Carlyn James (MDes ’17) wins HILT Spark Grant for cross-Harvard initiative

Carlyn James (MDes ’17) is one of 13 recipients across six teams awarded Spring 2016 Spark Grants by the Harvard Initiative for Learning & Teaching (HILT). James is collaborating with recent Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) graduate Tyler Samstag to develop a cross-disciplinary platform around design thinking and human-centered design titled (co)create.

Spark Grants, offered on a semesterly basis, are awards of between $5,000 and $15,000 designed to help ‘spark’ promising teaching and learning projects from idea to reality and position innovations for future success. It fits within HILT’s broader mission of fostering innovation and excellence in learning and teaching at Harvard.

Through (co)create, James and Samstag are building a cross-University community of practice around creative problem-solving and the application of empathetic, human-focused mindsets in design processes. They also offer mentoring and consulting services for those across the Harvard community who are interested in integrating a design-led approach into their work.

A larger aim behind their initiative is to prepare future leaders to embody empathetic, collaborative, and iterative mindsets that enable them to engage differently with complex global problems.

“From our perspective, the real value of the human-centered-design approach is the mindshifts that happen,” says James, whose MDes concentration is Risk & Resilience and who describes herself as a “wholehearted believer in the idea that who you’re designing for should be who you you’re designing with.”

“[In human-centered design], rather than thinking linearly, you begin working iteratively,” she continues. “Rather than waiting until the end to test, you invite criticism early in order to make incremental changes that save costs in the long run. With (co)create, we want people to walk away feeling like they can take something forward.”

James and Samstag hatched the concept behind (co)create at an October 2015 HGSE workshop themed around applying human-centered design to innovation in early-childhood education. They sensed a palpable interest across Harvard in terms of how human-centered design can have greater social impact; they also recognized a diversity of expertise in and experiences with the subject, and wanted to start drawing some connections.

Through (co)create, James and Samstag plan to organize hands-on workshops at conferences and events—they’ve already led three workshops this semester—and develop an interactive toolkit offering guidance on integrating human-centered design into practice and activities. They also plan to organize a two-day, field-lab event this fall in which Harvard students will tackle a real-world design challenge facing a Boston community. James and Samstag are keen on capturing and documenting the dialogues and outcomes of each workshop and event, an exemplification of human-centered design and its central role in (co)create’s genesis.

Since winning the Spark Grant, James and Samstag have been gathering input from Harvard faculty and students on their needs and goals around design thinking and human-centered design. James and Samstag will analyze these data over the summer as they develop (co)create’s design toolkit.

This summer, James and Samstag will also move forward with fundraising, hiring of facilitators and campus leaders, and community outreach for future events, include the fall field-lab event.

James is particularly encouraged by the collaborative benefits of working with someone from the GSE and the broader benefits of using the entire University, and the peer-to-peer collaboration and research model, as discovery platforms.

“From conversations with faculty and students at the HGSE, we’ve learned that our goals fit into a larger trend of creative problem-solving at Harvard,” James says. “The GSD-HGSE partnership adds a lot of strength and value to what we’re doing, particularly since our theory of change emphasizes capacity building in learning just as much as in designing.”

If you are interested in discussing (co)create with James or Samstag, please e-mail them directly: James at, and Samstag at