Lessons from Higher Education

james helms
5 min readMay 9, 2019
Midterm progress — the double diamond “we are here”

I’m wrapping up my semester as the Designer in Residence for SMU’s Masters of Design and Innovation program, and wanted to share some observations around the experience and the opportunities for Design to have a big impact on educational institutions and the students and communities they serve.

First, and foremost, this was a learning opportunity for me. Both a reminder of the school-life balance of student life and the frustrating ambiguity of learning by doing — with the intense pressure to learn in a constrained, time-boxed way. It’s all oh so relevant to the urgency with which we should attack our learning opportunities at our day jobs. There are so many parallels, I’ll just capture a few of the major ones:

Inside the Forest Theater, thinking about all the possibilities

There is no substitute for on-the-ground research
The initial assignment kick-off for our project took place in the condemned Forest Theater, in South Dallas. The theater which has a long, illustrious history, had fallen into decay over the past decade. Grounding the students with a briefing held in the physical theater was an important element of the research. It set the expectation that, to properly understand this challenge, they’d need to spend time in this neighborhood. As graduate students attending an elite school on a beautiful campus in one of Dallas’ most prestigious neighborhoods, The Forest Theater and its surroundings presented them with plenty of contrasts. The historically underserved, economically disadvantaged neighborhood was the perfect place for the students to exercise their curiosity, set aside their assumptions, and use inquiry and other design tools to instigate conversations and tease out insights.

NOT evidence of a crime, just props from a movie.

The human-centered design research methodology is a powerful tool — arguably the most powerful tool — for understanding and investing in underserved communities.
There are so many overlapping, systemic complications in neighborhoods like 75215, it’s difficult to separate one complication from another. The students’ research uncovered the good, bad and ugly: strong educational, spiritual and cultural organizations, crime statistics, and the deep mistrust and disenfranchised attitudes that accompany generations of promises made and broken.
While many of the issues felt overwhelming and insurmountable (racism is not a challenge nine grad students can effectively tackle in a semester), they also found glimmers of real inspiration speaking to those who’ve started to get traction with positive change in the neighborhood. They met with community leaders, influencers, and organizations like BonTon Farms and St. Philips School and Community Center. They found optimism and progress.

The history and the future of the theater. This quickly-assembled prototype helped visualize an idea and ground the conversation.

Experiments and prototypes are the pivotal element of the otherwise abstract nature of academic research.
The rubber really met the road as the students started to test some of the assumptions they’d uncovered. After noticing most of the local businesses didn’t open until 10 or 11am, one team decided to test demand for a morning gathering place with a pop-up coffee shop. The other used a series of booths inside the empty theater to engage the imagination of neighborhood influencers, inviting them to co-design the experience they’d like to have at a freshly reopened theater. Both teams were shocked, surprised and delighted by the engagement they witnessed. There was a palpable turn in the energy of the class, from a lot of discussions, interviews, data and insights to real tangible behavioral data. The students’ excitement was clear as they shared their experiments, their surprises and their stories. One team ended up on the news. The other earned the attention of the design consultancy tasked with redesigning the theater’s interior. I’m always energized by the moment when teams get tangible. And it’s always fun to watch the aha spread across their faces as the “reality” of a prototype, for good or ill, reveals real data about their hypothesis.

Rescued artwork from the Theater

Team dynamics can make or break great work
Great student teams doing great work can often be sidelined by little things that become big things: a missed commitment, a missed date, a miscommunication. As the stress of assembling a semester’s work over a few late nights sets in, everyone’s nerves wear thin and bottled up resentments boil over. It’s real and it’s part of every team dynamic. Building trust, aligning on declared shared outcomes , responsibilities and agreed-to timelines is the nature of working as a team — especially as members of that team juggle their own responsibilities (significant others, other classes, other work, kids.) These student teams felt these pressures just like any other team I’ve coached or managed. The combination of late nights, no sleep and a little extra caffeine sounds like the perfect recipe for a blow-up. Developing both a working agreement for the teams to follow and some tools to use for diffusing the tension will serve any team well when the work gets hard and the time gets short.

SMU MADI students, kicking off the assignment with a lot of questions

You don’t have to be a designer to benefit from a design education
On the first day of class, students identified themselves as teachers, business majors, athletes. I would consider all of them designers now. Staying humble, doing curious, getting brave. Tackling big, meaty problems worth defining and breaking them down into their most critical opportunities. Making those opportunities tangible to learn through the behavior of others. Doing so as a cross-functional team with shared outcomes and differentiated responsibilities. These are designers.

One final takeaway: as the City of Dallas thinks about their future goals to create a diverse, robust culture that attracts great people, great companies and investment of all kinds, SMU’s MADI program has quietly begun to create a template for engaging with it’s citizens to co-create that future.

Like I said, this was a learning opportunity for me. I was humbled to be invited to contribute. I likely talked too much — a few of my points likely went a little longer than their attention. I can only hope they found half the value in my presence that I felt in theirs.



james helms

Design Leader, Advisor, Speaker, Student, Advocate, Enabler.