reinvigorate their sales, Kimberly Clark hired a design firm called Point Forward, who used a process Beckman calls design thinking, to create innovative solutions to the problem.

Point Forward observed customers, spending time with them and asking them questions about what they want from their diapers. They recorded how diapers were produced at Kimberly Clark, how the product was packaged and where it was sold in stores—often across from dog food in stores. Through their ethnographic research, Point Forward determined a few key insights into the market. First, Kimberly Clark used a technology-focused approach to their product—displaying patents held and technological specifications of their diapers on the box, among other indicators—and parents didn’t seem to care about the same things. Parents viewed diapers as clothing for babies. Clothing was a metaphor for the future success and well-being of their children. And parents wanted help with the difficult transition between diapers and potty training. “There are two really scary transitions for a parent,” Beckman said, “Sending your kids off to college and potty training.”

Point Forward took their insights and developed ideas for how to improve Kimberly Clark’s product. The process from the first observation to the end of the project took more than a year, but one of the many ideas Point Forward suggested completely turned around Kimberly Clark’s diaper business. The Huggies Pull-Up brand disposable underwear product was introduced in 1989, developed and designed by Point Forward, and the product has grossed more than $1 billion in sales since it was released. I’m a big kid now, indeed.

Beckman’s story illustrates the four points of the design process—observation, insights, ideas and solutions. In her lecture, she taught students in the IDP course about the different steps of the process, and the skills and learning styles that help make those processes successful.

A 2007 article in the California Management Review co-authored by Beckman and Michael Barry, a consulting assistant professor for Stanford University’s design program and the founder of Point Forward, explains the connection between learning and design thinking. In “Innovation as a Learning Process: Embedded Design Thinking,” Beckman and Barry argue that it is possible for companies to encourage innovation by acknowledging the role learning styles play in successfully implementing the design process.


Before her lecture, each student in IDP was given a survey to determine his or her learning style. Learning styles, Beckman said, are not as fixed as personalities. They are much more dependent on context, and individuals can change how they learn through immersion in an environment where one learning style is cultivated. Everyone can also learn in each of the four styles Beckman described—diverging, assimilating, converging and accommodating—even if they prefer one way over the others. And each step of the design process—observation, insights, ideas and solutions—tend to be best performed by a particular learning style. This makes it important to understand what role each team member excels in to allow him or her to take a leadership role in that phase of the project.

Creative, diverging learners tend to be good at observation. Analytical, assimilating learners help organize messy data into specific insights the team can use. Converging learners help come up with practical applications and ideas, and accommodating learners like a hands-on approach, making them well-suited to the solutions phase. Balanced learners, which the majority of students in the IDP class are, help the team transition from one phase to the next.


“Design really focuses on understanding what the problem is in the first place,” Beckman said. The insight phase of design is important in that it takes the messy, raw data of observation and organizes it in a helpful framework. Beckman told a story about a friend who did ethnographic research on food courts in shopping malls. She found that teenage girls were eating unhealthy food as a means of expressing how healthy they were. If they ate unhealthy food, it signaled to others that they could get away with it because they ate healthy the rest of the time. These types of insights help locate the actual problem (in this case, an attitude toward eating), instead of a perceived problem (potentially a lack of healthy food options).

For the IDP students, working collaboratively across disciplines is a new challenge. Different groups of students have different strengths, each of which can contribute to the strength of the team. Connecting learning styles with the design process, Beckman argues, can help create better functioning interdisciplinary teams. 

“Research shows that teams with representation form the four learning styles outperform teams with homogenous makeup in a number of studies,” write Beckman and Barry in their paper. Students in DEC, then, have an advantage over traditional curriculum, engaging with others who specialize in ways of thinking that are different than their own.


Beckman’s research aims to “innovate the way we innovate.” Students attending the lecture were given the opportunity to practice what they learned through a series of exercises. Each exercise focused on enhancing one particular learning style, while also allowing students who excel in that area to practice leading in a group setting.

Students were asked to make detailed observations, sketch scenes, think creatively and tell stories. One exercise required students to diverge—think of at least 25 alternate uses for a paper clip—and converge—pick the best idea and prepare a presentation that they would give the company that manufactures paper clips on why the company’s executives should invest in the students ideas.


“Each of the lectures in the DEC Dialogues series is intended to help students learn to follow a process that leads to creative, innovative thinking,” said Ron Kander, executive dean of the College of Design, Engineering and Commerce. “We want them to learn to work better in teams, and to understand how their individual gifts and strengths can add valuable insights throughout the development of a new product or service.”

The workshop was just the first of the fall semester and will help students hone their skills and find ways to contribute. So, while the next great innovative solution may not be diapers, it could come from a PhilaU student.

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