Design is one of our very oldest disciplines, the method for applying knowledge and skills to make or do something deliberately different. Today design takes many forms, from the creation of new exotic materials and structures, to the laws and policies that define our societies.

As Princeton’s mission is to prepare our students to serve humanity, we have a responsibility to teach them how to innovate through design. Here in the engineering school, generations of students have found a beloved rite of passage in car lab, robot lab, structures labs, and other capstone design courses. A newer course, “Engineering

Projects in Community Service,” enables students across campus to work on real-world community-centered projects. We now also offer a rapidly maturing and already impactful program in the emerging area of “design thinking.”

Design thinking is an analytical process for effectively addressing human needs as constrained by the real world. It is a metaprocess that applies broadly to: graphic design; architecture; material and product design; designing new companies; and public policy. At Princeton, we teach design thinking so our students can tackle the thorniest challenges, known as “wicked problems.” A wicked problem is a problem too complex to describe with a finite number of words. Our program focuses on these critical attributes of design thinking:

Dealing with complex human needs and emotions requires empathizing with potential users and all affected constituencies
Embracing difficult or intractable constraints through a process of reframing
Creating interdisciplinary design teams
Determining the effectiveness of design through the testing of prototypes with real potential users

Design thinking’s cross-disciplinary team approach and its focus on emotional factors complement engineering design and its emphasis on analytical models. Incorporating ethnographic methods, abductive reasoning, and prototyping methods with directed emotional tests inform and complement the design and testing of materials, products, structures, and complex communications.

The Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education, teaches four design thinking classes and runs a year-round co-curricular program, Tiger Challenge. Our “Creativity, Innovation, and Design” class introduces students from around campus to design thinking and has quickly become one of the most popular and highly rated classes on campus. To satisfy the demands of students who aspire to careers in strategic consulting, policy, entrepreneurship, or other forms of innovation, we now offer more advanced and challenging design thinking classes, such as “Designing Ventures to Change the World” and “Design of the Imminent Future.” As you will read, our classes have already led to student designs that the University has found innovative and practical enough to implement as permanent fixtures of campus routine.

The Tiger Challenge program enables teams of students from different disciplines and backgrounds to tackle “locally accessible and globally applicable” wicked problems. Thanks to generous support from alumni, the University supports teams working year-round to ethnographically study potential users and stakeholders. Student teams then work with local communities and agencies to prototype, test, and implement their innovative designs with the goal of achieving permanent, positive change. The Keller Center provides each student team with space at our Entrepreneurial Hub as well as with mentors and experienced advisers. We expect our Tiger Challenge teams to soon make meaningful improvements to the town of Princeton’s affordable-housing program as well as introduce new methods and products for dealing with people with spinal injuries.

We have created a cross-campus, cross-disciplinary design thinking program where students of all majors can become proficient in ethnographic practices and ideation processes, as well as how to effectively prototype and test ideas and products. With these skills, our graduates will have the confidence they need to tackle even the most wicked problems that face our world.


Derek Lidow ’73 is an entrepreneurship specialist and lecturer in electrical engineering and the Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education.

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    Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education