Mechanical Engineering 104B! The most popular course offered at Stanford University, Silicon Valley incubator and home of one of the top engineering schools in America, ranked #2 in the country by U.S. News, just under M.I.T. And you, lucky Stanford student, can take Mechanical Engineering 104B just because you got into Stanford and made it to your junior or senior year—it’s upper-division and graduate level only. There are no prerequisites. No math, no science. You don’t have to know a single thing about mechanical engineering, much less major in it, and you might even still be thinking that “engineering” means keeping a train running on its tracks.
The class is titled “Designing Your Life,” and one of its co-instructors is William Burnett, a former designer for Mattel and Apple and adjunct engineering professor who heads Stanford’s undergraduate program in product design. Product design at Stanford is a rigorous major that requires a raft of math, physics, psychology, studio art, and above all, mechanical engineering courses in order to graduate—as well it should, because just think of all the technical skills you’d need just to design an office chair that someone might want to sit in all day.
Anyone Can Do It
But in Mechanical Engineering 104B, no worry about any of that actual engineering stuff. “This isn’t a technical course,” its webpage reassures soothingly, and you’ll never have to design one thing in order to pass (the course is pass-fail anyway). “There may be some simple projects…, but nothing that takes any prior design or fabrication experience. Anyone can do it and it’s a great thing to learn.”
Instead, what “Designing Your Life” offers—and what attracts a full 17 percent of Stanford juniors and seniors to sign up for it, so many that the course is offered continuously throughout the three-quarter terms that make up Stanford’s academic year—is what Burnett and his co-instructor, fellow Stanford adjunct David Evans (leader of the team that developed the first Apple mouse), call “Design Thinking.” And “Design Thinking” sounds an awful lot like…plain old-fashioned self-help.
Need to figure out what to do after graduation? Find a mate? How about filling up those long days after you retire? How about losing weight? “I’ve lost 25 pounds, reconnected with close friends and refocused my energy on specific goals and habits,” wrote New York Times health columnist Tara Parker-Pope reporting on Design Thinking in January 2016. “Design thinking has helped me identify the obstacles that were stopping me from achieving my goals, and it’s helped me reframe my problems to make them easier to solve.”
Keeping a ‘Gratitude Journal’
Indeed, the Design Your Life course’s relation to actual product design seems to be strictly metaphoric. Juniors and seniors who sign up for the two-credit course, monitored by Evans and Burnett with the help of guest lecturers and a flock of student-volunteers who lead discussion groups engage in such activities (according to a Fast Company report) as keeping a “gratitude journal,” working with “a deck of cards featuring problem-solving techniques,” and drafting “odyssey plans” for their first five years out of school. For Stanford sophomores, there is a starter course, Mechanical Engineering 104B, “Design Your Stanford,” in which they can earn another two credits plotting out the rest of their education. And For grad students and postdocs, there’s Engineering 311B, “Designing the Professional,” offering the opportunity to draft career-based “odyssey plans.”
As for Stanfordians unlucky enough to have graduated before Evans and Burnett launched Design Your Life in 2010—and for those whose SAT scores weren’t high enough to get them into Stanford in the first place—Evans and Burnett have a best-selling 2016 book, Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived Joyful Life. Alternatively, knock-off, or perhaps parallel, Design Thinking classes and workshops have been sprouting up like ailanthus trees around the country: at the University of Vermont, the Chicago-based online school IDEO U, and K-12 teachers’ conferences everywhere.
Looking for Moral Order
How Stanford’s prestigious and rigorous engineering school got into the touchy-feely purveying business most likely has to do with two factors: the desire of engineers to feel less like slide-rule pushers and more like creative artists and the yearning of hyper-educated young people for meaning and moral order in a post-religious world. (A 2008 study by the Templeton Foundation found that only a fourth of college juniors attended regular religious services, and 38 percent of them never set foot in a house of worship.) During the mid-1960s Stanford had created a “Joint Program in Design,” (often called the “Stanford Design Program”) an inter-departmental collaboration between its art and engineering departments predicated on the then-novel idea that design engineering should be “human-centered,” as one of the program’s founders called it. It offered undergraduate and graduate degrees in both mechanical engineering and fine arts/design. All students had to take a class called “visual thinking” in which they took “voyages” in a 15-foot geodesic dome featuring light shows aimed at stimulating their creativity.
Then, in 2004, Stanford mechanical engineering professor David Kelley, apparent coiner of the phrase Design Thinking to describe a project-based methodology for solving problems and heavily involved in the design program, used a grant from German software billionaire Hasso Plattner to help found—and erect a multi-million-dollar campus building for—the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, known informally as the “d-school.” The d-school doesn’t grant degrees, but its warehouse-like open-plan structure does offer an atmosphere that satisfies many people’s ideas of what creativity is all about: whiteboards for scribbling ideas, sticky notes all over the walls, and cool vintage cars and minimalist furniture as decoration.
Most significantly, the d-school offers undergraduate and graduate-level courses that have the coveted Stanford “mechanical engineering” label attached to them, even as they sometimes skirt the more demanding aspects of mechanical engineering. The course-takers typically hail from Stanford’s other schools besides engineering who can earn credits for taking such courses as “Civic Dreams, Human Spaces,” “Designing for Extreme Affordability,” and “Beyond Pink and Blue: Gender in Tech.” Neither Burnett nor Evans is officially on the d-school faculty roster, but Design Your Life is definitely from the d-school template
From Engineering to Life Design
Lately, though, Stanford’s School of Engineering has been distancing itself from the d-school’s free-for-all ethos. For example, it has discontinued the 1960s-era Joint Program in Design, whose last class graduated a few days ago in June. The school replaced the graduate-level program with a tough-minded master’s program in “design impact engineering” that includes no art courses, accepts no art majors, and requires all its applicants to have solid engineering or hard science backgrounds. A page on the program’s website diplomatically explains that the master’s program has no connection to the d-school, which, it says, was set up to give Stanford students “confidence in their creative ability,” not teach them “depth and expertise in design.”
Still, that hasn’t thrust any sand into the well-oiled—and clearly lucrative–gears of Design Your Life. On the Burnett-Evans website, you can learn about the Design Your Life TEDx talk, the Design Your Life workshops coming up in August, and the fact that Northern Arizona University selected Designing Your Life as its freshman book read. Oh, and “Designing Your Life for Women”: a $950 two-day immersion in “odyssey plans,” “group ideation,” and “your three potential futures,” plus meditation and kundalini yoga for an extra $45. You won’t get Stanford mechanical engineering credit for this, but you will, it’s promised, “flourish.”