'Blended learning will remain the ideal model for me'

‘A pioneer in her field, an innovative educator and an inspiring lecturer.’ These are just a few of the accolades heaped upon Dr. Giulia Calabretta. Having already won the 2017 award for best lecturer in the Faculty of Industrial Design and Engineering, Associate Professor Giulia Calabretta went on to be elected the 2017 Best Lecturer at Delft University of Technology as a whole by a jury consisting of students and former winners. As a result she is competing for the National ISO Teacher of the Year Award. What makes her teaching so special? And what makes the field of strategic design so valuable?

Text by Arnoud Houweling | photo by Hans Stakelbeek

Currently Giulia Calabretta is the coordinator and lecturer of the course Strategic Value of Design. Moreover, she is known for mentoring an army of students and for conceiving and delivering many offline and online courses, both for students and innovation professionals. But her ‘career’ started much earlier. “As a child I was always a little teacher”, Giulia Calabretta says. “I loved to play the teacher game with my dolls and playmates. By then I was already trying to make the learning experience more fun.” Decades later these ‘games’ have resulted in an innovative educational model she refers to as Discussion Based Teaching, a form of blended learning. Calabretta: “My colleague Dirk Snelders and I offer a purely one-way transfer of knowledge through online videos, but inn class we can focus on the discussions between students, where they reflect on what they have learned online, discuss this and thus create their own visions. This enables students to hone their critical thinking and debating skills, which is necessary because strategic designers in particular are often not well understood within companies. Employees such as marketing managers or finance managers are often unclear about what strategic designers do. So strategic designers need to learn to argue for themselves, for their role and for the value of their work.”

The human perspective

“Traditionally, company managers and designers speak different languages”, Calabretta explains. “Managers are mainly focused on the short term implications of choices. They generally emphasise profit and market share as key performance indicators. However, designers are driven by creating visions and by improving people’s lives. So this tends to clash. This is one of the reasons why we involve practitioners in education. They give presentations and offer intermediate coaching to students, to help them develop business sensitivity and communication skills.

In some of the courses of the Strategic Design Master the role of practitioners is different, as students actually receive strategic challenges by companies such as Ford and KLM. They are expected to come up with solutions for real problems, like ‘How can we speed up the process of loading a plane?’ or ‘How can we make a certain department more open to innovative ideas?’ In this case practitioners are ‘clients’, thus stimulating the students to professionalise their work and deliverables. They also learn how to capture the complexity of an organisational context, deal with multiple stakeholders and create engagement with design solutions.”

Having a business background herself, Calabretta stresses that strategic designers can help companies understand what their true values are. “Moreover they are able to visualise basic ideas quickly, using a sketch or a prototype. This can help managers to feel that their innovations are less risky than they may have anticipated.” But she feels that perhaps the most important contribution of strategic designers is their focus on the human perspective. A key example is given in her book Strategic Design: Eight Essential Practices Every Strategic Designer Must Master (co-written with Gerda Gemser and Ingo Karpen). “Here we describe how Philips is changing into a digital company, with a strong focus on health care. The role of design has been finding out what the health care experience should be from the perspective of patients. Take for instance the paediatric MRI scanner they have developed. Rather than improving the MRI technology, Philips created an environment in which children feel less frightened. This is not about the best technology, it is about making a better experience. Putting people in the centre of companies’ strategies and decision making, that is what a strategic designer stands for. That’s what makes him or her tick.”

Research-based education

“The eight practices described in our book are the outcome of research in the last five years on the core strengths of the strategic designer”, Calabretta says. “These practices are the foundation of my lectures and classes. Furthermore they are the subject of current research, in which we try to find out whether strategic design generates value for companies, like more profit, more engaged employees or a better innovation mindset.

Another area of my research is the relationship between strategic design and big data and artificial intelligence. We think that strategic design can play a role in integrating human needs into these technologies and keeping them human. In addition, we are conducting research into design leadership. Imagine having a designer sitting on the Executive Board, how should he lead? And what could he contribute from his specialism?” On this topic, Calabretta is full of confidence: “I think many more companies will have a chief design officer in their corporate governance in the near future. So understanding what to do in this job and how to relate to the other C-suits in the board of a company remains an important part of the research in my field.

Blended learning

Two prizes (or three if she wins the ISO award) will not stop Giulia Calabretta from striving to get even better. “I want to understand more about online education”, she says. “I am particularly interested in using that in the exchange with practitioners. Online education platforms would offer a lot of scope to integrate managers into the discussion, which is now mainly between students and teachers. And of course there is a lot of artificial intelligence coming in, so I am curious to see how I can use that.

Blended learning will remain the ideal model for me, although it brings some organisational challenges. With these smaller discussion groups you need more rooms and more staff to moderate. Besides, I would like to find a way to capture these discussions and organise their content, so that students can eventually continue the discussions after class, to build on each other year after year, and perhaps involve thought leaders. I hope technology will also help us with this, as the future of the field of strategic design, as a whole, is closely related to technology.”