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“Fail Early, Fail Often”

Freshman students enrolled in the DIS program spend their first semester at Rensselaer in Studio 1, where they learn basic skills — critical thinking, interdisciplinary collaboration, observation and perception, and communication, visualization, and sketching — that they’ll use for the rest of their career.

Before students can start on a design, they are taught how to research and clearly define a need, identify who the users and stakeholders of a proposed design would be, and assess and forecast cultural, environmental, and economic impacts.

“Each of these factors should inform and impact any proposed design,” says Burt Swersey, a lecturer in the Department of Mechanical, Aeronautical, and Nuclear Engineering, who teaches three courses in the design curriculum. “Research is the earliest stage of the innovation process, and one of the most important. We need a clear understanding of the scope of what is needed — and why it’s needed — before we can begin to generate feasible solutions to meet the need.”

Swersey says the research process helps students achieve “user-centered” or “outside-in” design, where the need, the user, the stakeholders, and the environmental, cultural, or societal factors are all accounted for at the start of the process so that they are reflected in the resulting designs.

Following an intense inquiry period, students work in groups to come up with as many ideas as possible for the challenge they’ve been given. The sessions “focus strictly on idea generation and there is no judgment allowed,” according to Dean Nieusma, assistant professor in science and technology studies, who teaches two design studio courses.

“We like to tell students to remove the words ‘no, but’ from their vocabulary and to replace them with ‘and also,’” says Nieusma. “We tell them ‘take your craziest ideas and spin them off into more crazy or less crazy ideas, but give yourself an opportunity to see them through before rejecting or abandoning them.’”

Determination is a key component for success in the program, and students are taught that failure can be their greatest ally. Instilled with a “fail early, fail often” mantra, the students quickly learn to stop treating every idea as precious in its own right, according to Nieusma.

“Your first idea is never your best idea, and iteration is absolutely the key to good design” says Swersey. “Students have to be willing to drop what they’ve done if in the process they see a better solution or a more important need to address.”

Swersey says sometimes students will spend two or three hours on an idea and think they’ve invested so much time that they can’t change their focus or approach. But, he says, good designers need to train themselves to be open to consider multiple solutions to any challenge that is faced.


Designs on the Future

“Design is a lot like dance. To be a dancer you need to get out on the dance floor and just do it; you can’t fake it. The same is true for a designer. It’s OK if all of your ideas aren’t great — and they won’t be — the process of empowering yourself to put them down on paper is invaluable.”


During the design process, faculty members challenge students to tackle common assumptions that may narrow their thinking.

“Many students, particularly students early in the program, are held back by the idea that they can only create things that can be sold to consumers to make a profit,” says Nieusma.

“It’s our job to help them see the value in designing for everybody, not just for the developed world,” adds Swersey. “We need to get away from thinking that ‘everybody’ is like us. There are innumerous opportunities for innovation in developing nations, and if you can design for developing nations, for the lowest economic levels, everyone can use your invention.”

By their sophomore year, students have already learned technical design and engineering skills such as rapid prototyping, sketching, engineering computer programs, and vector and contour drawing. They’ve learned about the design process, problem definition, analytical modeling, product evaluation, and iteration. And they’ve learned invaluable social design techniques like needs analysis, need finding through user interviews, and basic design research.

Although they are already beginning to think like socially responsible engineers and designers, they have only begun to scratch the surface of the design process. They’ll continue to sharpen their technical, design, and social-analysis skills through courses focused on aesthetics, engineering design, ethnography, and business and entrepreneurship.

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2008 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.