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Design thinking and the future of learning things: Michael Sturtz

Michael Sturtz has been an innovative teacher, builder and facilitator for more than 20 years in a variety of fields. His ability to approach any creative challenge with tenacity and innovation has made him a leader in the world of art, design, and theater, opening new frontiers for cross-disciplinary collaboration.  In 1999 he founded The Crucible, which is now the largest non-profit industrial arts education facility in the United States.  Currently, Michael teaches at Stanford University’s d.School and is the Executive Director of the Creative Ignition Lab @ Autodesk, which seeks to explore the potential of visual, experiential, and embodied thinking to advance the future of learning, creativity, design, and making.  Michael also does international organizational consulting on arts education and design thinking.  Read Michael’s full bio here.

Tell us about your background and your current work as the Executive Director/Founder of the Stanford Creativite Ignition Lab.
My goal has always been to break down the barriers of education and foster creativity. I founded The Crucible, the industrial art school in Oakland, to give all types of learners the skills and confidence to create in a non-competitive and collaborative environment. After twelve years at the helm, I retired from The Crucible to seek out new creative challenges, and found them at Stanford's d.school. I directed the Redesigning Theater project where we used the design thinking process to reinvent theater and live engagement for the 20 to 35 year old demographic. The project spearheaded a new artistic genre of live performance that incorporated emerging technology and social media. Currently, I’m the founder/executive director of the Stanford Creative Ignition Lab @ Autodesk, which is very much in line with my pursuit to foster non-traditional creativity environments. With Autodesk as a collaborator and host, the Lab seeks to explore the potential of visual, experiential, and embodied thinking to advance the future of learning, creativity, design, and making. The CI Lab aims to pioneer new ways to more purposefully bring the tools of invention and production seamlessly into creative processes.


Creative Ignition Explorers meet with Maurice Conti and Heather Kerrick at the Robot Lab in Autodesk's Pier 9 office.​

How is the design thinking process used in your work today and in the past?

I’d been using many of the design thinking principles before they were referred to as such. Radical collaboration, ideation, empathy for the user, these concepts were employed in the creative direction of The Crucible. The Redesigning Theater project used design thinking as the activator for exploration and testing prototypes. Design thinking is one of the core methodologies and tool sets we’re using in the Creative Ignition Lab to develop new ways of learning. In our current work, teaching the class ‘The Art of Creative Engagement’, we use all aspects of design thinking to innovate new learning engagement techniques. Students design and prototype learning experiments that are aided by cutting edge video projection and interactive technologies from Obscura Digital, and tested on the floor of the Children’s Creativity Museum. I also teach innovation and design thinking to awaken creativity in Bay Area executive teams, as well as teams hailing from China, Turkey, India and other places around the world. 


My stanford d.school class "Humanize My Ride" where students used design thinking to create an outreach vehicle for the Tech Museum of Innovation.  ​

How can the design process help foster new ways of teaching and learning?

We’re finding that the more technology we add to learning situations, the more direct human empathy and understanding is required to balance that out. As students get more involved with technology, the educational landscape needs to evolve. Understanding their learning experiences, will help us foster the next generation of builders and makers, to shape the world in ways we are only just starting to envision. By using design thinking, we are able to gain a greater empathic understanding of how to unlock young creative minds and empower them to reach their full potential.


Creative Ignition Explorer Dourk Gurel demonstrates his digital clay interface prototype. ​

What are some of the trends that are emerging in response to 3D modeling, digital fabrication and build-making?
We now have quicker and cheaper ways to prototype products and bring them to market; that is, for those who have the access and mindset to use these digital tools.  However, there are some who are still held back by the current methods of digital creation. For many would-be creators, needing to understand how to code or even just sitting in front of a computer keyboard is an insurmountable obstacle. The lab aims to identify and develop ways that the means of production can come closer to the creative space. That way, inventors can focus on creation, instead of needing to shift gears away from the creative process in order to move a project forward. We believe that there’s a more creative-friendly pathway to making things that’s fluid and can appeal to all types of learners. 


Creative Ignition Explorers experiment with Obscura Digital's interactive video pool table.

How can educators and learners enhance their understanding of the design learning process?

Take a class at the d.school, or get involved with the Creative Ignition Lab. It’s part of our mission to educate people about the problem-solving tools of design thinking. 

What will design-based learning look in twenty years?
I expect there to be a greater harmony between the means of production and people’s creative space. Today, everyone can be a global photographer by using their smart phone to take photos and share them with the world instantly. In 20 years, I imagine our handheld devices will be capable of 3D capturing, redesigning and manufacturing all sorts of products and experiences around us with that same amount of ease. With the tools of invention at everyone’s fingertips, my hope is that education will focus on how to fully harness each individual’s creativity and leverage their potential as a designer, maker, innovator or whatever they will be calling it in 20 years.


Creative Ignition Innovators prototype the future of learning.​