Learning your way towards solutions; this is the Design Atelier

With the Design Atelier, the Department of Public Administration (ESSB) has been working on impact-driven education for several years. Students engage in a design process in order to come to solutions for societal problems. This way, they build a future-proof skill set while simultaneously making a positive societal impact. This year, the Design Atelier is expanding to two other master tracks; high time for an update from teacher Design Thinking Geert Brinkman.

“A pen is worth nothing until someone uses it to write. I think it is as simple as that.” Geert Brinkman is a PhD-candidate and lecturer at the Design Atelier, a module within the Public Administration master programme. Here, students work on solving problems of (public) organizations by means of design methods. He himself studied Design for Interaction at Delft University of Technology, where he learned to design solutions by asking what is valuable to humanity. “Here, I began to wonder whether such design methods could also be useful in the approach of societal issues such as climate change, polarization and inequality of opportunity. This led me in the direction of public administration.”

Design in the educational context

Design thinking offers a creative and investigative way of working towards a solution., Geert explains. “You explore various paths, and you gain insights by experimenting. Those observations are used for further exploration. Thus, you learn your way towards a solution.” For his graduation project, he was working with the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, where he didn’t see much room for such an exploratory approach. “Governments often still work in a fairly linear way; we have a certain goal, corresponding with a certain budget and with a fixed planning. In that context, design thinking does not easily flourish, because, in the design process, there's no way of knowing what the outcome will be; it's difficult to determine goals, budgets and a planning beforehand. 

Four years ago, the Design Atelier was installed as a course within the Public Administration master programme Policy and Politics, aiming to teach students to tackle social issues in a designerly manner, commissioned by companies in the public sector. According to the initiators, the traditional education in the department of Public Administration was mainly focused on understanding, analyzing applying existing knowledge. With this course, they introduced a fourth dimension: the creation of new knowledge and solutions. Within the Design Atelier, students therefore have the opportunity to obtain an important new skill set. Moreover, they have a direct impact on society by designing solutions for wicked contemporary challenges. Working with societal partners is a useful experience; it helps them build a professional network, and sometimes it even results in an internship or job.

Working across master tracks

As Geert mentions, the Design Atelier was well received by the students. Moreover, it caught the attention of the other tracks in the department, which proposed to join the course. “Wherever you are working towards a solution, you can adopt some type of design approach. But it remains a means and not an end in itself; depending on the study programme, you have to see what fits. This gave us a chance to rethink the structure, and the content that we offer.” Supported by Impact at the Core, this year's the Design Atelier has expanded to two other master tracks. To make this possible, a train the trainer course was developed that enables teachers of the other masters to support students in their design process. According to Geert, this creates a multidisciplinary environment in which both students and teachers work together with their peers more closely than before. 

"The great thing about working at a university is that you can combine practice, education and research in many ways. I think that this has great potential to make an impact.” Last year, for example, students from the Design Atelier worked on a project concerning inclusive communication towards people with a low literacy level. With the new organ donor legislation as a starting point, the Health Ministry asked how they could communicate about this law with low-literate people. “Our students have worked on various things, like the design of an envelope that attracts attention, and thereby stimulates the addressee to open it. Low-literate people have a tendency of not opening mail, and this envelope might be a part of the solution. Instead of a formal letter, it contained a leaflet with a visual presentation of the new legislation, and of what you yourself can do.” A successful project, but Geert stipulates that this is not necessarily what it is all about. “In our assessment, we do not only look at the end result. We also take the process itself into consideration; have the students demonstrated a thorough reflection on the design process, have they learned something?”

Six phases towards confident design 

The Design Atelier consists of six phases, each containing a so-called sprint, in which students are given a masterclass by an external professional, and a workshop to practice with tool kits and methods. During the first phase, students sit down with the societal client to review the assignment at hand. What it is about; where do we want to go; what are the expectations? The second step is to do research into the subject matter, followed by the third phase: taking a different perspective, developing a new way of looking at the challenge. The fourth stage concerns creation: “Here, students generate ideas based on their newfound perspective on the problem. These ideas are often innovative and require testing before being implemented. Testing is therefore the next phase. Then, in the final phase, students think about implementation: what does this solution require from the organization that is going to work with it, and how can we enable them to do so? That set-up is the backbone of the Design Atelier.”

"Many of our students have just finished their bachelor's, where education is slightly more ‘spoon-fed’ than in their master’s, or at the Design Atelier for that matter. Upon arrival, they suddenly have to adopt a new approach, they must get creative and start experimenting. In the beginning, you can see them thinking: what did we jump into, what should we do?” Nevertheless, students – and their clients as well – are generally positive about the course. “As long as you keep moving, you won’t get stuck and you will eventually move in the right direction. If you stimulate students to keep doing research, to keep talking and to keep trying new things, a perspective or solution will eventually emerge. This way, they become more and more confident throughout the Design Atelier!”