How Ryerson is using design thinking to build better students

Sponsored feature: presented by The Faculty of Communication & Design at Ryerson University


In 2014, the Canadian jobs website Workopolis published a report detailing the gap between Canadians’ ever-growing education bona fides and what employers are actually looking for.

While job-seekers are listing more diplomas and degrees on their resumes, these certifications aren’t necessarily translating to being more employable. The primary qualification gaps include communication skills, problem solving and ability to work in a team.

Universities have been listening though, and some are leading the way towards creating more employable young graduates.

Ryerson’s Faculty of Communication and Design (FCAD) has stepped forward with a zone learning approach that seeks to break down long-standing program silos insulating students within their specific disciplines. The resulting landscape involves much more cross-program learning and it has proved ripe for experimentation in both course experiences and outcomes.

One such course is known as “the Supercourse.” Led by professors Hossein Rahnama and Richard Lachman, it’s become fertile ground for developing crucial problem solving and collaboration skills.

Lachman serves as the director of zone learning and explains how this course is a direct response to current job market demands. “Employers are saying that they need people who can work in small teams and identify a problem themselves and then, within that team, solve that problem. A major hierarchy isn’t necessary.”

FCAD has consciously shaped this course to place the onus of leadership and innovative thinking on the students, and this is done by introducing the risk of failure into projects that are created for real-world clients.

Lachman says that it’s not a work-for-hire scenario, but a chance to immediately apply learning into a realistic project-based experience. The value for participating client partners – which have included government ministries, hotel chains and the CBC – is gaining valuable out-of-the-box insight that looks at a nagging issue in a new way.

“If you’re in an organization, you’re focused very much on the product you are developing today,” says Lachman. “You’re looking for incremental changes. And you might think you need a website that does this, this and this. But sometimes, the situation requires someone on the outside to go out there and spend time with the actual users.”

Stepping away from assumed project needs and looking at things from a wider scope – what’s often called “design thinking” – can shake up companies that have used the same approach for years and need to ask themselves some basic questions about its effectiveness.

One Supercourse client project came from Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation, who initially sought a revised driver’s handbook. But once the student teams assessed their challenge, they pitched two unexpected solutions built around the distinct communities who require first-time driver’s licenses. One proposed delivering the content through an interactive game for teenagers, while the other considered what experienced drivers from other countries would need in order to learn the differences in road rules.

Professor Michael Carter, who also helps facilitate the student experience in this course, says these solutions are best developed when multiple perspectives come together and put collaborative thinking into action.

“The key is being trans-disciplinary,” he explains. “So, getting a nurse hooking up with a computer programmer hooking up with a UI or UX designer or a performance person is really the secret sauce that we’re looking to develop.”

For Nicole Fonseca, a second-year FCAD student, the experience allowed her to put her growing business skills to the test. “It was my first experience working in a group where we were actually creating something,” she says. “I never really had anything like that in high school so this was a good start for my entrepreneurial courses.”

Her group’s project involved creating a 360-degree concierge experience for Four Seasons hotel guests. The course outcome isn’t focused on seeing these projects scaled out into the market (although that possibility could become a reality in the near future), but to provide – in Lachman’s words – “an eye-opening experience for students.”

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Some students are natural collaborators while others need to work at more. Carter explains that a big part of the process is learning to fail – the right way.

“It takes students a while to get comfortable with failing,” he says. “There’s a lot riding on it. They’ve got to graduate and marks do have a value. But we’re trying to allow for a lot of flexibility in how they’re evaluated in order to demonstrate that they have made a mistake and they’re making a decision to move forward.”

This is one of the lessons that hit home for Fonseca. “Sometimes you think you need to wait to release something and make it perfect and polished,” she says. “But now, after this course, I think you should make your first prototype and show it to a select group of people and get customer feedback. Because what you think they may want might not be what they actually need.”

The Supercourse curriculum itself is a way for FCAD to engage in design thinking. It changes each year and responds directly to new technologies, industry trends and the problem solving instincts of incoming students.

“We want to maintain some of the rich tradition that universities have,” says Lachman. “There’s a reason why they don’t turn on a dime. They’re supposed to be a place for deeper thought. That said, we also want to support some experimentation and things that have a higher risk of failure.”

When FCAD launched the Supercourse, they didn’t know how it was going to work out. But Lachman says this curriculum structure has become something that’s incredibly valuable to the school and it is expanding into the Creative Impact Supercourse, which will allow more industry, students and creatives to work together to find solutions..

“Being able to be experimental in a small, risk-taking way – that’s how responsible risk-taking works,” he says. “You take some small bets and follow up on the ones that are succeeding.”


Visit the RU FCAD digital residency to explore education, creation and innovation in the creative industries.

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