Design Thinking in Cuba
3 credits in Arts
Program Dates in Richmond, VA: 28 May - 8 June 2018
Travel Dates to Cuba: 18 May – 25 May 2018
$1,900 + airfare + applicable VCU tuition. Find full details on the Budget Sheet!
Garreth Blackwell, PhD, VCUarts Center for the Creative Economy
Matt Woolman, Executive Director, VCUarts Center for the Creative Economy
15 February 2018
The Global Education Office and the School of the Arts are pleased to present a design thinking program. This three-credit, three-week course brings together students from various disciplines to create a collaborative environment to support problem solving through a methodology of design thinking. According to Tim Brown, president and CEO of the award-winning design firm IDEO, “Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer's toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” At the core of design thinking is an understanding of human relationships and a mindful approach to the examination of design problems and solutions. Through the practice of design thinking, students will explore personal biases and perspectives, underscoring empathy and deeper human connections, and create opportunities for greater innovation and sustainable practice. Alongside a partnership with IBM Design Thinking, this intensive one-week immersive design thinking workshop in Havana, Cuba will be followed up by two weeks spent on the VCU Monroe Park campus, as a way to both reflect upon and conclude this immersive program.
Please note that there is a current US Department of State Travel Warning for Cuba
Course and credit options
- ARTS 491 Special Topics, 3 credits, (3 credits, undergraduate) Garreth Blackwell, Ph.D
- ARTS 591 Special Topics, 3 credits, (3 credits, graduate) Garreth Blackwell, Ph.D
The Education Abroad office will enroll students in the course upon receipt of the registration.
The directors of the program, Garreth Blackwell, Ph.D. (VCUarts Center for the Creative Economy), Matt Woolman (Executive Director, VCUarts Center for the Creative Economy) and Amber Atkins (Design Strategy Lead, IBM) will guide students through a design thinking methodology by considering constraint as a point of departure. According to Tim Brown, president and CEO of the award-winning design firm IDEO, “Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer's toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” At the core of design thinking is an understanding of human relationships and a mindful approach to the examination of design problems and solutions. Through the practice of design thinking, students will explore personal biases and perspectives, underscoring empathy and deeper human connections, and create opportunities for greater innovation and sustainable practice. An intensive one-week immersive design thinking workshop in Havana, Cuba will be bookended by two weeks spent on the VCU Monroe Park campus, as a way to both prepare for and conclude this immersive program.
The directors of the program, Garreth Blackwell, Ph.D. (VCUarts Center for the Creative Economy) and Matt Woolman (VCUarts Center for the Creative Economy) will guide students through a design thinking methodology by considering constraint as a point of departure. Cuba will serve as a case study of a highly constrained environment, in which everyday Cubans have responded to material scarcity with innovative design solutions. Since the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the Cuban people have experienced ebbs and flows of insufficient resources, which became especially critical after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. Everyday Cubans began creatively repurposing objects in their everyday lives to survive, and fabricating something out of nothing became an essential skill. Cuban designer and conceptual artist Ernesto Oroza has noted, “The tops of penicillin vials have become the best solution for valves on pressure cookers. Deodorant canisters proved excellent electrical switches (close the lid to turn the electricity on!). Defective fluorescent tubes now make up 3D picture frames. An old 33-rpm vinyl, cut properly, would serve as a fan blade—and its creators could reproduce copies of it. An old and deteriorated Eagle kerosene lamp reappeared when power outages became common, and sometimes a milk bottle or gas tank functioned as the lampshade. Each creation’s new appearance and new function made it unique.” This study abroad opportunity will offer students a unique perspective to examine ideas of sustainability, innovation, and design practice.
Students will work in teams of three or four and will focus on bamboo as the primary material for ideation and prototyping new products. In 2013, sources suggested that as much as 57 percent of Cuban homes were in poor or inadequate condition, with a housing deficit of seven hundred thousand residents. The unfortunate situation is owed to various reasons including a shortage of building materials, a lack of capital on the island as well as frequent tropical storms and hurricanes in the region. For this course, we will focus on an area called Habana Vieja, or Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which consists of mostly early twentieth century buildings. Groups will be asked to consider current bamboo building techniques and iterate prototypes that potentially expand the possibilities of the material. Upon arrival in Cuba, students will begin building their prototypes in bamboo, and they will likely have to make adjustments based on the available secondary materials needed to complete their projects. Students may choose to modify their designs after spending time in Cuba.
Students who are rising juniors or seniors at VCU and are eligible to register for ARTS 491 are eligible to apply for the undergraduate course. An academic letter of reference is required, and should be submitted by email directly to the program directors. Finalists will be contacted by the program director for interviews.
Accommodations and meals
Students will stay in casas particulares
, a Cuban type of bed and breakfast, in Old Havana. Breakfasts are included in the program fee, as is all in-country transportation.
is an educator, designer and strategist. He is currently on faculty at the VCUarts Center for the Creative Economy where he teaches courses in design thinking, innovation, creativity and creative business practice. He has been an instructor of graphic design at the VCU School of the Arts and an instructor of communication design at the University of Mississippi.
He has run a successful design firm and consultancy for over 10 years, helping clients realize their goals through a better understanding of their creative needs. He is an expert on design thinking and creative methodologies having spent extensive time studying under field leaders at IDEO and IBM.
Garreth's doctoral work focused on design's impact on culture and society, specifically as it relates to the emergence of social design as a discreet field in the 1970s. His dissertation developed an historical timeline for the changing definitions of goodness and social value within modern design since the 1870s.
is the Executive Director of Entrepreneurship in VCUarts and leads a school-wide mission to integrate entrepreneurship into a culture and mindset that promotes the translation of creativity, knowledge and research into innovative products and sustainable business ventures. This includes defining areas of collaboration with academic disciplines and industry; and developing dynamic intra-curricular and co-curricular programming to prepare students and alumni to utilize their arts and design education in unique and rewarding ways.
Armed with MFA and MBA degrees from Virginia Commonwealth University, and a BA degree from Oberlin College, Matt has navigated his over 20-year career between multiple identities — designer, consultant, business owner, professor, writer and publisher. He has developed a unique combination of skills that combine creative thinking with a comprehensive understanding of entrepreneurship and enterprise across a range of disciplines. Most importantly, Matt is passionate about design and its role as a strategic business asset.
Matt is profoundly curious about influences of information and communication technologies on the evolution of language and learning. As an independent producer, Matt has authored and co-authored ten books related to his research, including the best-selling Type in Motion: Innovations in Digital Graphics. His other books address such defining topics as motion design, music and the visual arts/design, and information visualization. Matt’s writings and art/design projects have been published internationally in design journals and books; exhibited internationally; included in private collections; and have received awards from PRINT Magazine, AIGA and Art Director’s Club.
Matt is a partner in CrossThink, LLC, a catalyst for cross-disciplinary thinking to boost a company’s innovation performance. Matt also consults with universities and colleges in entrepreneurship program development and evaluation.
Amber Atkins is the Design Strategy Lead for IBM's office in Austin, Texas and has worked with IBM over the last two years to strengthen their strategic approach to the design of creative solutions. She works with clients who are curious about becoming design-led entities that break free from "business as usual" thinking. Through a highly collaborative approach she helps re-frame opportunities in order to re-imagine an organization's people and practice in order to create impactful, user-centered outcomes. Amber is a strong proponent of learning by doing in order to help individuals and business entities become who or what they need and want to be.
A valid passport is required to leave the US. If a student does not already have a passport, they are advised to begin the application process as soon as they are accepted into the program. The processing time for new passport applicants can be as long as 8 weeks. For students who already have passports, they will need to verify that the passport’s validity dates extend 6 months past their return date. For more information about passports and the application/renewal process, please consult the State Department's website
Payment of fees
In order to complete the application, students are required to submit a $250 registration fee and deposit. This $250 registration fee and deposit is refundable in two cases: if the program is cancelled, or if a student is rejected by the faculty member based on their qualifications to participate in the program. Reasons for rejection could include, but are not limited to, GPA, lack of a pre-requisite, unacceptable or inappropriate statement of interest, etc. and are at the discretion of the faculty program director. However, if a student pays the fee and is not given final acceptance to the program based on failing to complete application requirements, as determined by the Education Abroad office or faculty director, the $250 is non-refundable.
Students will receive two separate charges to their student accounts for this program: one charge will reflect the balance of the program fee (minus the $250 deposit and application fee) and the other charge is for VCU tuition costs (based on the number and type of credits being taken by the student). These bills will be charged through VCU Student Accounting and should appear by May 2016.
Please note: While these charges may post to the student’s account simultaneously or separately, it is the student’s responsibility to make sure the account balance is paid before the billing due date.
Withdrawal procedures and financial commitment policy
All withdrawals must be made formally in writing and submitted to the Director of Education Abroad. Otherwise, the program fee will not be refunded. After committing to the program, students deciding to withdraw will be held accountable for a portion of or the entire program fee based on the following schedule:
- Formal withdrawal submitted later than 30 days before the first day of the program abroad: 100% of the program fee will be charged
- Formal withdrawal submitted within 30-60 days before the first day of the program abroad: 75% of the program fee will be charged
- Formal withdrawal submitted within 60-90 days before the first day of the program abroad: 50% of the program fee will be charged
In the event an unexpected emergency occurs within 30 days before the first day of the program abroad, students must provide a physician’s certification that his/her condition prohibits participation. In this case, refunds will be limited to only those funds VCU is able to recover or that have not already been spent on behalf of the student.
See above for refund policy on $250 registration fee and deposit.
Students should schedule an appointment with their physician or at a travel clinic (such as VCU Student Health) at least 4 to 8 weeks before the program to inquire about recommended and/or required vaccines/immunizations. It is the responsibility of the student to ensure that all routine and travel immunizations are up-to-date.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information on recommended and required immunizations for travelers. To view the health risks and requirements for the country to which you will be traveling, please visit the CDC's website
Health Alert: Zika Virus
The CDC has issued a travel alert for countries where the Zika virus is prevalent. Check the CDC’s travel notices
regularly as new countries are being added to this list. Check VCU Student Health
to stay updated as well.
VCU Student Health offers in-depth pre-travel consultation with a health care provider as well as most of the vaccines recommended for safe travel. Prescriptions for recommended medicines are also available. Please visit their website
for full details.
Every effort is made to provide updated and accurate information at the time of publication. The sponsors reserve the right to make necessary changes to the programs and costs. The university reserves the right to revise or alter all fees, regulations pertaining to student fees, and fee collection procedures at any time.