Want a Master of Design with That?

Denis Weil explains how going back to school helped him with his role in innovation at McDonalds

I graduated with a Diploma in Chemical Engineering from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1985. After that, I went into product development and brand management at Procter & Gamble, where I worked on diapers. I also helped scale an electronic dating company called Lavalife.

I had been working for 12 years before deciding to go to Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) to study for a Master of Design. I went there because I liked the school's emphasis on how design methods can be helpful in business. I was there from 1998 to 2001 as a midcareer student. Now I'm Senior Director of Innovation Planning and Advanced Concepts at the McDonald's Corp (MCD).

There are four types of classes at IIT. First are those where you are making stuff, the equivalent of lab work: product design and interactive design. It starts with user insights and finding unmet needs. The second group is "factors": physical, cognitive, social, and cultural factors you need to take into account. I apply this to my work now all the time. In a service business like McDonald's, you're always trying to figure out how consumers think and make decisions. You don't want to overload them.


  The third group of classes taught methods and tools like prototyping. I learned how powerful it can be to build out an idea in 3D very early in the process. The fourth type of class addressed the value of design to business. A global corporation like McDonald's competes in many different markets, and it's important to understand them. The true value of design in business is being able to use real case studies to show how design adds value.

I joined McDonald's as an entrepreneur-in-residence. First, I focused on opportunities for new growth. Traditionally, McDonald's grew by adding more stores. Then we changed our strategy. It became about bringing in more customers and enhancing current stores.

I apply design thinking to my work in McDonald's innovation department in three ways. First is in the development of strategy: I work with corporate strategy and brand direction. I use some mini-scenarios in planning and in addition to numbers and charts; the key here is visualization. That additional dimension leads to better decisions. The second area is the translation of strategy. Once we have a strategy, we try to add an additional view of the problem. That means first imagining what the future could look like and then back-casting from that future. It's like building a tunnel from both ends.


  The third area is the implementation of strategy. The key here is to prototype very early. The McDonald's innovation center is in a warehouse. Traditionally, it was focused on product prototyping, like new kitchen design. We added a customer experience studio where we use foam core and aspects of set design to simulate a restaurant. This really helps us to throw out ideas very quickly. It allows us to fail fast so we don't invest in the wrong things.

But, of course, as you go through many iterations of the same problem, you also understand the ideas that work. When someone mentions prototyping, people think of a 3D object or a Web model. But with a simulation in our customer experience studio, we are asking people to go through a process to see how they react. We have customers act instead of talk because in focus groups people can't project how they will act. It's easy to say you are customer-centric. Really identifying needs is where it gets hard. The emerging discipline is not just how to design artifacts but how to design the kiosk, the interface, the process.

Businesses like McDonald's are looking hard for those dream designers who have the skills to figure out how to be customer-centric. They're coming from schools like IIT, where I'm now an adjunct professor, and Carnegie Mellon—places that teach storytelling, visualization, and prototyping, and how to repurpose these design methods and others for business. The number of schools that do this really well is limited, but it is certainly an emerging field.

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