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An Interview with Kevin Morris, OCAD U CO's Managing Director

 - Nov 19, 2018
References: www2.ocadu &
OCAD U CO is a new collaborative and dual-purpose high-profile activation from Toronto’s OCAD University. The space will serve as grounds for executive education for organizations and individuals in the public and private sectors– from the training and facilitation of design-thinking to refining the design process. Secondly, it will satisfy the function of a business incubator. Dubbed ‘Imagination Catalyst,’ this feature of OCAD U CO will house 10 to 15 design-focused start-ups at a time.

With a total of 14,000 sq. ft., the space is cleverly divided. ‘The Commons’ – referred to as "the collision space," is where everyone ‘hangs out.’ The layout is open, features modular furniture and is "purposefully under-designed" to give the user the ability to rearrange based on activity or needs. The rooms that oversee the lake are where a lot of the training happens. There, companies like Bell or the Government of Ontario, converge to get training and partake in week-long boot camps, facilitated design sprints, prototyping and more. OCAD U CO also offers plenty of informal meeting space that encourages a collaborative environment and a start-up HQ, which is dedicated to the entrepreneurs in residence.

Located on Toronto's Harbor Front, OCAD is the first university to be amid this tech start-up haven. Trend Hunter spoke with OCAD U CO’s Managing Director Kevin Morris about the space, its uses, its values and how OCAD University is pioneering the momentum for design-thinking in the corporate and not-for-profit sectors.

How did the idea of OCAD U CO come up?

OCAD is the largest and oldest educational Art and Design institution in Canada. That means we have more than 140 years of rich history, pioneering new methods for teaching, design and creative problem-solving.

What we have observed over the last little while is that industries are changing at an accelerated speed. OCAD has unique capabilities and knowledge that can help leaders and organizations to not only respond to that disruption but to proactively anticipate it. These are things like Strategic Foresight — the ability to imagine plausible future scenarios so that you don’t become blind-sided by a new competitor or by some new market force.

There are also skills like Inclusive Design — designing for the full range of human diversity, taking into consideration things like able-bodied-ness, gender, age, and more. When we don’t take an inclusive approach to design, we kind of passively exclude other people from being able to access the product which isn't good for users and certainly isn't good for businesses or governments.

Those are two examples of what we’ve been teaching students at OCAD University and increasingly, we are realizing that people in the industry really need these skills as well since traditional business approaches are less and less effective.

I think we really caught on to the fact that there is something unique here at OCAD that can become really valuable if we make it accessible to leaders and organizations. We have the ability to challenge the way they think about their own strategy and innovation.

OCAD is a largely practicality-focused institution. Is this new activation meant to infuse it with more academic-forward contexts?

A definite advantage of ours is that we not only have experience with Art and Design Thinking but also what some might call Art and Design Doing. How do we take the frameworks and the theories that we are learning and apply them to real-world contexts? I think that is why Design Thinking is a core principle for everything that we do here with our executive training. Everything is based on learning by doing. For example, we have a rule that during training, no more than 20 minutes at a time will be dedicated to passive communication [traditional teaching]. We want the other 40 minutes of that hour to be about practicing, reflecting and understanding how to use that piece of knowledge in our actual real-world context. That is important because in the corporate setting of today, traditional training rests on the assumption that it begins and ends in the classroom, and we'd like to turn that assumption on its head.

The way we teach people Design Thinking at OCAD U CO is setting leaders up with the tools, the frameworks, and knowledge they need, with an emphasis on the way they can carry it back to their organization. A lot of that is taking the idea that we are practice-based — that OCAD is known for painting, making models and prototypes, and using it to our advantage to embed those skills into organizations.

How do you think that will impact the students?

One of the cool things about OCAD U CO is that the space provides amazing work opportunities for our undergraduate and graduate students. Everything here is delivered by world-leading faculty who are also supported by an army of students. In the boot camp we held last week for Canada’s largest commercial real estate developer, we had nearly a dozen students involved. They were helping with the design of the training and were bringing what they learned in the classroom to what we end up teaching executives at OCAD U CO. Executives who are going through these programs really value this because they are getting fresh perspectives from future thinkers who are naturally creative problem solvers, educated at OCAD U.

One of our goals is to serve executives, industry leaders and organizations in a way that makes experiences like this available to our students and faculty as well.

During the Boot Camps, do you divide the executives into teams where they don’t know each other?

Yes, 100%! That is part of the learning experience. To give you an example, last week’s participants were all from the same organization but had never met each other as they came from different global offices and from different functions. One of the things they left OCAD U CO with was that the value of collaborating with people outside of your own group has the potential to basically bust the silos of the organization.

Similarly, in 2019, we are going to have a whole bunch of open enrollment courses for executives, where you’ll be joined by dozens of leaders from other companies. Hence, part of the community we are building is to span silos, but also span companies and industries by bringing those folks together and allowing them to share knowledge on the big problems they are trying to solve.

How is the design thinking studio disrupting the industry?

Business tools and frameworks are not necessarily holding up to how things are actually changing in the world. What our clients are seeing is that the organizations and leaders who have the best understanding of their user or customer ultimately end of
with the biggest advantage. When I know more about what my customer wants in the context of their everyday life, I am better able to develop products and services that are valuable to them. With the iterative nature of Design Thinking, we can get to these insights in days and weeks, not months or years.

When training a team of senior executives earlier this year, we helped them imagine five breakthrough concepts for their business that could be developed into testable experiments in five weeks or less and for $5000 or less. Those experiments can give us more insight faster than waiting a year to build and test a new product in high-fidelity, so we see that as positive disruption!

What are two and three-day design sprints and why are they not enough?

Design sprints have emerged over the last few years. They take the design process and compress it into an accelerated version of the design process that happens in just a few days. It is a good news-bad news situation. The good news is that more people everywhere are getting exposure to the basic tools of Design Thinking. They are understanding what it means to quickly prototype something and to get that idea in front of users.

The challenge that we are seeing, though, is that so many people are getting exposed to Design Thinking in this hyper-accelerated version. They are checking the boxes of the Design Thinking process, perhaps, but we have the point of view that good, meaningful, lasting, and profitable innovation takes more than a week. It takes going really, really deep on understanding forces of change in the world and the context of our users’ lives – including things like understanding the way they spend time in their homes, understanding how they make decisions or think about complex things like money and relationships. Those things are hard to develop a deep understanding of in two or three days.

Design sprints are good for solving problems that we already understand well. If we are improving on a product that we already have in-market, for people that we already serve – design sprints are terrific! We can design sprint our way through to making it better but increasingly, just improving existing products isn’t enough. Design sprints likely wouldn’t have helped Blockbuster anticipate or design a disruptive new streaming business, but they may have helped them better the store experience or improve products they
already offered their customers. What they needed to be doing was taking a deep exploratory view of what was happening in the world to understand emerging trends and needs like online consumption, the changing lifestyle of consumers, new types of family structures, or powerful algorithms.

We are really dead-set on helping our clients develop the tools to do design-sprints, yes, but more importantly, to equip them with the deep skills for understanding their customers' emerging needs and then using pattern-finding and sense-making to better anticipate the future. Otherwise, you end up on a perpetual hamster wheel of sorts always playing ‘catch-up’. This is what I call the ‘Core Innovation Trap’.

How do you envision a day at OCAD U CO?

Let me give you an example of an experience that we run for leaders and teams over several weeks.

Instead of going through a rapid one-week design sprint, we actually go through many weeks of the design process and guide a team of learners through the deep steps of a rigorous design thinking project. In those weeks, you are getting training from us on Monday to learn the tools and frameworks you'll need for doing great design-thinking work that week. Then, Tuesday to Thursday is about actually going out and using those new tools within your organization on a real opportunity, with coaching from OCAD U CO faculty. On Fridays, you come back in and share what you learned – what worked, what didn’t, what new insights you have. The next week, you advance through the design process in the same way.

In this way, we give teams the time to properly learn the deep tools of the design process, like doing rigorous analysis and the synthesis of all the data they collected in user research – a step that is far too often overlooked and leads to lackluster innovations. Clients get really excited about this experience. It’s different than spending four days in a room to do a bunch of fast brainstorming.

This is the ideal scenario because we are a) training clients on the skills that they come to us for — Design-Thinking, Design Research, Inclusive Design, Strategic Foresight; and b) we are helping them as they do it in real time. We get to see the skills embedded and the companies get real results through it.

How do you think the space will impact the creative and business-minded individuals that meet there?

We designed the space for collaboration because we believe that multiple disciplines need to come together more frequently to do the type of innovation work that we are talking about – the deep, meaningful work. We know we need designers who can ask great questions and see patterns that others cannot, we need business people who can think about terrific new business models, and we need technologists who can build amazing new offerings. These three together; that’s the secret sauce. Business and technology perspectives are common in business. We’re working to get design at the table in a more substantial way to boost results. The space is designed to be home for business and technology folks to interact with creatives and learn the creative tools they need, like Design Thinking, to build ‘design literacy’.

In the open, flexible space we designed we imagined those perspectives coming together– the walls that move open, the tables that fold together, the big open collision space.

In the quest of developing new business models, products, technologies, and experiences, the thing that is going to separate the good from the great is the ability to understand the user better than your competitors. That is what design brings, and the set of skills we intend on helping industry leaders and their teams develop.