What’s it like to work with Public Design Bureau? An interview with a client

Illustration by Shannon Levin. Learn more about our illustrators.

What’s it like to work with Public Design Bureau? An interview with a client

We’ve had the great pleasure of collaborating with Heather Corcoran, Vice Provost and Interim Dean of University College at Washington University in St. Louis on the Re-Imagine UCollege project since summer 2019. We wanted to know more about her experience with Public Design Bureau, human-centered design, and using design thinking to make change in adult education. 

Outside of her role as the interim dean, Heather is a designer and educator. As a designer, she explores relationships of information and visual expression, and studies design methodology. Before this project, she’d worked with other human-centered designers in her collaborative practice. 

Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

PDB: To start out, can you tell me a little bit about the challenge, as you saw it before you started the project? Why did you seek out a human-centered design team to support you in this process? 

HC: I hired you to help us understand what the community, broadly-defined, would like for this entity, University College, to become if it’s going to better serve the needs in St. Louis. This was a situation where human-centered design really made sense. We have a diverse group of people, and we need to design based on what they might need and want, and how they would benefit. This process started with them, and was centered on their needs. It was a way to keep us honest. 

In addition, I really thought that we would get to much more creative, innovative, and open-minded potential ideas and prototypes about what things could look like, and that those would be more tangible. This process was driven by research, but was focused on making that research tangible. 

PDB: How was using a design thinking process different from how you might have approached changing the school otherwise? 

HC: In academia, we tend to build on what we already do and know. We have an infrastructure for teaching and educating that is quite intense, and highly educated people who we hire to impart what they know in a specific way. This makes it hard for us to pivot to a new category of person. We have really tested the one model of education we deliver — to full-time, residential students — and we’ve seen it be successful and help students. 

Yet when we’re thinking about the new program we’re building, some of the shared assumptions we have about education are no longer true. We can’t assume that just because what we already do is good, we can just apply it in a new setting. Without perspective, definition, and understanding of the various groups of people and the forces that impact what is needed in the St. Louis region, we couldn’t design something specific and nuanced. We had to consider a complicated mix of forces that we don’t normally think about when we’re educating residential, full-time students. 

PDB: What do you wish you had known before you dove into a design thinking process for re-imagining UCollege? 

HC: This process is long. I knew that before, but once we were in the process and I started to hear the insights, it made me realize how much we had to do to make the school we were talking about. It was really important to be patient through this and wait for the full weight of the research to come in. Waiting meant that the ideas were reinforced in a way that was really useful, because you all developed several models that demonstrated how people make decisions. Creating these models took a huge amount of time and focus. I had to keep the urgency at bay. 

PDB: Tell us a little bit about the student team for this project. What was exciting for you about how students were involved in this process? 

HC: The student team was awesome. Since we’re educators, we’re always looking for opportunities to get our students involved. We got a ton of benefit from their participation, because this process was really labor intensive, but they also took ownership and learned so much through the process. During the Friday worksessions, you could feel the educational success of the project. They learned new skills, and they can tell you what they are. They all came from different areas of study and different years, but they built a team and a culture of mutual support. 

PDB: If this human-centered design process was a food, what food would it be? Why? 

HC: This process would be a food that is eaten slowly, where every bite tastes different. Maybe it’s like yogurt with things blended in? Or a really good quinoa salad.

PDB: How have you used the results from the Re-Imagine UCollege project as you’ve continued your work as interim dean? 

HC: I use this work every 40 seconds. Yet, I think we’ve only cracked the surface on what can happen from this work. Mostly we’ve been using it philosophically, to get people on board and build a team around these ideas. It’s been pivotal for that purpose. It’s not just the content and the research, but the frameworks and models are so valuable. The presentation and structure have made a library of valuable ideas that I can use to frame things. 

The part that is yet to come will happen after we have more of the leadership team in place. We’re hiring the people we need now to take these ideas and implement them, like aligning to employers, boosting career services, etc. The work from the design thinking process is a strong statement for pushing the envelope, which is a stand-in for the people who will be doing that pushing but aren’t here yet. 

Read more about the Re-Imagine UCollege project over in our project work.

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