When Hannah Herrera entered college, she thought she wanted to be an athletic trainer and physical therapist. In high school she’d been on the cross-country, track, and dance teams, and had a strong inclination towards helping student athletes.

At Tulane University, she took a class in life design principles, and gained some insights into her own motivations and goals. The first was that she didn’t love science classes. The second was that she wasn’t actually passionate about working with athletes, per se—she just really wanted to help young people. A third and pivotal bit of self-awareness was a greater appreciation of herself as a first-generation college student, and how it shaped her ambitions.

“There’s a strong sense of imposter syndrome among first-generation students, and a need to do well and make money so we can pay our families back. And that’s completely valid. But after taking these life design courses, I came to feel that I didn’t have to make the salary of someone in medicine to make a difference,” she said.

Hannah graduated last year and is now working as a wellness support coordinator in Residential Life. Her tentative plan is to get a master’s degree in a wellness field. “I can work with students who were like me four years ago, and if I can help a couple of students realize their dreams, I feel like that’s very much worth it. But I don’t have to decide. I just have to be headed in a direction that feels right.”

The life design classes were offerings in Tulane’s Phyllis M. Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking. The center was founded in 2014, and in the years since, has evolved to include an intentional approach to career and life planning. Around the same time, on the other side of the country, Stanford University’s Bill Burnett was expanding the Life Design Lab he’d co-founded. The book he wrote applying the principles and class exercises to the general public would shoot those concepts into the motivational stratosphere. Designing Your Life became a #1 New York Times bestseller, shaping the public dialogue on building a career and life that is meaningful and productive. But it would also boomerang the conversation back to higher education, where Burnett and his team would have to manage a floodgate of inquiries from educators interested in bringing the work to their campuses.

At its core, life design is about curiosity, a desire to see what might be possible rather than coasting on autopilot to the next expected thing. At a time when the public dialogue (and every cash-strapped family) is asking about the value of a degree, schools applying design thinking to career development are providing students with a new way of thinking about not just their careers, but themselves.

Stanford’s Life Design Studio—and thanks to COVID, the Virtual Life Design Studio—has brought hundreds of schools like Tulane into the conversation. From Bowdoin to Berkeley, Northeastern to Northwestern, Harvard to Harvey Mudd—and across Europe, South America, Asia, and Australia—faculty and administrators in the workshops learn to guide students through envisioning many directions their lives might take based on their interests, aptitudes, and values. And because of this, increasing numbers of students are learning that their options are both more mappable and limitless than they’d ever imagined.

“After I took that class, I was able to identify the things that really mattered to me, the things I wanted from my career,” Hannah said. “It opened my mind to the possibilities that are out there by allowing yourself to try things out and see what sticks.”

For all its impact, Stanford’s Life Design Lab doesn’t have its own building, and isn’t a department students can major in. It’s a modest teaching lab that consists of four full-time staff lecturers tucked within the mechanical engineering department, simply because that’s where Burnett already taught product design. Classes are available to students whether they dream of being doctors, dancers, or data crunchers. The Lab team wants them to approach their goals by thinking like a designer, by which they mean, creating a methodology for creative problem-solving. It involves reframing challenges to generate out-of-the-box solutions, prototyping new ideas, and testing these prototypes with real users to create successful products. It’s called design thinking because you are actually designing your options the way you would a house, or a suite of software.

“After I took that class, I was able to identify the things that really mattered to me, the things I wanted from my career,” Hannah said. “It opened my mind to the possibilities that are out there by allowing yourself to try things out and see what sticks.”

Conceptually, Designing Your Life applies the process to adults in a range of life stages—early, mid, late career, or retirement (the “encore”)—and offers approaches to the various ways people get stuck. First, the individual needs to define what problem it is they’re actually solving—is it income, experience, time, connections, geography?—and take stock of the obstacles. The methodology is both mental, and visual; a new way of seeing things is called a successful reframing. And much of the language is tangible and evocative. People might be facing obstacles that are unfightable, which are “gravity problems” (essentially unchangeable), or merely “anchor problems” (you’re held back, but not by the immutable laws of physics). The process involves getting rid of dysfunctional beliefs to generate fresh ideas, then using the better ones to build experiments, or prototypes.

For students, prototyping might include trying out internships. Some tools take the form of exercises. Writing in a Good Time Journal involves listing your activities over the course of several weeks, and keeping track of which ones you find most engaging—quite literally, catching yourself in the act of having a good time. Mind Mapping uses a free association of words building outward from a core idea, making secondary connections quickly to bypass your inner censor. (For example, your censor might rule out “music” on the Mind Map, because you’d been told that karaoke performance wasn’t your finest hour.)

Tools can also be marching orders, activities to increase your knowledge base and test your hunches. An assignment to, say, simply go talk to people who do what you’re curious about doing.

“You wouldn’t think that would be life-changing. But for many people, it actually is. Because once you’re in conversations with people about things you’re curious about, then opportunities start to happen. Doors open,” said Kathy Davies, the managing director and studio lead for Stanford’s Life Design Lab. “But it’s no small step for a lot of people. Just getting in the practice of talking to people, especially post-Covid, frankly, can be hard to do.”

This way of thinking and the habits formed to solve problems have lasting effects for students stressed about their place in the workforce after graduation.

“What we hear from students over and over is:  ‘This is a place I get to have conversations that I don’t have anywhere else.’ And, ‘This gave me the tools to figure things out,’” said Davies. “When we’re looking at efficacy, we have data that show it reduces career anxiety, increases career agency, and increases people’s ability to be creative and diverge in their thinking before they convert.”

Big Thinking on the Ground  

Bowling Green State University (BGSU) has one of most extensive interpretations of Stanford’s life design programs in the country, applying the principles from the admissions process all the way through alumni relations. Life Design at BGSU began as a small pilot program in 2019. In 2020, 60 faculty and staff members from different departments participated in Bill Burnett’s three-day training, a collaborative examination of the key aspects of life design and how to apply them to shape student experience. Thanks to a $13.5 million alumni gift, the Geoffrey H. Radbill Center for College and Life Design, (along with the Michael and Sara Kuhlin Hub for Career Design and Connections) was built to be a comprehensive dual-focused program addressing students’ journeys through the school, and then their career visions.

Adrienne Ausdenmoore, executive director of the Radbill Center, had already been engrossed in life design concepts when she attended Stanford’s first studio workshop for educators in 2017. Bowling Green’s President Rodney Rogers had been in the process of creating a strategic plan to redefine student success when he picked up Designing Your Life on a trip and was so motivated by the concepts and curriculum that he asked Burnett’s team to lead a workshop on campus.

“The team at Stanford has built a really incredible global learning community that’s valuable from a professional development standpoint, as well as a global movement perspective,” said Ausdenmoore. “There are hundreds of schools that have participated in the workshops. Some come away and end up offering it in the form of one small workshop, and then you have universities doing it on a very large scale. We’re definitely one of those.”

“Students are trained to just ‘get through this,’ and they’ll come out with something at the other end. They’ve just been in linear thinking for so long, seeing their life as a progression of climbing the ladder.”

What does this look like for students experiencing the existential angst of what to do with their lives?  In the Radbill Center, there are collaborative workspaces strategically built around the perimeter, primarily used for one-on-one sessions with their assigned coaches. Most first-year students begin their initial semester at Bowling Green with a life design seminar that meets for an hour a week.  By the time they are seniors, they will have incorporated life design programming into their academic experience as well as career readiness needs.

Bowling Green also offers a life design track dedicated to addressing the unique needs of student athletes, in partnership with the athletic department. The goal, says Bryan Mestre, assistant director for student-athlete development, is to introduce them to design thinking skills to navigate challenges and discover solutions while partnering them with career mentors to explore career possibilities in addition to, or beyond, their sports. Thinking about their wellbeing is an added dimension. 

“The Life Design program empowers student athletes to champion their mental health, transforming challenges into opportunities through empathy, innovation, and resilience,” said Mestre, who co-teaches the class with a Life Design coach. One of his exercises walks student athletes through designing a "dashboard” to consider different dimensions of their lives—Academics, Career, Purpose, Well-Being, and Connections—and gauge how well-balanced they are.

Like Bowling Green, Tulane also has life design classes for freshmen, and for student athletes. Because of the city’s devastating legacy of Hurricane Katrina, Tulane has a strong focus on service and equity. It’s no accident that the life design program is anchored in the Phyllis M. Taylor Center, founded in 2014 to help students identify their path in making change. Tulane further extends its focus on equity by offering a life design course to its Bridge Program, geared toward students who benefit from added academic supports.

“Our unique lens is to help students hone in on a social or environmental challenge that they care about, and then use that as a portal to understand the ecosystem of people that are working to address that challenge,” said Dr. Julia Lang, the associate director of Career Education and Life Design, and the first staff member at the Taylor Center. “New Orleans is such a hotbed for so many of the social and environmental challenges that we see in the world, and it’s also a hotbed of innovation. Phyllis Taylor’s vision was to create a one-stop-shop kind of hub for students interested in changemaking while learning about design thinking, with the tools and methodologies that could help them be creative problem solvers.”

Recent graduate Zach Rubin is one example of Tulane’s integration of innovation and changemaking. When he arrived at Tulane, he knew he wanted to study business, and assumed he’d go into finance, maybe work in an investment bank. Once he delved into really exploring his interests and aptitudes, he zeroed in on architecture and urban planning, and wrote his honors thesis on sustainable design. He won Tulane’s change-maker Catalyst Award and Spark Innovation Award, which he used to travel to Singapore and continue his honors research.  He just graduated and is working in venture capital at the intersection of real estate development and community enrichment.

“I’m a very community-oriented person, so I’m looking to create change on issues that require a lot of deep domain expertise and knowledge,” he said. “So, I’m doing the hard work upfront, and [I’ll] pivot down the road to what I eventually want it to become.”

The applications of life design are as individual as the schools that conceive of them, and Stanford’s website has a page of clickable school logos to learn about the directions different institutions have taken. At Johns Hopkins, some faculty members set out to use design thinking to reframe the traditional annual performance review process with an annual self-review. Smith College created Designing Your Life for Women. Trinity College wanted to create a solution to a particular retention challenge: high achieving students who were not deeply engaged and disposed to thinking about transferring to other colleges. At Northwestern, the career center for the Kellogg School of Management decided to roll out a series of life design workshops for its alumni. And in remote western Australia, Curtin University applied a grant it received to focus on the region’s rural women by creating a life design program geared toward their economic empowerment and career sustainability. The options are as unlimited as a mind map.

Whatever the application, Life Design fills a self-examination gap for college students often constrained by externally imposed “tracks.” 

“We’re always considering the questions, ‘What do I want to do with the rest of my life?’ And ‘How do I get there?’ None of my friends from home, from high school, are doing something like this,” said Madeline Loiacono, a senior in the Nursing program at Bowling Green. “None of them have the same directionality and the same drive that life design has given me. I think when you give vocabulary to such a profound problem-solving process, and you give vocabulary to the growth mindset, and you really pick apart the way you think, it provides a new direction for what it means to think about your career.”

Dr. Lang finds it “mind-blowing” that students can spend a decade in school and thousands of dollars in tuition, but never be given the help to develop a thoughtful plan.

“Students are trained to just ‘get through this,’ and they’ll come out with something at the other end. They’ve just been in linear thinking for so long, seeing their life as a progression of climbing the ladder,” she said. “But if you don’t choose where and why you’re climbing, then all of a sudden you’re 40 and you go to open up this treasure that’s supposed to be hanging up at the top in front of you, and you realize there’s nothing actually there.