Elon students employ design thinking to 'hack' their apartments

William Justice, design thinking coach at Fidelity Investments, coached Elon students on design thinking in a relevant and unique way.

What better way to celebrate Elon University’s effort to promote design thinking than by putting the theory into practice by asking residents of The Oaks neighborhood to “hack” their own apartments.

Held on Nov. 17, the event co-sponsored by The Oaks and Park Place neighborhoods, the Maker Hub, and Elon Design Thinking lasted three hours and was well attended by faculty and students sharing a common curiosity for design thinking. William Justice, a design thinking coach at Fidelity Investments, was prepared to capitalize on the creative energy.

 “This is going to be fun, and it’s going be fast. In one night, you’re going to go from not knowing what we’re thinking about, to prototypes,” said Justice as the evening commenced. “It’s going to be kind of incredible.”

The focus of the event was to apply the design thinking process to tackle an issue the students were dealing with in their apartments in The Oaks. Justice and his wife, education professor and Oaks faculty-in-residence Julie Justice, live in a faculty apartment at Oak Commons, and he joked that he has already “hacked” their living space in numerous ways. While the majority of attendees were Oaks residents, anyone was welcome as long as they were mindful of “small apartment living.” 

Those present found a partner, and were first required to empathize with the individual coupled with them.“As designers, everything we do is for other people,” explained Justice. “It’s necessary to be empathic. We need to get to know who our users are.”

After getting acquainted, the members of each pair identified problems within their apartments. Attendees chatted about electricity, kitchenware and concerns with noisy neighbors while a timer clicked in the background. Next, the participants worked on ideating — brainstorming at a thunderous pace to drum up a relevant fix to a problem their partner faced.

Justice offered a smattering of guidance throughout. “Fall in love with the problem. If you make it clear enough, it starts to solve itself,” he asserted. “And if you feel like you’re being rushed tonight, you’re doing it right.”

Finally, after each person in the room had pinned down a fixable problem and dreamed up a feasible solution, the group moved onto the fourth step of design thinking — prototyping. To craft physical representations of their “hacks,” the contributors headed to a cart set up by The Maker Hub. Stuffed with pipe cleaners, tape, post-its, sharpies and foam core, the cart served as a vessel for the ideas of participants to come to fruition.

Justice turned up an uplifting music playlist and set the timer for 7 minutes while the room became frantic, with students fumbling to make their crafting supplies resemble their visions. The facilitator discouraged them from getting “choosy,” which created room for imperfections in the prototypes.

“It doesn’t need to look exactly like the sketch,” he said. “It just needs to communicate the idea.”

After time had run out, the pairs reconvened and discussed. What was working about each prototype? What could be improved? What questions or new ideas does it present?

In the final stage of design thinking, the eight prototypes were lined up on a table and put to the test. Justice weighed in with his selections of the best hack to be implemented individually, and the best hack to be implemented in Oaks apartments.

The ideas that emerged from the rapid and charged process of design thinking were zany and inventive. Among those offered were a storage unit to create more space, a necklace lined with miniature lights to make reading at night easier, a workshop to educate students on the power of composting, with the winners receiving gift cards. 

The Oaks Apartment Hacks event represents a larger ambition, to see ideas born of design thinking put into action throughout campus and integrated into classrooms. At the conclusion of the event, Justice encouraged all of his satisfied participants to carry their ideas beyond The Oaks Club Room, taking their prototypes to The Maker Hub for additional refinement and beyond.