When the University of Texas decided to make design a bigger part of its undergraduate curriculum, it hired Doreen Lorenzo, a former president of Frog Design Inc., which she helped build from a boutique firm into a global consultancy advising major companies.
Design these days isn’t just about the color, shape and texture of a product or finish. Services, procedures, experiences — indeed, solutions to all sorts of problems — can be designed.
Witness Apple Inc., the most valuable company on the planet, which produced not only the sleek iPhone but also a seamless customer experience at its retail stores. Another sign that design thinking has arrived: IBM Corp. operates design studios in 30 cities around the world, including Austin, the nerve center of the operation with 350 designers.
As a clinical professor and the founding director of the university’s Center for Integrated Design, Lorenzo is rolling out a series of courses open to all undergraduates. Five classes with 114 students are currently being taught, and students will soon be able to pursue a 19-credit certificate in integrated design. The initiative is backed with more than $1 million in funding from the university for three years.
The courses, such as Introduction to Design Thinking and Introduction to Prototyping, feature instructors in the field as well as teamwork among students in business, liberal arts, engineering and other disciplines. And there also is training on soft skills, such as the importance of empathy, of deep insight into customers, users and others gained by careful questioning and listening, Lorenzo said. She plans to teach eventually, but for now has been focusing on setting up the program and delivering guest lectures.
“We will produce students who have a greater understanding of what it is like to get out into the business world and be prepared,” said Lorenzo, 59, who has a quick smile, a lively manner and stands just under 6 feet tall.
Lorenzo works out of a sparsely furnished office in the College of Fine Arts with a blackboard covering one wall and a whiteboard wall opposite. She likes to use chalk and markers for brainstorming. One day last week, the blackboard featured a succinct summary of how to undertake a project: “insight and research, ideate, build and test, refine, commercialize, scale.” Coloring books and colored pencils sit on her coffee table.
Lorenzo cites Amazon Prime as an example of great design. “That’s an experience,” she said, noting the simple, no-stress online ordering and the fast delivery. From the online retailer’s perspective, she said, it answers an important question concerning customer loyalty: “How are we going to make a customer sticky?”
Besides spending 16 years at Frog, Lorenzo has been president of Quirky, a crowd-sourced product company, co-founder of the mobile video insights firm Vidlet Inc., and a board member and adviser to several startup companies.
“She’s one of the outstanding design leaders really in the world,” said Phil Gilbert, the Austin-based general manager of design for IBM. “She understands the creative mindset, she understands the creative process, and she understands the business of design as well.”
IBM will host and teach one of UT’s classes in the fall at its studio on Burnet Road in North Austin. Gilbert said he’s impressed with the university’s interdisciplinary emphasis, explaining that a mix of skill sets is essential to the team-based approach to design that his and other companies employ. He said IBM has hired 1,100 formally trained designers around the world since the beginning of 2013, two-thirds of them straight out of college.
“I can’t say enough great things about Doreen,” said Jon Kolko, who worked with her at Frog and directs the Austin Center for Design, a nonprofit career school. “She transformed Frog into a global innovation powerhouse, and she’s going to similarly help transform UT’s design offerings.”
Bob Metcalfe, a computer networking pioneer and professor of innovation at UT, is also a big fan — of Lorenzo as well as of the integration of design across the curriculum. He credits Doug Dempster, dean of the College of Fine Arts, for selling the concept to several other deans, who chipped in money from their budgets to help underwrite the program.
The students currently enrolled in the new design offerings hail “from almost every conceivable major on campus,” Dempster said. Job prospects for students with design skills are quite good, in contrast with some disciplines in the fine arts, he said.
“It has a new vogue in big business that is astonishing. We as a university are trying to respond to that,” Dempster said, noting that UT also has established the Design Institute for Health, a collaboration of his college and the Dell Medical School that is designing patient flow at the same-day surgery unit to eliminate the waiting room.
Dempster sees his college’s design enrollment doubling from its current 100 in the next few years and possibly adding a professional degree program.
Maurie McInnis, UT’s executive vice president and provost, also allocated funds to get the design program rolling. Its long-term prospects will depend in part on how many students sign up for the classes.
“She comes to us with extraordinary experience in exactly this space,” McInnis said of Lorenzo. “Part of our budgeting process is paying attention to where students are taking classes. We’ll find out if students are flocking to it.”
Currently: clinical professor in fine arts and founding director of the Center for Integrated Design at the University of Texas
Previously: President of Quirky and of Frog Design
Education: Bachelor’s degree in theater, State University of New York at Stony Brook; master’s in communications, Boston University.
Family: Married to Michael Scully, an author; two children.
Worth noting: A self-described gym rat, she likes yoga and “bodypump,” a rapid-fire workout with weights.
Quote: On her dislike of the slogan “fail fast”: “The name of my book is going to be ‘I Never Use the F-word.’”