The Ohio State University Alumni Association

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Designing solutions


Surya Vanka '90 MA applies design thinking to our biggest problems, including opioid addiction.

A few dozen designers, academics from many backgrounds, health care professionals and grad students cluster around tables in a sun-flooded room inside Hayes Hall.

Tacked to corkboards around the room are huge pages, each depicting an elaborate matrix of squares and diamonds. Steadily, the participants fill in the pages with colorful sticky notes, each a step toward an idea.

This group is participating in Design Swarms, a creation of Surya Vanka ’90 MA that applies principles of design to complex problems. In this case, the problem is opioid abuse.

“Every human is a bundle of creative energy. In design, what we have is a systematic
process by which we can take that raw creativity and funnel it into a series of steps that remain the same regardless of the problem,” Vanka says. Design Swarms start with creation of a persona and proceed through a series of idea-creation steps, each becoming more focused, until a single idea is chosen and expanded in detail.

Design Swarms routinely invite nontraditional participants to devise big ideas and solutions. “Design can be misunderstood as this activity of creating visually striking solutions,” Vanka says. “But those kinds of results come out of an opportunity that arises when one is so deeply engrossed in the lives of humans. In each case, it’s about serving humans.”

Surya Vanka '90 MA talks to a group of designers, academics, health care professionals and grad students in Hayes Hall in October. Vanka led the group through one of his signature Design Swarms, which apply design thinking and processes to big-picture issues such as homelessness and, in this case, the opioid crisis.
Vanka's Design Swarms guide participants through a number of steps, all of which lead to a single concept that is then expanded into ideas. Those ideas might be applied to business, public policy, products or services.
A key feature of Design Swarms is the inclusion of nontraditional participants. You don't have to have a design degree or pedigree to use this process to create meaningful solutions.