Design Thinking & Communication Curriculum

Dynamic and Interdisciplinary

The curriculum for this two-quarter course fulfills requirements in both engineering design and written communication and is team-taught by faculty from the McCormick School of Engineering and the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences Writing Program. This interdisciplinary approach epitomizes the strengths defined in Northwestern’s Strategic Plan and has been recognized nationally and internationally as a model in innovative education.

The DTC curriculum is continually refreshed by new projects and rotating faculty. DTC’s collaborations with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and other local non-profit organizations, such as Lambs Farm and Kids in Danger, help students appreciate the social impact of engineering.

Every quarter, new and relevant topics like sustainability, engineering ethics, and global awareness are introduced to students. Completion of the first quarter is a pre-requisite for the second quarter course.

Authentic and Experiential

In DTC's first quarter, students typically solve problems for people with special needs, such as rehabilitation or special educational recreation. In the second quarter, projects address a variety of problems in healthcare, industry, and education.

A unique feature of DTC, as compared to freshman design courses at other universities, is that our projects are submitted by real clients and generally involve interaction with real users. Past project examples include:

  • prosthetic fitting solutions for upper-limb amputees
  • a redesign of the pneumatic cylinders used in airplane emergency systems
  • a bird deterrent using smart memory alloys (SMAs)
  • special booties for penguins at the Shedd Aquarium to help heal their sore feet

Working in teams, students learn that both design and communication are iterative, context-centered, problem-solving processes. All communication deliverables are tied to the project work. Students advance their experience with professional communication genres, technologies, and conventions, including:


DTC’s team-based approach, broad scope, and public events bring together diverse members of the Northwestern community and raise awareness of the importance of design thinking.

DTC courses are held in studio classrooms in the prominent Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center, centrally located on Northwestern’s Evanston campus. Its resources are shared by the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, the Segal Design Institute, and the McCormick School of Engineering. Thus from the beginning of their academic career, DTC students have the opportunity to mingle with upperclass and graduate students in Ford's classrooms, hallways, and the state-of-the-art Prototyping and Fabrication Lab.

View Segal's course descriptions