New Radford Degree to Teach Critical Thinking by Design

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Let's get this out of the way quickly: Design thinking is not just for designers.

No, not at all, said Holly Cline, the interim chair of Radford University's Department of Interior Design & Fashion (ID&F). "It's for anyone—executives, nurses, health care providers—anyone who wants to learn a different way of thinking toward solving problems."

This fall, students who want to add to their arsenal of problem-solving skills can enroll in the department's new Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A) in design thinking. All classes will be offered online only, and students can choose to complete the program in two years full time or four years part time.

"I think people confuse what design thinking is. They hear the word 'design,' and they immediately think they need to be a designer," Cline explained. "That's not the case. It is teaching people to think like designers."

Associate Professor Joan Dickinson, the program's coordinator, said thinking like a designer is a process that "involves inspiration, validation and implementation. The design thinking process first involves identifying a problem through research and observation, and then brainstorming to develop ideas aimed at solving the problem."

The process doesn't end there.

"We constantly revisit the problem to make sure our brainstorms and solutions are feasible, viable and human centered," Dickinson said. "This involves rapid prototyping to test our solutions, and these prototypes are changed and redesigned to address the problem continually."

Some examples of real-world problems that may benefit from the insightful approach taken by design thinkers is providing clean, safe drinking water to developing countries, supplying temporary portable shelters for homeless people and addressing the issue of childhood obesity, Dickinson said.

Developing solutions for such complicated issues requires wisdom from numerous disciplines and occupations. Offering a program that could teach students to develop an interdisciplinary approach to solving problems was the impetus for creating the design thinking M.F.A. Its development involved a team of designers, artists and instructors familiar with this way of thinking.

"If we have somebody from health care and we have somebody from occupational therapy and we have somebody from business and we have somebody from design, it will be a wealth of knowledge brought together to synergize, to tackle solutions," Cline said.

So what are the characteristics of a good design thinker? "People who are flexible and are risk takers," Cline said. "If you’re not a risk taker, this would not be a good degree for you. It's going to teach you to trust your intuition. Intuition is not a God-given talent. It's based on research. It’s all of that stuff you learned helping you make a faster decision."

Design thinkers tend to be "out-the-box thinkers," said DAK Kopec, the newest faculty member hired by Radford University to teach in the M.F.A. program. Design thinkers are "interdisciplinary thinkers who naturally see the connections between three or more factors that combine to form an outcome," he said.

Kopec, an academically trained environmental psychologist who also has worked in "development of healthy environments," said he will strive in his design thinking classes to "teach our students how to think strategically and critically as problem solvers who reject barriers and oversimplification. I want our students to learn how to see a diverse array of opportunities and solutions while rejecting a magic bullet approach."

For information about the M.F.A. in design thinking, visit the ID&F website, or contact Dickinson at or Cline at

Apr 18, 2012
Chad Osborne
(540) 831-761