On Design Thinking and Education
by IG on May 23, 2013

An exploration of the design process, the “design thinking” movement and how these ideas apply in the domain of education

As a style of thinking, design thinking is generally considered the ability to combine empathy for the context of a problem, creativity in the generation of insights and solutions, and rationality to analyze and fit solutions to the context. Wikipedia, February 2014

First, let us look more closely at design. The term “design” continues to resist definition. After all, there are so many different applications for the skill, but this resistance turns out to be useful. The incorporeal quality of design practice allows the profession to morph and adjust to the needs of the moment. Even though we tend to think of the objects designers create as design, the design practice uses a language of visuals and semantics that is more closely linked to social behaviour than it is to concrete artifacts. How can this “design thinking” work with education?

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein talked about language being a “form of life” (Kindersley, 2011), meaning that it is intimately connected to the context in which it is spoken. Language is molded by character of the speaker and meaning is recreated in the understanding of the listener. Similarly, design can be considered as an active language of practice, even if it is an especially visual language. This idea helps to reveal the limitations of defining a specific meaning for the term “design,” as it can limit understanding like a stereotype would.

As it turns out, the creative muscles that designers develop through their training and practice can be applied in more ways than making products. With the rise of the design thinking movement, as promoted by the likes of Tim Brown and the IDEO firm, there is a shift from viewing designers as makers of things with outcomes like brochures, websites, or logos, to design as a process of discovery, learning, and addressing needs.

Design thinking image from Tim Brown’s book,
Change by Design Image: Peter Macdonald / IDEO [Enlarge]

It is the quality of the thinking and understanding that gives the underlying value to the outcomes anyway. Design is only surface deep unless it is anchored upon deep foundation of understanding and conceptual thinking.

People may think that design is about screens, objects, or logos, but it’s actually about people—their changing needs and behavior, preferences, and aversions. (Shimmell, 2012)

Visualizing the Design Process

Design thinking combines creativity, empathy and rational analysis to help realize successful outcomes for people and businesses. A deeper understanding of this way of thinking and my own design process was a main theme of my MDes program at NSCAD University. One of my favorite models of design thinking is from the Stanford d.School. The categories are concise and useful, but the most meaningful part for me are the reflexive lines showing how the process is not actually linear.

Stanford d.School design thinking process

The design process visualized by Stanford’s d.School
(Ratcliffe 2009). [Enlarge]

The design process moves from a somewhat messy front end of creative ideas to very detailed and precise outcomes. The designer asks foundational questions and moves out laterally from the obvious. Through questioning, research, observation and a playful discovery, a clear understanding of the needs and goals will often reveal a solution.

My design process

As an exercise to visualize my own design process, the d.School’s process is combined with a theme of space exploration, astronomy and mythology. Rather than a rigid structure, this is more an exploration that begins with curiosity. [Enlarge]


Creative exploration and research can start broad and messy, evolving towards clear and precise outcomes. The initial period of exploration can feel disconcerting for new clients as it is very much like feeling around in the dark for the light switch.

design process visualization

An exploration of the process of generating ideas and using visual language to communicate

The collaborative relationship implies that there is development internally and externally—as an individual and as a community. Such is what happens with the process of ideation as it begins in private reflection and moves to external feedback. Among a sea of ideas, the designer searches for one that will float. I like the idea of this part of the process being submerged, below the surface of consciousness. It takes into account the many possible solutions and the role of intuition in guiding the designer toward a successful outcome.

One of the fascinating things about this process is that discovery is not just passive observation, but discovery happens instead through active and creative engagement, as in this PDF on needfinding. The design process works best when the designer and the user group are on equal terms and establish a trusting relationship as they explore the design challenge together as a collaboration.

This is a radical new vision for a more balanced relationship, rather than seeing it as client and service provider a collaboration speaks to more trust, respect and equality. The client and the professional meet on more level ground. If this thinking is applied to education, perhaps this new way also levels the relationship between expert and novice, teacher and student.

ideal design relationships

This diagrams shows how relationships interact and overlap on a project. All of these elements combine in a successful collaboration, which is often guided by a clear concept or “big” idea.

Design Thinking for Education

This article was motivated from reading about Kendra Shimmell (2012) as she shares her experiences applying design thinking to teaching and learning. In her own words, this is how she found success.

So, how do we discern what students need and when, especially if everyone is at a different skill-level? We know they haven’t internalized the learning if they want more guidance after completing an activity, so we respond by providing information that challenges them to think about the situation from a different perspective, and we do this until they can internalize and make the thinking their own.

We also have coaches who walk around and listen to the teams. Rather than telling them everything, we drop a new clue/prop/question/ into the situation. It works like a video game, where you discover information, uncover clues, and move level by level to the next lesson. It’s not surprising that participants often arrive at the most useful insights by consulting with each other. I ask them to find a thought-partner and discuss what they are learning.

Another example is the Harvard professor Eric Mazur, who went from discouraged to amazed after he began successfully using this model of “peer-coaching” to teach his students physics. In Craig Lambert’s March, 2012 Harvard Magazine profile of Mazur, “Twilight of the Lecture,” Lambert notes that “interactive learning triples students’ gains in knowledge as measured by the kinds of conceptual tests that had once deflated Mazur’s spirits, and by many other assessments as well. It has other salutary effects, like erasing the gender gap between male and female undergraduates.”

ideal design relationships

The design/client/project relationship is remapped to explore the educational paradigm. Aside from mastery of course materials, a successful learning experience leaves the student with many memorable insights.

A Widening View of the Practice

IDEO has not only been the innovative leaders in the area of design thinking, but they have actively promoted different applications of it. This is evident in their publications such as the Human Centered Design Toolkit, a warm and practical document with examples from the international development projects. You can learn more about their ideas for k-12 education in Design Thinking for Educators, and download their free toolkit with registration.

Another useful place to look is the Design Council in the UK. The Red Paper 02: Transformation Design shows how principles of design thinking can be used in a variety of social applications from healthcare to innovation in the prison system. These examples show some of the language and approaches that succeeded in bringing innovation to large government institutions, an impressive feat in itself.

When the focus is purely on the products and things that design produces, the value of design is often assigned based upon the value of those products and things. The work of IDEO, Stanford d.School and the Design Council represent an optimistic and positive view of how design can contribute as a way of thinking about the future and finding solutions for a variety of needs. As the design profession continues to define and redefine itself in new contexts, so too there will be a myriad of new applications that will arise. What new ideas can you suggest? ♦


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  • […] all being said, Ian Grivois makes a compelling comparison in highlighting that the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein talked […]

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