Universiteit Leiden

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Anastasia Petrova

Comenius grant for Designing Your Life: ‘Potential for the entire university’

How to deal with the most challenging design question of your life: what do I want to be when I grow up? The ‘Designing Your Life’ method teaches students how to craft their own future. The project will start next academic year, thanks to a Comenius grant. ‘Everyone interested should be able to borrow this approach and adapt it to suit their needs.’

The Comenius programme, financed by the Dutch government, aims to stimulate educational innovation. Project leader Bram Hoonhout and his team applied for a grant in the ‘Senior Fellow’ category, and with success.

Dr. Bram Hoonhout works at the Honours Academy as coordinator of the Honours College.

By late May, Hoonhout heard that his grant proposal Designing Your Life: face the future with confidence was accepted. What adventures lie ahead for the project? And what advice does Hoonhout have for our career paths? We asked him all about it in an interview.  

Congratulations with the grant! How do you feel about this result?

Smiling: ‘It still needs to sink in a bit, but it’s amazing news of course. I really look forward to getting started!’

In your proposal, you talk of ‘career indecision’. What do you mean by that?

‘It’s a frequently occurring problem among students: they are very active building their CV with internships and all sorts of extra-curricular activities, but they are still anxious about the future. The university organises many things around job market preparation, but many students seem to postpone this process.'

‘This project hopes to give students the tools to tackle this career indecision. That should be a valuable life skill, because the question of what you want to grow into will keep coming back, even after you graduate.’

How does this 'Designing Your Life' method work?

‘Designing Your Life uses the method of design thinking – the way designers develop an app, service or physical product. It’s important to empathise with the user, in this case with yourself. Where do I want to go, what energises me, what are my strengths? You will build a compass: am I going in the right direction?’

"You don’t have to have all the answers by the age of 21"

‘Perhaps even more important is developing your creativity and your creative confidence. You will design multiple life paths, based on the idea that there are multiples lives you could live that could make you happy. Subsequently, you will prototype the product – your future life – to see if it appeals to you. If it doesn’t, you take a step back and take another path.'

So Design Thinking is not only about thinking, but also doing?

‘Indeed, bias to action is one of the core principles. You can’t design your future from behind your desk, you have to get out into the world, talk to people and try stuff, through prototyping. There are always people with the job you are interested in, so you need to speak with them to hear what it’s like, or engage in job shadowing. This way, you become familiar with an unknown field of work and build confidence in your future along the way.’

‘Reframing is also very important. Students tend to be stressed about the future: I have to know where I am going by now, otherwise I’m lagging behind. Or: I need to find my passion to be happy. It’s great if you have one, but not everyone has such a singular passion, and you can also develop it as your career progresses. The Design Your Life philosophy is that you will be on a right path if you follow your compass. You don’t have to have all the answers by the age of 21.’

The design thinking method follows the steps of a designer to tackle a specific challenge.

The Designing Your Life Classes will already start next academic year. What form will it take?

‘We will offer two Bachelor Honours Classes, in which a substantial part of the places is reserved for students not following a honours track. Furthermore, we will offer a skills module through the LU Career Zone for all students of the university. Students should be able to register for these classes in August.’

‘In addition, together with Arjen de Vetten (ICLON) and Esther van Leeuwen (FSW), I will conduct research into the effectiveness of the Designing Your Life method. Which elements work, which ones don’t? Does it make a difference whether a student follows an honours track or not? This is not just important to further develop the programme, but we also aim to publish the results, so other universities can learn from our insights.’

Where do you hope this projects stands in three or four years?

‘I hope that many students will have increased confidence in their future, and that we have been able to create enthusiasm for the method. Based on the open-source philosophy of Designing Your Life, everyone interested should be able to borrow this approach and adapt it to suit their needs. So we will offer free training for teachers who want to apply the method in their own programme or institute.’

‘I think it has potential for the entire university – and beyond – as an addition to all the things that are already happening. The creativity, positivity and energy that design thinking brings will certainly help to make this happen!’

Designing Your Life

Designing Your Life was created at Stanford University, where Bram Hoonhout participated in a course to learn the ins and outs of the design thinking method. 

Want to know more about Designing Your Life? In the TED Talk below, Bill Burnett of Stanford University explains the key principles. 

Text: Michiel Knoester

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