By Peter High, published on Forbes
Eight years ago, Dave Evans asked Bill Burnett to lunch. Dave was a management consultant and lecturer at the University of California Berkeley, and a co-founder of Electronic Arts. Bill was and continues to be the Executive Director of the Design Program at Stanford University. Evans had been teaching a class at Cal on vocation, and based on that experience, he thought that Burnett and he might be able to address a need in combination for the students in the Design Program. He thought that the fact that students in that program had a multi-disciplinary degree that they may have difficulty finding their first jobs. Evans notes, “I thought this was going to be a multi-part discussion and that I’d have to have a couple of meetings to sell Bill on this idea. Within 15 minutes, I had the deal done!”
Since then, Evans and Burnett have taught an open enrollment class at Stanford together, which has become one of the most popular electives at the university. The method has been the subject of two PhD theses and had demonstrated significant results in helping people design the life they want. The method is centered on the principles taught in the Product Design Program and the d.school at Stanford called “design thinking.” As the ideas grew in popularity, Evans and Burnett elected to memorialize many of the key insights and exercises in a book, Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, which has been a bestseller since its release in September of last year. They discuss many of the key themes herein.
Peter High: Bill, as the Executive Director of the Design Program at Stanford, the Co-Director of the Stanford Life Design Lab, and the co-author of the book we are discussing, please provide an overview of the Design Program at Stanford, which is foundational to the work that the two of you have been doing.
Bill Burnett: Most people, when they hear the word design, think of graphic design or industrial design. That is commonly the way design is taught, but Stanford took a different tact. We have been teaching design as a human-centered practice, since 1957. A couple of big thinkers, John Arnold and Bob McKim put together what we call human-centered design, which is Engineering, plus Psychology and a little Anthropology to try to understand people well; and then leaning hard into the concepts of creativity and ideation. This is what we now call “design thinking,” which is an innovation methodology that relies on multiple sets of tools and focuses on human needs. It is a way of innovating in anything: a product, a service, or experiences. What we primarily do at Stanford is teach undergraduates and graduates how to be design thinkers. Then they go out into the world and work at all the big companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon, and IBM. Most of my work is around teaching our Engineering students how to be innovators, the Designing Your Life class popped up as a little side project. It has kind of gotten out of control.
High: Dave, I understand the genesis of the Designing Your Life class was about eight years ago and began with you taking Bill to lunch. That then led to the recently released book, Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived Joyful Life. What was the problem you hoped to solve or the opportunity that you recognized that led you to collaborate with Bill?