Teaching Design for Desirability at Harvard

Go to: Learn more about my Design Survivor course, visit our class blog, or read a nice article about us in Boston Magazine: Harvard Class Teaches the Design of Desirability.

Practicing Design for Desirability

Go to: Learn more about design for desirability in practice with example work in collaboration with Piaggio Fast Forward, and with Kering, Gucci Group and Puma

Teaching Design + Desirability

Engineering Sciences 22 / Design SCI 6276: Design Survivor: Experiential Lessons in Design for Desirability

DESIGN SURVIVOR is a Harvard University course cross-listed in the engineering and design schools, and open to students from all schools. It appeals to those interested in designing products and services that are desirable. In today’s competitive landscape, products and services that connect with human meaning, usability, and emotions are more likely to be successful. Designing for desirability begins with questions of what we mean by ‘desirable’ and ‘for whom’. It can mean irresistible, delightful, meaningful, cool, covetable, viral, easy, and more. The class explores different meanings of desirability in design.

Designers, engineers, developers, entrepreneurs, architects and creators of all kinds work in professions where technical functionality and economic viability are no longer enough to remain competitive. Design for desirability has long characterized the creative industries, and in this course, students learn from these principles and practice applying them to other forms of innovation – from improving health literacy campaigns to revamping declining technologies or redefining luxury goods as both aspirational and sustainable. This course uses experiential, analogical and case-based methods across a range of domains. Students study real world examples of how organizations like Apple, Uber, IDEO, Swarovski, Nike and others use different approaches to strategically design for desirability to capture and maintain the attention of their target markets. They then apply these insights to new domains. The course emphasizes fundamental concepts in design, analogical transfer, the psychology of designing for desirability, and how to use these for engineering design challenges. The course provides technical workshops to students without previous technical prototyping experience. Weekly and bi-weekly cases and experiential challenges are designed to address the applications of the course content to real world problems. Research and tight feedback loops provided by the class structure and weekly critique panels enable students to develop their own design point of view, and to finish with a diverse design portfolio.

Boston Magazine featured the class here: Harvard Class Teaches the Design of Desirability.


– Read about the course creator and teaching staff
– Visit our class blog to see what we’re currently working on or finding interesting


    1. You’re interested in learning from successful cases of products and services designed for desirability across a range of different industries.
    2. You want to actively contribute to an unusual class and have fun while developing highly practical skills.
    3. You want to take a class that finishes with a practical outcome you can use beyond the classroom (in this case a basic, diverse design portfolio).
    4. You want to develop skills and knowledge in:

– rapid creative problem solving
– using ‘human desirability’ as a founding design principle and exploring this across diverse contexts
– applying analogical transfer as a design strategy
– prototyping ideas quickly using a variety of different tools (digital illustration, storytelling, 3D printing, improv, exhibition design, app design and more..)
– presenting ideas competitively (and learning from how others approach the same design brief)
– getting better at calibrating your own effort to output ratio
– working with a range of diverse partners on real projects
– responding to diverse feedback competitively
– learning more about what you like and might want to do in the future from a broad range of examples of products, services, projects and companies that excel in desirability-based design


If you are uncomfortable with any of the following, this might not be the class for you:

– Highly participatory class environments. This is not a lecture- and final-exam format class. ES22 is case- and project-based, highly participatory and appropriate for students who embrace that.
– Occasional changes in the syllabus schedule. The teaching staff works with outside organizations to develop custom case studies and challenges. This means scheduling changes are likely to arise. We do our best to keep this to a minimum.
– Fun, experimental, environment. This is not your typical engineering course, and not meant to be. This course focuses on idea development and design aspects of engineering. ES22 cultivates an animated environment because it suits the content (design for desirability) and format (competitive weekly challenges). Students who are looking for a more traditional, lecture-based learning environment should consider whether this course is right for them.

2015 – present – Challenges and Winners are now acknowledged directly on the blog

2014 Challenges and Winners

Challenge 1: Duality of human nature + Breaking down the 4th wall

Check out projects with distinction

Challenge 2: Dignity and strength in the sunset years

Check out projects with distinction

Challenge 3: Interpersonal displays of status

Check out projects with distinction

Challenge 4: Embodying different price points

Check out projects with distinction

Challenge 5: Improving the desirability of an existing product

Check out projects with distinction

Challenge 6: Getting out of your head and inside another’s

Check out projects with distinction

Challenge 8: Designing for positive emotion and danceability

Check out projects with distinction

Challenge 9: Design an icon

Presented at Harvard Innovation Lab for our final presentations.

2013 Challenges and Winners

DS examples

Challenge 1: Apply lessons from Swarovski + Design Museum’s digital crystal exhibit

Our first challenge was inspired by a case that Dr. Altringer created on Swarovski’s partnership with the Design Museum in London for the Digital Crystal exhibit in 2012. The exhibition brought together up-and-coming designers from around the world to produce pieces that showcased what is possible with crystal as a material. The first Design Survivor challenge was to apply lessons from the Swarovski case to design an exhibit showcasing what is possible with bamboo as a material. Their submissions were required to incorporate the lessons, and have branding benefits for the Black Belt region of Alabama, a low-income agricultural region shifting to bamboo production as a higher yield crop.

PAN-DA-BOO – Slides // Interview
Bam-Bam – Slides // Interview
Black Belt Bama – [no slides] // Interview

Challenge 2: Apply lessons from IDEO’s prototype for the Diego Powered Dissector System

Our second challenge was inspired by IDEO’s prototype for the Diego Powered Dissector System for Gyrus ACMI, ENT Division. IDEO’s work on this product is as well-known amongst designers for its prototyping story as it is for its final design, which received numerous design awards. The prototype was quickly created during a client meeting, as designers worked to interpret what the clients were describing, and communicate a potential concept. The mock-up was a rapid prototype, comprised of easily found materials, and it exemplified the benefits of ‘thinking in 3D’. IDEO’s designers are not surgeons and are unfamiliar with nasal anatomy. The prototype and the speed of mocking it up – with only a dry-erase marker, film canister, and tape – allowed the designers to communicate their concept quickly and for the client to respond equally quickly with feedback on the potential design and whether it could work for them.
Following a workshop on prototyping with found objects and thinking in 3D, in this second challenge, the students created rapid prototype solutions based on case studies representing the challenges faced during surgery by morbidly obese patients in the operating room. This was purposefully a challenge area that students had not likely thought of or new very much about. They learned to explore the problem by thinking in 3D, with the objective of producing prototypes that would enable a professional in the field to quickly understand their design concept and give user feedback.

Bed Petal – Slides // Interview
Inflatable Solutions – Slides  // Interview

Challenge 3: Apply lessons from Zipcar’s made-for-mobile app

In our third challenge, Dr. Altringer created a case inspired by Zipcar’s mobile app, and Zipcar CEO, Scott Griffith’s, philosophy about the future of mobile. Following the Zipcar case, students learned to replicate existing apps quickly. In our app workshop, in conjunction with Occom Group, students learned that it is possible to create interactive demos of well-known mobile apps, like Kayak and Air BnB. They were then challenged to apply these skills to replicating an app of their choice. They had to substantially improve the existing app according to the following criteria: it had to provide the user with what s/he needs, when s/he needs it, where ever s/he is located, and using the tools s/he has handy. Submissions had to be interactive, and to clearly highlight the improvements made over the original app.

Starbucks // Slides // Interview
Harvard App // Slides // Interview
TKTS // Slides // Interview
Culture Now // Slides // Interview

Challenge 4: Open App Challenge

In the open app challenge, students had two weeks to create the concept of a new app (in week one) and to design an interactive demo for the app (in week two). For the conceptual challenge, they needed to identify a problem, to articulate why the problem area mattered, to show how their app solves the problem better than alternatives, and to estimate what it would take to make the app into a viable business. For the product challenge, students created an interactive demo of their concept.

Challenge Me – Presentation // Interview
One Good Deed – Presentation // Interview
Delorean- Presentation // Interview
Tripoff – Presentation // Interview
Link – Presentation // Interview

Challenge 5

Our class studied research on what makes things go viral online, with a focus on blog posts and infographics. From this, I created a set of examples and a checklist of factors thought to make content go viral. Students used the checklist as a guide for creating content with the intention of releasing it (though they were not required to release it, only to create it as if they were going to release it with the intention of reaching the broadest possible audience). The checklist included items like: sufficient coverage of the topic, emotional impact, practicality, interest surprise and author credibility.

Defenestration of Cats – Presentation // Interview
Most Blank Cities – Presentation // (no video)
Think Again Startup Cities – Presentation // Interview
What’s in an Hour – Presentation // Interview
Sitting is the New Smoking – Presentation // Interview

Challenge 6

The purpose of this challenge was primarily to introduce the students to Solidworks software and 3D printing. Students learned to duplicate the design of an everyday object, a ball-point pen in Solidworks. They were then challenged to design a novel spin on the everyday pen, and particularly to explore personalization as a desirability strategy. Their designs had to incorporate the original pen casing, and would be judged on design functionality (they had to write) and originality.

Call Me Maybe Pen – Slides // Interview
Penna – Slides // Interview
Boomball – Slides // (no interview)
Dimple – Slides // (no interview)
Pretty in Pen – (no presentation online) // Interview
Quadripen – Slides // Interview
Wolverink – Slides // Interview

Challenge 7

Inspired by three iconic and/or trendy product case studies, students were challenged to create their own. They learned the story behind Diane von Furstenburg’s iconic wrap dress, the story behind von Dutch’s trendy trucker cap, and the story behind Swarovski’s best-selling Slake bracelet.

Bob – Slides // Interview
Digishelf – Slides // Interview
Dipp’d – Slides // Interview
Thanks Mints – Slides // Interview

Example Professional Projects



Dr. Altringer was on the founding team and runs design research for Piaggio Fast Forward (PFF), a Boston-based company that started in 2015 and is funded by the Piaggio Group, which owns Vespa, Moto Guzzi and several global motorcycle brands.

PFF is re-thinking how goods and people can move around in cities at a more human-friendly scale (as opposed to car-centric scale). The company launched its first fleet of human helper cargo-carrying robots in February 2017 and has since won a number of design awards.

Our robot has been featured in in CNN Money, the Wall Street Journal, Dezeen, Engadget, Tech Crunch, NBC, The Daily Mail, Design Boom and More. Watch the robot in action on CNN Money



Kering awards

LUXURY AND SUSTAINABILITY – Kering HOME is an initiative that transformed the holding company and all of its brands, which include Gucci, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Puma, Yves Saint Laurent, and many more. The HOME team, of which Altringer was a core member, included the CEOs of Gucci Group (Robert Polet at the time) and Puma (Jochen Zeitz at the time), Head of Kering Americas (Laurent Claquin), and a global conservation expert (Holly Dublin). We formed the strategy for the initiative, which was implemented and received numerous awards.

Our goal was to move beyond the conventional sustainability approach and promote a new business paradigm whereby the attainment of sustainability drives creativity and innovation, and vice versa, to build businesses that deliver financial, social and environmental returns. HOME created four interconnected programs: Leadership (leading a corporate paradigm shift both externally and internally); Humanity (enhancing the social, economic and environmental wellbeing of communities in PPR’s spheres of operation); Ecology (mitigating PPR’s footprint via reduction, offsets and investing in the environment); and Creativity (creating sustainable solutions to support global sustainability). After building the strategy, we tested it with experts in creative, design, humanitarian and environmental sectors. This led to four major investments. We launched a Creative Sustainability Lab through partnership with Cradle-to-Cradle® to re-think and re-consider product and business development. We offset annual global CO2 emissions from PPR’s Luxury group, PUMA and PPR’s headquarters. PUMA began developing the first-ever Environmental Profit and Loss (EP&L) account statement, later rolled out across PPR/Kering companies. Finally, we launched an annual €10 million budget indexed to dividend evolution to enable continued investment in HOME. The project set a new standard in sustainability and business practice in the Luxury, Sport & Lifestyle and Retail sectors.

Kering example products

Above are several examples of how Kering brands have implemented the strategy we developed.

Link to Primary Research Projects