Center for Design Innovation – Interview with Dr. Carol Strohecker

by Deanna Leonard

Center for Design Innovation - Interview with Dr. Carol StroheckerWhat happens when academia, technology, business and community intersect?  Amazing and powerful innovations that change our culture, create new jobs, and bring products to market more efficiently and effectively.

That’s exactly what Dr. Carol Strohecker, Director, Center for Design Innovation or CDI, has been focused on for the last 5 ½ years. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Strohecker recently to learn more about her, her passion around innovation and her leadership of CDI.  Established in 2005 as collaborative center of the State university system, CDI innovates education, entrepreneurship and product development through the creation and use of advanced computer technologies. CDI researchers specialize in “rapid prototyping” and “motion capture,” both of which rely on 3D software modeling. Rapid prototyping techniques support industrial designs for objects such as medical instruments, mechanical components, and furnishings. Motion capture techniques support the design of rapidly moving machine parts and therapies for elderly people, injured workers, and performers such as athletes and dancers. The results also fuel animations for movies, video games, and mobile apps.

Prior to moving to NC and accepting this role, Dr. Strohecker worked in high-tech research for Mitsubishi Electric Research Labs and organizations associated with MIT. She has taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and specializes in the design and development of digitally enabled tools and environments for learning.  One of the things Dr. Strohecker noted is her observation over the years that there seem to be two types of people when it comes to change:  those who like change and those who do not.  “It is your ability to influence those who do not like change that will bring innovation to life and move the needle forward,” commented Carol.  “The ability to negotiate and synergize will make things happen.  The best ideas are connected to many different facets of the community and it is important to cross-pollinate.” Change is at the center of what Carol does daily.  She has a mantra, ‘inter-inter-inter.’  Inter-institutional.  Inter-disciplinary.  Inter-sectoral.

Carol and her team are bringing two campuses of the University of North Carolina system (the UNC School of the Arts and Winston-Salem State University) together with Forsyth Tech Community College; the collaborators represent multiple disciplines and perspectives; and to a larger extent than normally happens in a university setting, they work with members of businesses and the larger community. The keywords are “technology” and “talent” as they transform people, product development, and society as a whole.  Carol shared with me that “the reason the State gave funding to start CDI is to spur economic development and ensure a bright future for our community.” Carol (along with innovators world-wide) believes that design is key to changing how we create products and services, and ensuring the quality of the outcomes. The design process is also a good model for transforming settings and practices in both business and education. Design is collaborative, it involves multiple perspectives, and it proceeds through successive phases in which outcomes can be assessed and progressively improved.

Much of the design work at CDI relies on technologies for motion capture and rapid prototyping, both of which depend on 3D software data modeling. These high-tech methods can create new jobs and add to businesses bottom lines.  They can also improve our daily lives.  For instance, a medical device designer was able to detect a problem with an endoscope model by printing a prototype from one of CDI’s 3D printers. There is no substitute for holding the problematic part and being able to examine it close-up.  The resulting product could help physicians to better diagnose ailments and to improve treatments by delivering medicine directly to an internal area.  Another example is how motion capture techniques can help physical therapists to better understand how a patients’ problematic gait or other movement may corrected through specific exercises. The Center for Design Innovation is currently operating from a temporary location and broke ground for their own building on February 20, 2012, creating more design and construction jobs.  Carol could not be more excited about the positive imprint that CDI will have on the community.  Below are seven questions I ask all innovators I interview.  She was open and ready to talk about each one.

  1. In your own unique way, how do you define innovation?  “A difference that makes a difference:  imagining, realizing and spreading a new way of understanding, seeing or making things.”
  2. What do you believe is the most innovative product or service in the marketplace today — and why? “The form factor, presentation mode and suite of services associated with the Apple iPhone, because they connect complex functions to human sensibilities.”
  3. What or who inspires you to innovate?  “I don’t know.  It comes from a restlessness and ongoing questioning from deep within, for as long as I can remember.  I do have some heroes, like Jane Goodall and Rosa Parks.”
  4. Why is innovation important in today’s economy?  “We have no choice.  Our social and economic realities are now global. Each of us, as individuals and communities, has much to learn about what we can offer in this new reality.”
  5. Flash forward 10 years, what is the most surprising thing you predict will happen?  “Universities will be increasingly community-oriented and people will have ways to learn all the time, everywhere they go.”
  6. Finish this sentence:  I wish………”we would hurry up and the get the CDI building constructed.”
  7. What is the one question you wished I had asked you?  “Why is CDI important?  CDI will help to invigorate the Piedmont regional economy by creating and applying computer and imaging technologies in order to move from reliance on the manufacturing of agricultural products to knowledge-based products and services.”

Dr. Strohecker believes that CDI has two pathways that will benefit the community, each of which begins with research. In the economic development pathway, new ideas and know-how become intellectual property, which leads to new products and services leading to new companies and jobs. In the education pathway, new ideas, techniques, and methods lead to new workshops and experimental courses, which grow into full courses that can become accredited, potentially leading to a new academic program in digital media and materials to serve the health care, education, communication, entertainment, and transportation sectors. Dr. Strohecker and innovators like her are changing the world, one community, one mind at a time.  She is moving with speed and agility, aiming to take NC to the next level of innovation.  To learn more about Carol and the amazing technology work that CDI is undertaking, visit or email

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Deanna Leonard is the Trends & Fashion Editor for Innovation Excellence. Deanna is a Design and Innovation leader who’s served in global corporations, most recently Hanes, where she’s used creative thinking as a problem solving tool to launch category-changing products that grew both market share and profitability. Having spent most of her career in the consumer products segment, Deanna keenly understands how to navigate diverse organizational cultures, manage global product development, identify trends, and leverage consumer insights translating them into successful and innovative product launches.

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  1. Great article, Deanna! What CDI is doing could be used as a model for universities around the world to promote innovative excellence on the college campus.

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