West Coast tour fruitful in imagining Siebel Center for Design


Mike Koon, Marketing and Communications Coordinator

A conceptual drawing for the Siebel Center for Design.
A conceptual drawing for the Siebel Center for Design.
It’s frequently done in the sports world -- scouting out top facilities across the country in anticipation of an upgrade or new construction of similar facilities on your campus. In that fashion last month, Andy Singer and David Weightman embarked on a West Coast tour of a few of the nation’s well-known university design centers prior to construction of the $48 million Siebel Center for Design, which will open on the University of Illinois campus in a couple of years. The campus’ commitment to the project echoes the value it places on design thinking to the core education of future students.

“The Design Center is not just another maker space,” Singer iterated. “It will be an iconic facility on our campus where groups of students working either as part of a course or an extra-curricular project have the means and the space to pursue projects involving design thinking and design doing. It is meant as to provide opportunities for groups of students at the intersection of all units across our campus.”

Last October Illinois announced its intention to build the Design Center in the heart of campus with a $25 million lead gift from alumnus and tech entrepreneur Tom Siebel, whose name will adorn the facility. In March, Singer was named as the Center’s interim director. 

Singer notes that, while various aspects of design have been taught in courses on campus for a long time, it has more recently translated into interdisciplinary efforts involving students and faculty from various colleges across campus.

“Design thinking is a human-centric approach to creating solutions, products or services that are not only useful, and functional, but also desirable” Singer said. “It is about looking holistically at complex – or even simple problems, and understanding the user.  This  approach can be applied from any discipline. We’re looking at existing programs where design thinking and aspects of design are integrated into the curriculum and determining ways that these courses could be scaled up to provide opportunities to even more students, how they can be made more interdisciplinary, and how they can bring design thinking as a central theme to as broad a cross section of students across our campus as possible.”

Two years ago, Singer, Dean Andreas Cangellaris, Interim Provost Ed Feser, and others made a similar trek to help understand what should be incorporated into the building itself. Over the past year and a half, many faculty, students, and staff have worked closely with the architects in developing a plan for the facility and associated programs that can not only best fit the campus’ needs and goals for the site, but can also provide opportunities for the facility to evolve with the courses, programs, and activities of the campus over time.

With the architectural planning of the building well underway, Singer and Weightman returned to California to learn from existing facilities how planning and launching the facilities at several institutions proceeded according to – or not according to plans, and sought to learn from the experiences of other institutions with related centers for design.

“For instance, how did they navigate from the initial excitement to creating the courses and activities that would take place in the facility once it opened? We wanted to find out how they were successful at engaging departments and colleges across the campus and groups of students in making use of the facility. We also wanted to know what stumbling blocks – expected or otherwise – slowed or changed their plans.”

They toured facilities on three campuses – The UC San Diego Design Lab, led by Don Norman, a giant in the field of user-centered design; the d-School at Stanford University, and the Jacobs Institution for Design Innovation at the University of California-Berkeley.

While Illinois’ Siebel Center for Design will have its own unique characteristics, there were several elements discovered on the tour that Singer hopes to learn from and make use of in the Center. 

One of the challenges will be developing a facility that is sustainable. The Center won’t be housed in an academic department, which is typically supported by tuition and research; therefore it needs to be self-sufficient. 

With that in mind, the UCSD model is largely supported through philanthropy, executive education and corporate partnerships. Over the last few years, focus on design has become more prevalent in a host of companies, and centers like that at UCSD make use of this renewed interest. 

“At a high level, there are a number of corporations that see design thinking as an important part of their business process and see engaging with universities as a key to the future,” Singer noted. “Many of the courses that are taught through their Design Lab are supported by departments and faculty, but they have found that sustainability has come through focusing on a few global problems and taking a holistic view, which attracts corporate engagement,” Singer noted.  A couple of those examples include health design, large-scale individualized learning, and people-centered automation. 

Both Berkeley and Stanford house their design centers inside their departments of mechanical engineering, although they serve students from other disciplines.

“Stanford was one the first universities to recognize the value of reaching across campus to engage students and faculty from many disciplines in their design programs,” Singer said. “One of the reasons many other universities are aggressively embracing the maker movement and looking at building design thinking into their curricula is at least in part due to the success of the d.School.” 

An idea that worked well at Stanford was to solicit proposals from faculty for short pop-up classes or workshops. The d.School hosts about 10-15 each semester and works with the faculty to expand these ideas into activities that might last a day or a weekend or more. If it proves successful, the project could be scaled and more resources put behind it and could translate into full- or half-semester courses.

“We came away from that visit recognizing that a similar program could take place immediately at Illinois, using many of the existing spaces across our campus,” Singer said.

With the Siebel Center for Design not likely opening until sometime during the 2019-20 school year, plans are already underway to transform spaces in the Grainger Engineering Library, both in the IDEA Lab (located in the lower level) and the first floor, into spaces where design activities can take place, ones that will serve as a foundation for what will eventually happen in the Siebel Center for Design. The idea is that when the Center opens, it will have a vetted set of offerings, which have already been developed and tested across campus.

“We would like to prototype some of the spaces that will eventually be housed in the Design Center such as the instructional studios that will be used for project-based interdisciplinary courses. Some of the spaces in which we might test these designs include the Grainger Library spaces as well as those operated through the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning (CITL),” Singer said. “We can offer workshops and courses that can eventually be scaled up and incentivize faculty members to collaborate across disciplines. We want to make it easy for them to be engaged in this way and not be afraid to try out their ideas.” 

“It’s interesting to see how another public institution, UC Berkely, with a broad mission such as ours created a facility and brought it from concept to action,” he said. “They had limited space with which to work, but I was impressed by the way they rolled out their four-story center. Each story is fairly open. For instance, the first floor maker space has glass walls, which gives newcomers an opportunity to see projects that are underway. They hold courses in their Jacobs Institute, but also offer space and extended hours, which are open to student groups and clubs.

“It is clear that there is not just one model that works,” Singer added. “From the perspective of understanding how to solicit, inspire, develop, grow and scale courses and programs, we learned a lot about things that worked. And about some that did not. They each had funding models that operate in their academic ecosystem. We’ve seen ways they engage externally (alumni, corporations), and each school has met challenges in different ways. There was a mix of philanthropy, corporate engagement, executive education, and integration of tuition-based models.” 

In addition to going full-speed ahead in program development, Singer is busy working with the team that is taking the steps required for the final building plans to meet Board of Trustee approval. While the Center is not an academic unit with its own courses, he believes that ultimately the Siebel Center for Design could help enable units across campus to create additional interdisciplinary degree programs (similar to the CS+X or ILEE dual-degree programs) and serve as an avenue for alumni and corporations to be engaged in student activities.

“Startups used to say ‘We need to get the right MBA or technical lead that can help us grow our business,’” Singer said. “Now they are saying ‘We need to get the right designer to help us make a product that people will love.’ With that in mind, we’re looking at design thinking as a skillset we would like to invoke on all our students, skills that they can leverage throughout their lifetimes. Our goal is to expose them to a way of approaching solutions to problems that are useful to society and will help our graduates have an impact on our world.”