Higher Education for Complex Real-World Problems and Innovation: A Tribute to Heufler’s Industrial Design Approach


This article appraises an internationally top ranked higher education program in industrial design, whose stated mission is to enhance students’ ability to deal with complex real-world problems and thereby develop (sustainable) innovation. At the outset, we discuss in general terms—in our view—the indispensable essentials of a higher education program that specifically aims to equip students with the competences needed to successfully deal with such complex real-world problems. In the second part, we specifically examine Heufler’s SchoolofIndustrial DesigninGraz(Austria), its development and characteristics. A summary of general implications for higher education and lessons learnt from this top industrial design program concludes the article. Our analysis suggests that the school’s success is based on a few key cornerstones: 1) The program has a clear mission, which has been communicated early on, internally and externally; 2) Strong leadership, which enables continuity and high-quality output (e.g., attracts high-quality input reflected in the profile of applicants to the program); 3) Real-world projects with co-leadership from industry; 4) Provision of a supportive learning environment which extends beyond lecture times and which is conducive for collaborative creativity; and 5) Faculty are professional experts who focus on problemand project based learning approaches which aim at the joint development of personal, professional domain, systemic, creativity, and sociocultural (collaborative) competence of the students. The authors of this article have been involved with Heufler’sSchoolofIndustrial Designsince its establishment in 1995; they speak on behalf of Gerhard Heufler, the founder and head of this program, who unexpectedly passed away in April 2013. His remarkable leadership has enabled an extraordinary program in higher education with the explicit aim to provide students with competences needed to successfully deal with complex real-world problems.

Share and Cite:

Steiner, G. and Scherr, J. (2013) Higher Education for Complex Real-World Problems and Innovation: A Tribute to Heufler’s Industrial Design Approach. Creative Education, 4, 130-136. doi: 10.4236/ce.2013.47A2016.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.


[1] Brown, T. (2009). Change by design: How design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation. New York: HarperCollins.
[2] Cohen, W. A. (2010). Drucker on leadership: New lessons from the father of modern management. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
[3] Drucker, F. P. (1999). Management: Tasks, responsibilities, practices. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann.
[4] European Commission (2012). The EU and the Bologna process— Shared goals, shared commitments. Supporting growth and jobs—An agenda for the modernization of Europe’s higher education system. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union. http://ec.europa.eu/education/higher-education/doc/bologna-goals_en.pdf
[5] Lupton, E. (2011). Graphic design thinking: Beyond brainstorming. New York: Princton Architectural Press.
[6] Heufler, G. (2010). Design impulse. Zurich: Niggli.
[7] Heufler, G. (2011). Design impulse no. 2: Bikes cars colours more smart ideas. Zurich: Niggli.
[8] Heufler, G. (2012). Design basics. Zurich: Niggli.
[9] Isaksen, S. G., Dorval, K. B., & Treffinger, D. J. (2000). Creative approaches to problem solving: A framework for change. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.
[10] OECD (2012) OECD science, technology and industry outlook 2012, OECD Publishing. doi:10.1787/sti_outlook-2012-en
[11] Scholz, R. W., & Tietje, O. (2002). Embedded case study methods: Integrating quantitative and qualitative knowledge. Thousand Oaks/ London/New Delhi: Sage Publications.
[12] Scholz, R. W. (2011). Environmental literacy in science and society: From knowledge to decisions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511921520
[13] Steiner, G., & Laws, D. (2006). How appropriate are famous concepts from higher education for solving complex real-world problems? A comparison of the Harvard and the ETH case study approach. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 7, 322-340. doi:10.1108/14676370610677874
[14] Steiner, G. (2011). The planetary model of collaborative creativity: systemic-creative problem solving for complex challenges. Wiesbaden: Gabler Research. (in German) doi:10.1007/978-3-8349-6144-0
[15] Steiner, G. (2013a). Competences for complex real-world problems: Toward an integrative framework. Working Paper Series No. 130002, Cambridge: Harvard University, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.
[16] Steiner, G. (2013b). Innovation systems in transition: A transatlantic comparison of old industrial regions. Working Paper Series No. 130004, Cambridge: Harvard University, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs (under review).
[17] Wiek, A., Withycombe, L., & Redman, C. L. (2011). Key competencies in sustainability: A reference framework for academic program development. Sustainability Science, 6, 203-218. doi:10.1007/s11625-011-0132-6

Copyright © 2024 by authors and Scientific Research Publishing Inc.

Creative Commons License

This work and the related PDF file are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.