About the Course

SEAS ES22 / GSD SCI 6276 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.
  • Curl up and read a nice article about us in Boston Magazine: Harvard Class Teaches the Design of Desirability.
  • Our blog is under construction ahead of the 2020 course, but you can still explore what 2018-2019 was like here.
  • Feeling really nostalgic? Our old blog is still kicking around out there. You can explore pre-2018 years here.

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.

Why Should You Take the Course?

  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.

Past Challenges and Distinctive Projects

Challenges from 2015 to 2019 are now listed directly on the course blog.


Challenges and Distinctive Projects from 2013 and 2014 are listed below


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.


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: What makes online content go viral? 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: Creative in 3D. 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: Iconic Design. 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

Past Challenge Topics


Practice Challenge: Harvard iLab

Challenge #1: Swarovski

Challenge #2: IDEO’s prototype for the Diego Powered Dissector System

Challenge #3: Zipcar’s Made-for-Mobile App

Challenge #4: Open App Challenge

Challenge #5: Viral Online

Challenge #6: Solidworks software and 3D printing (pen)

Challenge #7: Creating an iconic product



Challenge #1: Duality of Human Nature + Breaking Down the 4th Wall

Challenge #2: Dignity and Strength in the Sunset Years

Challenge #3:Interpersonal Displays of Status

Challenge #4: Embodying Different Price Points

Challenge #5: Improving the Desirability of an Existing Product

Challenge #6: Getting out of Your Head and Inside Another’s

Challenge 7 (Not on website )

Challenge #8: Designing for Positive Emotion and Danceability

Challenge #9: Design an Icon



Challenge 0: Harmonious color composition story challenge

Challenge Half: Sensory design / redesign skymall product practice challenge

Challenge 1: Exclusive Immersion-Experience design challenge

Challenge 2: Relatable, Aspirational Pilot

Challenge 2 Revisited: Improve on Challenge 2 based on feedback

Challenge3 Goals as a designer challenge – using Desmet and Hekkart’s paper

Challenge 4: Designing for Behavioral Change

Challenge 5: Design a Listening Experience (headphones)

Challenge 6: Concrete DIY Furniture Design with HomeMade Modern and Ben Uyeda

Challenge 7: Wearable Tech/Fashion Challenge

Challenge 8: UX challenge

Final challenge: Come up with a new project loosely related to ‘designing an icon’ or to significantly improve on a previous challenge



Challenge #0: Wearable Storytelling

Challenge #half: Design engaging content for a specific target population

Challenge #1- Multisensory balance that sells

Challenge #2- Parallel Tasting

Challenge #3- Basic wearable/fabric construction skills: make a simple pillowcase

Challenge #4- Human Centered Design (only those in this workshop)

Challenge #5- Covetable Sustainability

Challenge #6- Sneakers that convey emotion

Challenge #7-  Drone file + yourself as a designer description

Challenge #8- Music as medicine

Challenge #9- Designing for a different market: OneWheel

Final Challenge- Wearable tech…high performance garment prototype

Portfolio: ‘Cohesive Collection’



Challenge #0: Wearable Storytelling

Challenge #half: Design engaging content for a specific target population

Challenge #1: Immersive Theater “in a box”

Challenge #2A: Graphics Workshop

Challenge #2B: Preference Algorithms

Challenge #3:Operationalizing and Anticipating Desirability (save money)

Challenge #4: Create a platform that motivates ‘sustained learning’

Challenge 5: Create an engagement strategy to get users to validate/disprove a hypothesis for what the CEO of a major fashion company should do next

Challenge 6: Collect Data to Validate Hypothesis

Challenge 7: Build a product inspired by research

Challenge 8: Emerging ‘Design Point of View’

Challenge 9: Counter-Cultural Headphones

Challenge 10: Field work to build a product


Note: 2018, 2019, 2020 Challenges have not yet been listed here.