UC San Diego opens major design center to train students to create the future

A rendering shows UC San Diego's new $67 million Design and Innovation Building.
A rendering shows UC San Diego’s new $67 million Design and Innovation Building.
(Courtesy of UC San Diego)

The Design and Innovation Building is part of UCSD’s new ‘front door’ to its campus.


UC San Diego has opened a major design center where thousands of students a year will switch from passively listening to lectures to conceiving and creating products, mostly intended to make people’s lives fuller, safer and healthier.

The $67 million Design and Innovation Building, or DIB, opened Nov. 18 and will make it possible for students to develop everything from watch sensors that measure air quality to apps that screen for signs of Alzheimer’s disease to scooters tailored for senior citizens.

“We want students to engage and serve the community, to bring people in, rather than having the university be an island unto itself,” said Ramesh Rao, director of UCSD’s Qualcomm Institute, a technology test bed.

The approach reflects the university’s need to produce more workers for the region’s huge biotech, life science and engineering industries and its desire to more warmly welcome the public to an institution largely isolated near the bluffs of La Jolla.

The 74,000-square-foot DIB becomes the first working piece of the university’s emerging “front door,” a clearly designated spot where students and the public will find it easier to access the main campus, which is spread over more than 600 acres.

The second piece, a Blue Line trolley station, begins operating Sunday, Nov. 21. It’s located next to the DIB, whose windows are designed to let visitors and commuters peek at the action in the maker studios. A restaurant will be added to encourage people to linger.

An outdoor amphitheater that will seat nearly 3,000 people is being built next to the DIB. And workers are straightening and lengthening Rupertus Lane, which will provide people with the first clear path between the eastern and western edges of a campus that has nearly 43,000 students.

UC San Diego has long cultivated entrepreneurship and design among its students. But the effort began to take on more focus and depth in 2014 when Chancellor Pradeep Khosla recruited famed design expert Don Norman to found the school’s Design Lab and help conceptualize the DIB.

Don Norman was recruited to found UCSD's Design Lab and help conceptualize the Design and Innovation Building.
Engineer and design expert Don Norman was recruited to found UCSD’s Design Lab and help conceptualize the Design and Innovation Building.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Norman is an engineer and psychologist who originally joined the UCSD faculty in 1966. He became founding chairman of the Department of Cognitive Science, the first department of its kind in the world.

He left UCSD in 1993 and became a research executive at Apple, helping the company to, among other things, improve the Macintosh computer.

Blunt. Funny. Patient. Impatient. Intuitive. Practical. Creative. Restless.

Norman later went on to other companies, including Hewlett-Packard, and proselytized his core belief that products should be easy to use and practical.

“Design is not about making something look pretty,” Norman told The San Diego Union-Tribune shortly after he returned to UCSD. “It’s about making the world work better.

“I mean everything from your cellphone to health care to education to our impact on the environment. That’s what we’re focused on.”

That will be one of the guiding principles at the DIB, which is composed of four floors, one of which houses The Basement, an incubator space where students will learn how to develop ideas and start a company.

The DIB sits on a spot that until recently was a scraggly, little-used area of the campus.

“It’s gone from being a backwater to a part of our front door,” said Paul Roben, associate vice chancellor for innovation and commercialization. “It’s fantastic.” ◆