Wendy Puffer: Design thinking can reveal problems and re-imagine solutions

Image of building with Marion Design Co. logo

Marion Design Co. is based in an old bank in downtown Marion, Indiana, where signs in the windows name the goals of their work. Photo courtesy of Wendy Puffer

Using the principles of design thinking can push Christian leaders to listen more closely to their surrounding communities and be more creative in addressing their needs, says the co-founder of Marion Design Co.

When Wendy Puffer helped launch Marion Design Co. out of Indiana Wesleyan University, she and her co-founders set about listening to the stories of the college town of Marion, Indiana, where IWU is based.

They first found a group of 30 retired men who met regularly for lunch throughout the city. The Fossils, they called themselves.

The stories that the men told the group began to reveal the soul of the city. Marion was a capable community, but it had doubts about itself, discounting the impact it had because of its size.

“Basically, it’s a town with poor self-esteem, not recognizing the assets it has,” Puffer said.

Asking for stories is crucial for design thinking, she said. As was the case with the retired men, Marion Design Co. used their stories to inform their work for the city. Puffer advocates incorporating clients into the process of design in order to truly identify problems and involve the clients in creating solutions.

Doing so has helped Marion revitalize. In partnership with both the city and the university, Marion Design Co. has had an impact on downtown Marion, where it is based, helping it grow in both business and activity.

Wendy PufferPuffer is the chief design officer at Marion Design Co. and an associate professor of design at Indiana Wesleyan University. She earned a master of fine arts in design thinking in 2016.

Puffer spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi about Marion Design Co.’s history and impact on Marion and what Christian leaders might learn from design thinking as a process. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: What is design thinking?

Wendy Puffer: Design thinking is something that’s always existed; it’s just that we have a name for it now. On a deeper level, design thinking is a way of empowering people who may not call themselves designers -- and actually all people -- to be a part of the process of how to make life better.

Design happens not just in what we might think of as the visual design components, like graphic design or placemaking, but it happens in systems that exist, whether they’re good or bad. Design happens whether it’s intentional or not.

I think it’s really critical for us as those who understand the power of design to guide others through a tool like design thinking so that they feel like they can actually design and have a little bit more control over their environment, relationships, spaces that they live in.

F&L: What is Marion Design Co.?

WP: Marion Design Co. actually is a collective that started by accident in 2016. I think some of the best things that happen and exist in the world happen by accident or by impulse in some ways.

A group of 17 undergrad design students from Indiana Wesleyan University agreed to stay in the city -- a small, rural town of about 30,000 -- [over the summer] because the mayor asked us to create a new brand or logo for the city. Three faculty also agreed to [help with the project] for free.

By happenstance, the county allowed us to use a free, vacant building on a corner, a beautiful old bank. A stately bank on the downtown square.

When we started that whole process, we decided -- when we planted ourselves downtown -- that we believed that presence changes perception. So in other words, we could not do this project on the campus. We had to be in the middle of the community, in a place that wasn’t necessarily beautiful and pristine like a campus, and hear the stories of the people who live in Marion.

That’s what design thinking does. It listens to stories that typically may not be told. We started by offering lunch to groups of people throughout the city just to get to know them.

We started with a group of old men, retired men, about 30 60-and-older retired men. They called themselves the Fossils, and they met every Tuesday for lunch at little cafes throughout the town. They brought us pizza, came into the bank, and the 17 students and three faculty with our pads of Post-it notes said, “Let’s use this time to really hear your stories.”

And so we asked them to write words that described Marion to them historically. Most of them had been here for decades. Our glass walls that separated the bank offices typically were plastered with Post-it notes. So we asked them to gather those notes together in clusters to kind of bring out themes that we saw in the city.

We did this with about 30 groups throughout the city -- preachers, teachers, officers, policemen, government leaders, nonprofit leaders, academics. We even went to a fire station and did a design thinking session for them, because they couldn’t leave necessarily.

At the beginning of the day, we had no plan, but by the end of the day, we all would throw our hands up in the air and go, “What a day!” Because we would see amazing things happen.

When you’re listening to stories from people, you hear things that are pretty painful.

Marion is the site of the last lynching in the Midwest, and that story is still deep and very scarring to people here. It’s still something that, in many ways, plagues our community.

We heard a lot of stories like that, and there were times that it got really tough. In that bank -- there was a huge vault in the back of it, and the students figured out how to open the five different locks to open up this vault. And that kind of became our prayer vault.

We would go back there when it got really tough and read stories about Gideon and others and just pray, “God, what are we doing here? Why do you have us here?”

F&L: What did you learn from the process?

WP: By the middle of that summer, we were able to come up with a problem statement through all our research that stated that Marion is a full and capable community and has everything it needs but is just underrealized.

We also learned from our research that the city believed that the university had to be a part of revitalizing the downtown in particular.

So one afternoon, we made a call to the mayor and the university president and asked them to spend four hours with us for design thinking sessions. And they both said yes.

By the end of July, we’d set up the bank for design thinking sessions. The students organized themselves as group leaders. So these students who had never done design thinking before with real clients became leaders throughout this whole process.

Those four hours were a significant turning point for the university and the city in facing toward one another. We broke them up in small groups that had equal members of the city and university and had them challenging the problems that we were facing and then also imagining what it could look like if we partnered together.

By the end, we had eight really powerful concept ideas that they had all pitched, and we all voted on each of those ideas.

Since then, Marion Design Co. has continued to work with interns on current design projects for the city. We still believe that presence does change perception.

The 60% vacancy downtown has now dropped to 10% -- so a lot of new shops going up, restaurants, businesses. We still have a long way to go, but Marion Design Co. kind of sits in the middle of helping to solve a lot of those problems.

F&L: Can you name one or two projects Marion Design Co. has been involved in that have illustrated this revitalization?

WP: A significant one is the city branding. We did a full package of branding identity for the city. Another is the city guidelines, the downtown guidelines. We created a resource called “Groundwork for Growth” that provides all the guidelines for the city.

Right now, we’re starting a project with the hospital, and we’ve served others like the civic theater as well as the Philharmonic. Lots of different entities throughout the city that we’ve done branding, placemaking for.

We’ve also run events like the Marion Made Fashion Show. We’ve run that two years, where we activate vacant spaces by running this high-end fashion show with clothing that’s remade from the Mission or Goodwill, and we do workshops teaching kids how to sew and assemble things together to re-imagine those things.

F&L: What is the overall goal of Marion Design Co.?

WP: It really is twofold, but they mesh together.

The first goal is to use the design skills that our interns have and empower them to see that their work makes a difference for people.

One of the beautiful things that I love about being in a small town is that they get to see impact right away from their work, as opposed to a big city, where lots of stuff is happening.

And then the second goal is on the city side. It’s about helping empower the people who live here. So coming alongside them and helping them re-imagine their spaces and places, helping them design them, just being consultants and friends with them.

F&L: How is Marion Design Co., as a community-based creative studio, different from other design studios?

WP: In that it’s not about the designers.

The designers are there to seek out those who may not call themselves designers and empower them to be a part of the story.

While we do professional design work, we always use design thinking with them in our research so that they are part of the story. Our favorite projects are those where we come alongside our clients and facilitate their learning how to tell their stories.

F&L: What can Christian leaders learn from design thinking?

WP: Design thinking sparks imagination. I think it helps us step out and start moving around together in getting active in our creativity.

What kinds of skills are hidden underneath the surface of a classroom or a church that we don’t know about that actually could start something?

The first mantra that I think of with design thinking is that we design for people first. Oftentimes in Christian environments, we’re afraid to say the phrase “human-centered design,” because it sounds like we’re being selfish or something.

Design thinking helps us ask the basic questions to begin understanding who we are: What do I believe about the world? What is true? How do those two collide? How is it impacting my relationships?

Those aren’t profound questions. We ask those in the church all the time. But we don’t necessarily give ourselves the permission to either not know or take more time to dig deeper.

Where are the assumptions in the problem that you’re trying to solve? I think if we don’t break through those assumptions, we’ll just keep trying to solve the same problems.

We’ll keep building our churches with the same kind of pews and not figure out why people aren’t facing each other having conversations. It’s the simple things that may seem obvious to some -- but not most.