by Esther Chou

With five field studies under his belt, Professor Gordon Adomdza is now a seasoned veteran in leading students abroad to research and develop tools for the base of the pyramid (BOP). In the recent decade, designers have been using the human centered design (HCD) process at the BOP as a new tool to solve old problems. Products such as the hippo roller, the efficient washing machine, and the rocket stove were all developed utilizing the design thinking process for the BOP.

While social innovation and design thinking curriculum is not new, Adomdza’s methodology to teach students the process in partnership with actual communities and real-life beneficiaries is unorthodox, practical, and enriching for both students and the communities they serve. The Social Enterprise Institute sat down with Adomdza to discuss his motivation for teaching design thinking to business students, his advice for students starting a career in this space, and of course, what he would be doing if he was not teaching undergrads at Northeastern.

1. What is human centered design and what motivates you to teach it?

A good way to describe design thinking is to contrast it with something else. In the thirties, when researchers asked, “Where do innovative ideas come from?”, the answer was that it came from deep pockets, like Bell labs or companies that had money to invest in Research and Development (R&D). In the sixties, we started seeing the impact of societal trends on innovation. The argument was that these trends motivated people to come up with new ideas to satisfy or meet market demand. Today, those two approaches are not enough. Designers will tell you that the world doesn’t dish out puzzles anymore, but it actually provides us with mysteries to solve. Mysteries are problems that we’re familiar with, but we just don’t understand. Conventional wisdom says that it’s really difficult to solve mysteries with analytics, because you either don’t understand the problem or you don’t know what the problem really is. So it’s difficult to use  traditional, analytical ways of gathering information to extract solutions based on the information because the information will typically be incomplete. That is where the design thinking approach comes in.

Design thinking allows  empathy, experimentation, and intuition, which combined with analytical thinking, can help us solve mysteries. I think that the problems facing the poor are some of those mysteries that design thinking can help to solve. We’re familiar with poverty, income inequality, social injustice, discrimination but they are also problems that we don’t fully understand; there is no magical database of answers because if there was, these problems would be solved by now. When working with a poor community, we start by trying to understand the context of the individuals in the community. We study human behavior within that context, for example – What do they care about? What are their values? What are their aspirations? By doing this, we can start to understand the mysteries a little bit in order to lead us to a potential solution that can have a really big social impact. Relying on empathy, experimentation, and intuition allows us to collect information from multiple sources and multiple angles in a way that we cannot do with traditional research methods.

What motivates me to teach design thinking is the mysteries we are dealt. Like any curious person, if you don’t understand something, it really eats at you, and you keep going at it until you understand it. What is interesting about the class is because we use the design thinking approach, that enables us to take this wide 100 foot systems view to problems, we can study the same problem a hundred times and find something interesting every time. As a professor, it’s rewarding to know that irrespective of the number of times you attack one problem, there is always a potential surprise at the end of each attempt that solves one piece of the mystery.

2. What takeaways or advice do you have for students interested in getting experience in the sector?

David Kelley at Stanford’s D School described the designer mindset as T-shaped thinking – that is, analytical thinking on the vertical leg and intuitive, experiential, and empathetic thinking on the T . I think the question is how can students show off their T-shaped thinking abilities to potential recruiters? For students who major in studies where abstract thinking is encouraged, such as architecture, engineering, art, it’s a lot easier for them because they are normally pushed to develop portfolios of their work. These portfolios do a good job in showing their ability to be T-shaped thinkers. But if you take humanities or business students who normally only write papers or develop business plans or create presentations, they are normally good at showing their analytical thinking skills and not the full T. I would encourage business students and those in the humanities to create portfolios of their reports of projects they’ve completed using visuals, infographics, and models to show their work as if they were preparing for an exhibition of their business career as a student. If students are able to do this, they can have instant connection to people from organizations that do this kind of work, such as design consulting firms like IDEO and  Continuum Innovation. Students also need to generally get really interested in problems because the key to unlocking mysteries is not rushing to provide solutions, but gaining a deeper understanding of problems. If a student can show a recruiter that he or she cares enough about a problem, his or her chances are much brighter.

3. What would you be doing if you weren’t teaching?

I would be trying to win  The Dakar Rally.


For more information on how you can learn about design thinking, enroll in a few courses offered by the D’Amore-McKim School of business such as Innovation! or Business Model Design for Social Impact. Also check out the following organizations for additional resources on HCD: IDEO, Design that Matters, and Design for the Other 90.