From Ideation to Empathy: Hani Asfour’s Journey Towards Targeted Solutions for the Future of Design

Hani Asfour
Hani Asfour

Hani Asfour is a pivotal figure propelling the evolution of design education and innovation. Currently positioned as the Vice President of Innovation and Institutional Partnerships at the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation, he stands at the forefront of fostering a future where design thinking is the linchpin for solving intricate problems.

Hani’s transformative journey in the dynamic landscape of design and education unfolds in Western Asia, reshaping the narrative of creative learning and innovation. As a seasoned practitioner and educator, he boasts an extensive background, bringing forth a profound understanding of the regional talent pool.

Recognizing the shifting demands of the market, Hani embarked on a groundbreaking tenure as the President of the Beirut Creative Cluster. Committed to reforming design education, his focus has been on seamlessly integrating technology and business with design. This mission is a dedicated effort to channel the region’s creative prowess towards addressing global challenges.

As a practicing professional, Hani acknowledges the imperative to adapt and prepare the next generation for a vibrant market. His impactful journey and commitment converge, showcasing a trailblazer who is not just shaping the future of design but also revolutionizing the way technology, business, and design intersect to address global challenges.

Let’s explore how Hani reshapes the landscape of design innovation!!

Designing the Future

Hani is an MIT and Harvard alumnus and an integral part of Dubai’s creative education initiative, and he shares the pioneering efforts to future-proof the next generation of creatives. Dubai approached MIT and Parsons to develop a curriculum emphasizing the UAE’s commitment to diversify into the creative economy. Joining the founding leadership team, Hani’s mission was clear, “Develop the curriculum and adapt it to the western Asian context.” Launched in 2018, the university’s multidisciplinary program allows students to shape their own journey across Product Design, Multimedia Design, Fashion Design, and Strategic Design Management.

As Hani asserts, the key is the multi-layered possibilities from cross-pollination. Integrating design, strategy and technology, the curriculum encourages students, from the second year onward to combine disciplines for graduation. Hani underscores the advantages, citing research on emerging job fields between disciplines. “Designing wearables, a fast-growing field, requires skills in product, UI, fashion, and accessory design,” he notes. This holistic approach ensures DIDI students are equipped to tackle challenges in hi-tech design for the human body.

Moreover, the curriculum breaks down silos between disciplines fostering innovation. Hani emphasizes that it is one of the fundamental approaches to ensure our students are prepared for emerging industries in the sector. The program’s success lies in its adaptability and forward-thinking, molding versatile creatives ready to navigate the evolving demands of the global market.

Wisdom Over Knowledge

Hani is a proponent of innovation in education and he highlights a pivotal shift brought about by the rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning. At his university, he emphasizes, “We teach and encourage our learners to immerse in advanced technologies and methods.” The focus has evolved from merely imparting knowledge to instilling wisdom.

Hani draws a parallel with Google, noting that the role of the university student in the past century was transforming data into knowledge. However, with technologies like ChatGPT now handling vast human knowledge, the student’s role shifts to applying wisdom. This entails navigating nuanced questions, ethical choices and understanding the accountability tied to decisions and research.

Hani envisions a new university role, “Defining ethical frameworks of discourse that lead to the meaningful and purpose-driven advancement of humankind.” It’s a paradigm shift towards cultivating thoughtful, ethically conscious individuals equipped to drive purposeful progress in an era dominated by advanced technologies.

Navigating the Shift

Being a seasoned designer and educator in Western Asia, Hani acknowledges the urgency for reform in design education. Recognizing the mismatch between education and market needs, Hani declares, “I made it the number one priority to reform design education.”

His vision centers on integrating technology and business with design to harness regional creative talent for addressing global challenges. Hani’s mission is clear—Channel the immense creative talent in the region into solving the world’s wicked problems. It’s a proactive approach to align education with the dynamic demands of the industry, ensuring a bridge between creative skills and real-world applications.

Coding, Robotics, AI

Hani emphasizes a cutting-edge approach to education, stating, “From day one, our students learn the latest technologies as tools.” The curriculum integrates coding, robotics, digital manufacturing, electronics, and AI right from the start.

Hani highlights their commitment to adaptability, affirming, “We embrace rapid changes in software and digital applications, including 3D modelling and printing.” This integration spans across product, interactive, fashion, and strategic design modules. The goal is clear—Create technologically fluent designers, able to seamlessly harness new technologies to focus on sustainable solutions. It’s a forward-looking strategy to equip students with the skills needed to navigate and contribute to the technological landscape.

In the Mind of a Learner

Hani is a perpetual learner who values the fresh perspectives of his talented students, affirming, “The best teachers honestly are our talented students, who have a fresh outlook on the state of our world.” Despite a demanding schedule, he insists on teaching and engaging with learners, recognizing the invaluable growth that comes from staying connected to the ground. Deep conversations with the faculty further enrich his understanding of the field and spark ideas for the future.

Hani’s commitment to staying informed extends to voracious reading. He shares, “I am a voracious reader on many topics, devouring around one hundred books a year and spanning physical, digital and audio formats.” This multifaceted approach underscores Hani’s dedication to continuous learning and keeping abreast of diverse knowledge sources.

Innovate, Explore, Thrive

Hani is addressing the challenge of managing creative academics and advocates for a crucial lesson of providing innovators with the space to experiment and explore. He underscores the importance of shielding them from the daily rigors of bureaucracy, stating, “Protect them from the vagaries of daily life that are inevitable in any institution.” This approach, as Hani notes, has yielded remarkable results evident in student work that has garnered the attention of major organizations and awards globally, despite the institution’s relatively young age. It highlights the effectiveness of fostering an environment where creativity thrives unburdened by administrative constraints leading to impactful recognition on a global scale.

Market-Driven Design

Hani shares, “As designers, we are trained to be empathetic.” He notes, “In business terms, this translates to deeply understanding the market needs and more importantly, the needs of each individual in the market.” Responding to the community in Dubai, Hani reveals, “We are developing a master’s program for working professionals, a compressed executive master’s, masterclasses and adding new disciplines.”

All these initiatives, as Hani highlights, revolve around the core objective of the institution—transforming creativity into innovation. It underscores a strategic response to market demands ensuring that designers are not only creative but also adept at translating that creativity into tangible, market-driven innovation.

From Ideation to Empathy

Hani envisions a future where design thinking—empathy, research, prototyping, iteration, testing—becomes the go-to approach to solving complex problems. In contrast to quantitative methods, he emphasizes an approach of engaging with people in need, deeply listening to their pain points before attempting to ideate. This ensures solutions are not only relevant and targeted but also full of care and empathy.

Hani advocates for a shift towards qualitative approaches, humanizing technology and making innovation meaningful. He articulates that the future requires approaches that make advancement meaningful and innovation desirable. It’s a call for a thoughtful, people-centric approach to problem-solving that combines technology with a genuine understanding of human needs and aspirations.

Creative Fusion

Hani passionately advises aspiring designers, urging them to immerse themselves in the latest tools of technology without hesitation. His counsel extends to combining these tools with creative skills, emphasizing the goal to channel creativity into defining empathetic solutions to the planet and people.

Hani challenges the youth to adopt a Pi-shaped talent model, stating, “Think of themselves as evolved T-shaped people, individuals skilled in at least two vertical fields and able to empathetically work across many disciplines.” It’s a call for multidimensional expertise and empathetic collaboration, aligning with the dynamic demands of the contemporary design realm.