d.school | Hasso-Plattner-Institut Potsdam

A while ago I reported about the d.school in Stanford, USA. And after a short time I received a tweet of Felix Speiser (@felix_speiser on twitter), he told me that there is a d.school in Potsdam, Germany, as well – the Hasso-Plattner Insitut | School of Design Thinking (where Felix is also a student).
So, I made some research and stayed in contact with Felix, after a while I came up with the idea that we could make our conversation open for others and post an interview here on Better Taste Than Sorry. I hope you like it. I think it’s incredibly interesting!
By the way, if you are interested in the topic, checkout the brand new blog invented here, where Felix and five other students are blogging about Design Thinking and related topics. And also check out the book Design Thinking by the creators of the d.school.
Hi, Felix why don’t you start with a short introduction at first?
My name is Felix Speiser, I’m 25. I studied business administration in Mannheim and am currently enrolled in the Advanced Track of the School of Design Thinking at the Hasso-Plattner-Institut (HPI D-School), Potsdam. I also work for SponsorPay GmbH as a business analyst.
Can you give a short introduction into the HPI D-School in Potsdam? In which way is it different to other schools/universities?
The HPI School of Design Thinking in Potsdam teaches an innovation approach called Design Thinking. The way this is done at HPI D-School differs immensely from the way teaching works at other, conventional schools across Germany. When I started the 1-year course, we were just 44 students coming from over 30 different fields of study. Working in multidisciplinary teams with four to five students is one of three major pillars of the Design Thinking approach. It is very unlikely that five engineers will come up with a great business model while five businessmen probably won’t perceive and prototype an amazing gadget. But when put together with anthropologists or designers they get a close to 360 degree view on a problem which will translate into a more desirable solution.
Also, there are almost no lectures. Every once in a while someone from the teaching team will give a presentation about a topic like brainstorming or project management. That’s it for lectures. Everything else we learn at HPI D-School, we learn by doing. We are involved in a project all the time. Starting with shorter projects in the beginning and finishing with a 12-week project at the end of the course. Each team is accompanied by a coach to help with organizing research and jump in if the team gets stuck in the process.
Another noticable difference is that we embrace the value of play. Last Friday afternoon we got into a little water-gun fight when someone noticed that the spray bottles we use to clean whiteboards have enough pressure to cover several feet. Playing is important to be creative and keep an open mind, which is vital to being innovative. Whenever you feel stuck and don’t get anywhere, it is probably time to stop and do something different, like playing around with Legos or try out tiny RC-Helicopters.
What does the (regular) application process look like (and yours in special)?
The admission process starts by sending in your online application. It consists of a one page description of your motivation to attend HPI D-School and your T-Profile. You get a DIN A4 sheet with a large outlined T on it that you have to fill in some way with your in depth knowledge of your studies in the vertical axis and your broad, non-study related knowledge and experiences on the vertical axis. Since I was studying business administration at that time, for me this meant taking photos of me dressed up like a manager, an accountant etc. and putting these in the vertical shape while filling the horizontal shape with photographs of activities that I do in my spare time like traveling or my interest in entrepreneurship. From the first day the T-Shapes of other students where tacked to a wall at HPI D-School and I’ve seen many, that where much more creative than mine.
If you get invited, the next step is a 2-day event called the “boot camp”, which takes place at HPI D-School. In these 2 days you will do different exercises like the “wallet exercise” where you swap wallets with your teammate, ask questions about it and then design the perfect wallet for him. You get to work in 2 different teams and go through the whole Design Thinking process at least once to solve simple, but interesting problems that occur in campus live or that are somehow related to the HPI D-School for example. Participating in this event alone is worth any application effort. I learned a lot about Design Thinking and teamwork in just these 2 days. I wouldn’t have been disappointed if I would not have made it past this point as I felt I had already learned so much like how to do a great presentation for example.
How do your presentations look like?
Well, for starters, we keep presentations short. Final presentations after the 6 week project took about 5 minutes per team. If you are only given 5 minutes, you have to focus on the most important features and present in a way that really sticks. During the last presentation session, one of the groups showed a video for example. A short cartoon, that let the viewer experience what it would be like if the teams idea was already applied throughout the country. Also common are role plays, that engage the audience and simply show a product or service at work instead of just describing it. It is usually funny and attention grabbing. If we use PowerPoint or Keynote presentations it is to show pictures or simple slides that contain only a few words. It’s all about the experience that we want the audience to have. No one wants to have lists of features read out to them from a PowerPoint slide …
What kind of people are at the D-School, staff and attendees?
As I said, following the multidisciplinary approach, the HPI D-School is home to very different kinds of people. Students as well as teachers. The more time I spend there, the more I find out about the very interesting biographies of most attendees. Only after weeks I found out that I was working together with the former CEO of aka-aki or that one of my team members was currently involved in building a great mobile application that will be launched soon. It’s an amazing atmosphere and mentally nurturing ecosystem to be working in.
Apart from the teaching team, there is also a great team in the background making HPI D-School possible by acquiring project partners organizing research contacts and dealing with students requests for just about anything.
What is special about the architecture at d.school?
From the outside the D-School looks like a normal, modern office building with large windows and metal panels. Nothing spectacular. Important is, what is put inside. A second pillar of the Design Thinking Approach is flexible space. At HPI D-School, everything is on wheels. The tables, the whiteboards, even the couches. This is great as you can adopt your workspace to whatever suits your needs at a particular stage in the process. Also, we do not have different rooms. All the teams work in a single large space, which is divided by whiteboards on wheels into individual working spaces. Each of them equipped with a special table to store materials and bar-chairs. This is interesting. It is important not to have regular chairs, as you should not be sitting while working. It makes you passive. As soon as you stand up the energy changes dramatically. You can try it in any kind of meeting.
What else do you have there apart from chairs, tables, whiteboards?
Another prominent part of furniture is the material shelf. It’s a standart IKEA shelf with square compartments that is fitted with translucent boxes that contain all kinds of prototyping materials like pipe cleaners, cardboard, Styrofoam shapes, play-dough, hot-glue guns, aluminum foil, foamcore, lego and pretty much everything you could and could not think of that could be used for building something.
I see lots of Post-its on the photos, why do you use them?
Post-its are a great way to capture ideas. For one thing, they limit space so you have to be precise and only put down the essentials. They are also a logical extension of the flexible space at D-School. It is easy to move them around a whiteboard or even your space when you are trying to cluster your ideas. They are also great to use windows and walls for storing ideas, which we do often if the space on the whiteboards is all used up.
How do you work?
The third and probably most important pillar of Design Thinking is being mindful of the process. It runs through clear stages, but is not necessarily linear but iterative.
At D-School we usually formulate problems as “How Might we” Questions. For example we might ask ourselves: “How might we leverage diverse cultural backgrounds in the classroom”. We start by understanding the problem. This can be done by a what we call becoming an expert in an hour, where the team splits up and each member researches the topic into a certain direction to come back an hour later, knowing where to look further.
We then start to observe. We watch, interview, test etc. people that have a relation to the kinds of products, services or experiences we are working on. This could mean stalking customers through a supermarket analyzing their movements and expressions trying to understand how they plan their shopping trip for example.
We collect all the information we gather during observation, put it on Post-its on the whiteboards that surround our workspaces to literally immerse ourselves in our research. We then start to form clusters in an attempt to condense everything into what we call the “Point of View”, a single problem statement that can take many forms. It can be a persona, that is described with all its traits, that has a particular problem that we are going to solve, or it could be a metaphor, like “grocery shopping is a necessary evil”. From this problem statement we move on to “Ideation” where we will brainstorm possible solutions. After the brainstorm, we select the ideas we like best and turn them into “Prototypes” that we will then take out and “Test” with potential users.
However, the process does not have to be linear. We often have to go back after testing to improve the prototype. Sometimes you also have to go back from Point of View to observe some more to narrow down tour problem statement.
How does your brainstorming work?
When we brainstorm, we follow a set of rules that makes effective brainstorming possible. It consists of ten rules but I think the most important ones are:
Defer Judgment!
This means that you do not judge any idea that comes up in brainstorming. Judgment and criticism makes people defensive which takes away all the momentum you need in a good brainstorm.
Build on the ideas of others!
Try to take another team member´s idea by saying “yes and …” and improve or extend it in some way. This is a great way of deferring judgment and really using all your team´s brains to create something great.
Encourage wild ideas!
It is easier to take a wild idea back down to reality than it is to make a bad idea fly. Often enough it is a wild idea that twists your view of things and then brings forth other, more realistic solutions.
Be visual!
There is not much time to describe an idea and not much room for text on a Post-it so make up a good headline and put a small picture next to it that will stick in your head and makes it easy to go back to the idea later on when the team starts discussing and selecting solutions ideas.
Go for quantity!
A good brainstorm can produce a hundred ideas or more in less than an hour. Of course, not all of them are made for execution. It is important to have a wide variety to choose from to really find the best. If you had only one solution, how would you know, that you really chose the best way to do something?
You told me you have several rituals, how do they look like and what is the sense?
Our most prominent ritual is the warm-up. We do it in the beginning of every D-School day to get our minds and bodies going, to wake them up in some sense. These are small games that are played in a group and are in some way challenging for mind and body. For example we would form teams of 5 and make a small competition where you as a group would have to cross a stretch, 5m long with only 2 hands and 3 feet on the ground at any given time. You have 5 minutes to come up with some sort of solution then present it to everyone else. It’s usually heaps of fun.
A few students from d.school and myself are currently developing an iPhone app that will contain several warm-up games as well as a shuffle function to give you some authority when choosing one for the morning at your company or school. Check out warmapp.de in a few weeks if you want to learn some of the warm-up games we do in our project teams every day.
Another ritual that I find very important not only at HPI D-School is the “I like I wish”. At the end of a normal D-School day, we usually do a short “I like I wish”-feedback session where we all gather in the D-Lounge, linger around on red couches on coasters to reflect on the day. This session works in a simple way: You share something you liked, followed by something you wish was different. In any case, this is a great way to gather feedback since it is always easier to accept criticism when presented some praise at the same time. It is also really important to share what you liked for the recipient of the feedback to know, what he is doing right, and should not change.
You have a lot of cooperation with companies, how do they look like?
All the 6 or 12-week projects are done with project partners. These are companies, institutions and NGOs or not-for-profit organizations that come to the HPI D-School to solve a real-world problem in an innovative way. During a project, the teams are in close contact with their project partners who often are a very valuable source of information especially in the early beginning of a project. After a project is completed, project partners may decide to further pursue an idea.
Talking about Design Thinking the whole time, what is your personal definition?
Ok this is a really hard question. I believe that every single student and teacher at the HPI D-School would give you a different answer to this. For some it might be the process, others emphasize the space or the spirit. To me it is almost a way of life. It’s many small learnings and experiences that make you look at the things differently. It means learning that failing has to be done right so you can learn from it. It’s understanding and embracing the value of honest feedback and taking in the importance of user insights for product and service development. It means learning to play again and not taking everything dead serious. About being visual. About having fun at work and the importance of building early prototypes of everything. It’s also about understanding and valuing the individual strengths of your team members. It’s so many things to choose from. If each one of us manages to take away and adapt just one of them in other areas like business or healthcare, the impact could be huge.
Do you think Design Thinking could be helpful in other educational institutions as well?
Absolutely. Take the playing alone. Playing is fun. Learning should be fun as well. In our heads learning is always connected to pressure, tests and boredom. Why does it have to be like this? In Stanford, the K-12 lab of the d.school is already trying out how Design Thinking could be applied at schools in the US.

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  • Matt Schroeter

    Great interview. I really like that more institutions like this are popping up around the world, offering an environment to explore new ways of dealing with existing social frameworks.

    I was fortunate enough to be part of a student group called coLab, (www.whatiscolab.com) at the Centre for Digital Media in Vancouver that worked with Master’s students, faculty, and administration. It’s comforting to see that we align on many of the same values, concepts, and goals both the d.school and HPI seem to use regularly. I hope that this focus on building tools and processes to iterate on ideas keeps pushing forward, bringing a fresh perspective and innovative solutions to issues of all kinds.

  • kommanderkat

    I finally managed to read the interview. The school sounds like a fantastic place to study, and I aggree with Felix’ view that Design Thinking is a way of life. We see this openminded, crossubject approach in more and more sectors nowadays and I think it’s great. I just wished there would be more companies appreciating this way of working already.

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d.school | Hasso-Plattner-Institut Potsdam