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Monday, January 21, 2019

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Students participate in an Idea Lab event in March. (Photo: Admon Dallo) Students participate in an Idea Lab event in March. (Photo: Admon Dallo)

Brainstorm Bootcamp

SDSU’s ZIP Idea Lab helps innovators and entrepreneurs apply design thinking to problems in need of solutions.
By Kellie Woodhouse

“I need students to drop the facade they use in other places and revert back to the creative genius that we’re all born with.”

When you first walk into the Zahn Innovation Platform (ZIP) Idea Lab at San Diego State University, you might notice a pile of colored beanbags against the far wall, jokingly referred to as the “think pit.” Or your eyes might wander to the floor-to-ceiling whiteboard covered in sketches.

These are not random elements of décor. Everything in the lab has a purpose, according to Kevin Popovic, ZIP Idea Lab director: to help you relax and be creative.

Students come to the Idea Lab to use design thinking, a creative problem-solving process, to help flesh out ideas and strategies for executing them. They can draw on the whiteboard or use one of the many repurposed objects—finger puppets, Lego pieces, Play-Doh, pipe cleaners, miniature action figures—to conceptualize their ideas.

“I strive to make it an environment that doesn’t look like an educational institution,” Popovic said. “I need students to drop the facade they use in other places and revert back to the creative genius that we’re all born with.”

The Idea Lab mentors students, runs 90-minute ideation workshops, and hosts four-hour “launch” events that use design thinking to start new projects, which range from academic assignments to student startups. Anyone can apply design thinking to their field, Popovic said. A wide and diverse range of disciplines and services—from engineering to hospitality to the Black Resource Center—have used the lab.  

Since launching in fall 2016, the lab has held more than 100 workshops and introduced design thinking to roughly 1,800 students, staff, and faculty members. Popovic selects 10 student interns each semester who act as design thinking consultants to their peers.

"We're a really close team,” said Rosemary Blesio, a senior marketing major and the Idea Lab’s student manager. “It's a great environment to feel comfortable in and not feel like you’re being judged. It really cultivates that idea generation and fosters new ideas naturally."

The Idea Lab teaches design thinking as a six-step approach. Participants begin with a problem and then are encouraged to empathize with people experiencing that problem and gather data, usually through research, engagement and ethnography.

Armed with information, participants clarify the problem and develop solutions and ideas. Then, they prototype solutions, test them and solicit feedback. Finally, they share their findings with others.

Local companies like AmpuTech, which sells prosthetic leg attachments optimized for everyday activities like showering, and Bomfy B, which sells blankets with pockets for feet, got their start at the Idea Lab.

"It was a really good way to keep us accountable, especially in the early stages," said Carlos Cortes, Bomfy B co-founder and a senior business major. "They helped us out monumentally with all the brainstorming, work, and research that needs to be done before bringing a product or service to the public."

The lab’s services aren’t limited to developing consumer products. Katrina Pimental, a social work master’s student, developed an idea for a mobile home community park with a social services center to serve sex trafficking victims and eventually presented it in a paper for her Mental Health Policy class.

“It requires you to be pretty creative and get out of your box,” said Pimental. “It was really confidence-boosting that I could come up with something big, with a larger solution.”