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Design Classes Help MBAs Think Outside the Box

Classes in product design help MBA students take an innovative approach to entrepreneurship.

MBA students may take courses with students from other disciplines, such as engineering, when in a design class.
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For MBA student Brint Markle, a class in product design and development opened his mind to new paths and perspectives.

The former magazine founder and Bain and Co. strategy consultant came to the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in fall of 2012. Almost immediately he wanted to start another business. The avid skier wanted to create products that help people avoid avalanches.

Markle worked on an idea with another Sloan student and then took the design course in his second semester. The class put him in touch with a variety of students.

Some classmates attended MIT, while others were from the Rhode Island School of Design; some were in Sloan, while others were in MIT's engineering school. Markle loved the intellectual diversity.

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"It's the best class I've taken and that goes all the way back to kindergarten," he says. The eclectic mix of peers allowed him to meet two other classmates – Jim Christian, a graduate student in engineering, and Sam Whittemore, an undergraduate engineering major – who helped him cofound AvaTech, which develops proactive avalanche safety systems. The other student Markle worked with in AvaTech's early stages is now in an advisory role for the company.

The trio, along with other classmates, worked on AvaTech in the class. Markle has enjoyed learning about electronics from his partners and teaching them about business topics, such as valuation.

"Taking a design course is a really fantastic way to learn about solving problems in very different ways," Markle says. "It's also really valuable to learn to speak other people's language outside of the MBA community."

Design classes help MBA candidates expand their thinking about how products are created and marketed as well as learn about team building, often while learning new skills from nonbusiness students. Prospective business students who want to have a career in entrepreneurship or get less-traditional business skills can consider applying to schools that give students the option of taking these courses.

The Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western University launched a department of design and innovation in September. Next year, Johns Hopkins University's Carey Business School will graduate its first cohort in the MBA-M.A. in design leadership, which is offered through a partnership with the Maryland Institute College of Art.

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At the Graduate School of Business at Stanford, students can take design classes through "the d.school." These courses cover topics such as how to lead an organization's creative team. Graduate students in d.school courses must be enrolled in the business school or another program, says Jeremy Utley, who runs executive education for the design school and teaches several classes.

Utley worked at a consulting firm before going to Stanford for his MBA. While in business school, he took some design courses that changed his outlook on life. "It's given me a sense of permission and emotional freedom," he says.

He took a class on entrepreneurial design and extreme affordability, for example, which helps students learn about alleviating extreme poverty with product and service innovation.

After graduating he returned to his job, but was soon called back to Stanford to do a teaching fellowship in the design school and continued to teach there once the fellowship ended.

"Being at d.school actually helped me realize that what I really love is teaching and helping people see themselves in new ways," he says.

At MIT, students can take a design course while in business school or pursue a master's degree in system design and management, which is offered through the school's engineering and business schools. The joint program caters to engineers and often helps graduates become product managers or chief engineers in a company, says Steven D. Eppinger, a professor of management and innovation at MIT.

"They don't get the whole MBA," says Eppinger. "Instead they get some business education and some engineering education."