Here’s how it works, and how students in a class taught by Kate Canales and Gray Garmon are helping to put theory into practice in the greater Dallas community

Kate Canales Teaching in the Field

DALLAS (SMU) – Let’s start with the premise that the “Human Centered Design” class is different from most found on a university campus. On a recent afternoon, the SMU Lyle School of Engineering’s Kate Canales and Gray Garmon gathered their students at Drugstore Cowboy, an exposed-brick coffee shop with an industrial vibe in the heart of Dallas’ Deep Ellum district.

Canales and Garmon sketched out what the semester would look like: students would break into collaborative teams, talk to people who live and work in the near-downtown neighborhood, and prototype a plan for what could be done to build their sense of community at the pedestrian level.

The timing was perfect. The Deep Ellum Foundation was experimenting with a kind of street-fest called “Reimagine Crowdus” that involved temporarily closing off a normally busy street and re-tooling it for everything from musical performances to yoga classes. If students wanted to talk to the people most involved in the neighborhood about what they wanted Deep Ellum to be at street level, those stakeholders would be gathering on and around Crowdus Street.

human-centered design is thriving at the Lyle School

The students went to work.

The class syllabus spells out in rather clinical terms that students use a well-established process and set of methods to devise solutions based on human needs and behavior. But what the class delivers is anything but clinical - the chance to get out into the community, try on a real problem and walk around in it while looking for a solution. Canales believes that empathy for the user and rapid prototyping of possible solutions (which sometimes results in rapid failure and the need to start over) are key to making the process work.

Little more than a month later, the students were back on the SMU campus, making their preliminary presentations to Jessica Burnham, executive director of the Deep Ellum Foundation. Four teams explained how they prototyped four different ideas in the community, ranging from a simple, street-side information booth, to a way of mapping the significant life experiences people have shared in Deep Ellum.

human-centered design is thriving at the Lyle School

“This all matters,” Burnham told the students. “You were able to have the one-on-one experiences with people that we miss.” She’s not sure what form it will take, but she expects to put some aspect of the students’ work into practice, taking cost and manpower into consideration.

“Whatever route we decide to go, they will probably come to our board meeting and pitch it. Then our board will decide how to move forward, and I will work with the students, Gray and Kate to make it happen.”


For more information on the Master of Arts in Design and Innovation (MADI) program, visit:

“Why higher education needs design thinking” –