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Design in Business Education: A Square Peg in a Round World? By Thomas Lockwood

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Special Edition Reprint from the dmi: Review 40th Anniversary Issue


ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: vol.13 no.3, 2002

REPRINTED: vol.25 no.4, 2015



Thomas Lockwood




By Natalie Nixon

I was pleased to re-read Tom’s 2002 article for two reasons: First, because I am impressed by how spot-on his assessment was at the time; and second, because it is no longer (completely) true. What a relief!

In today’s United States, programs such as the Strategic Design MBA at Philadelphia University, as well as the design MBA degrees at the California College of Art in San Francisco, the Institute of Design in Chicago, and MICA/ Johns Hopkins in Baltimore are resounding proof of integrative approaches in an MBA context. Design thinking and systems thinking are interwoven into the ways these programs teach leadership, operations, marketing, and finance. Additionally, business schools such as Rotman at the University of Toronto and Darden at the University of Virginia have robust business design studios and design thinking modules. Other traditional MBA programs are at least now offering one course in design thinking, if not integrating it throughout their program; and their students, if not the faculty at large, have formed “innovation clubs”—code for “This is a safe space for creativity and design thinking.”

It is no longer the rule that graduate business education draws a deep demarcation between creativity and strategy. That is a false dichotomy and, as Tom wrote, there is a “rising importance of corporate creativity.” Of course, relative to the UK, Europe, and Asia, the democratization of design in business-school curricula is still novel. But the “gridlock of curriculum tradition” and accreditation metrics that impeded innovation in graduate business education are melting away and becoming more fluid. This is mainly because the gaps that Tom so rightly identified between design practitioners and business managers, and between industry’s embrace of design thinking and academia’s reluctant gaze, has been bridged by academic upstarts who are responding to the market’s demand to “give us more than a SWOT analysis!”

Tom concluded that it could take 10 years before business educators embraced the value of design. He was pretty close. Although it is still true that academia lags behind the current of industry, it is encouraging that there are an increasing number of tributaries in business education forging ahead.

Natalie Nixon is a hybrid thinker, thriving in the space where creativity and strategy are integrated. With a background in anthropology and fashion, she is an associate professor and founding director of the Strategic Design MBA program at Philadelphia University, where she holds the endowed G. Allen Mebane IV ’52 Chair for Design Thinkers. She is also a principal at Figure 8 Thinking, LLC, and has spoken at TEDx events. Her research and consulting interests are in the role of improvisation and intuition in leadership and organizations; service design; and fashion thinking as a driver of innovation.


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