Envision: Students use Design Thinking to Save Main Street

Presented by: Christina Birkentall

This presentation explores how a senior studio project helped provide a renewed spirit for a small town Main Street that is trying to revitalize while providing many new learning experiences for the students. The students learned how community outreach creates an awareness of the profession; how Design Thinking is used as a tool to help a small business grow; and how design makes an impact for a small village.
Building upon the professor’s graduate research in historic preservation and Design thinking, the students applied their skills in practical (non-classroom) ways –working with real buildings, clients and small village. The term “Envision” was coined to note that students would provide research, planning and design for prospective or existing businesses. 

The project was to help a nearby farming village, which had lost a major factory, to re-invent itself to the buying public. The village recently completed a master planning exercise that helped inform the student’s visions. Students used Design Thinking and the master plans to re- imagine the empty storefronts as new places to dine, shop or to be entertained. Examples include: a drop-in daycare, a bike shop, a tea room, a farm- to- table bistro and an equestrian tack shop. Each student took on their own client, created the concept, and had to accomplish the process work while managing their time, budget and imagination. 

The students visited on a frigid January day to get a feel for the historical nature of the town. Later a Design Thinking exercise was done in class to brainstorm all the possibilities. Students went through a discovery process with potential tenants and current shop owners to determine what they would need to make a business succeed from a planning and branding perspective. With this information, decisions were made to place the designs within the existing buildings; where it would best fit the needs of the business owner, in addition to the overall village plan.  Historical research, field measurements and photo documentation were requirements of the assignment. They recorded the buildings attributes and experienced sometimes not -so- pleasant job conditions. A mid-term client and peer review approval of the sketches and plans occurred before final renderings began, thus emulating how a client would have input into the design process.  With each step, the students used co-design methodologies and discovered how the designer and the client create together the successful design for a business.  

The end result was a well- attended student show and presentation poster style to the village mayor, board and townspeople in one of the spaces that had been “re-envisioned”. The local major metropolitan newspaper picked up the story and ran it as front page news. The final presentation book of the posters is on Facebook and is being used by the Mayor and Chamber of Commerce to entice new businesses to the village. The students gained much needed experience to take with them into the workplace, from the basics of project management through to learning what client may expect from the professional Interior Designer.


  • Martin, Roger.(2009). The Design of Business: Why design thinking is the next competitive advantage. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.
  • Brown, T. (2009). Change by Design: how design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers
  • Birkentall, C.(2011). Small Business Partners: How Interior Designers can impact business growth through Design Thinking. Case Studies from IL. Unpublished Graduate Research –Savannah College of Art and Design
  • http://www.democratandchronicle.com/story/news/2014/05/17/envisioning-main-street-rits-help/9186537/


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