Why you SHOULD use Design thinking approaches in education!

After reading a number of articles today criticizing Design Thinking, even one specifically against it’s use in education I feel called to respond. My professional experiences using Design thinking have revealed a great potential for education, both for teachers in their own practice and for students (young and older). For the new ‘Nederlandse School‘ (I’m in the design team), the curriculum concept is ‘Ontwerpend leren’ and partly informed by design thinking.  Similarly the methods of  Unexpect ‘Creative Thinking for Social Good’ have overlap with design thinking. Both projects in the education domain.

What is Design Thinking anyway?
In short, design thinking is about applying the typical design cycle to new domains. The design cycle, moves, generally speaking, from (user centered) research to creative thinking to prototyping to testing and implementing or indeed going back to the beginning of the design cycle to start again. Very important here to note is that most proponents and users of design thinking use their own version of the cycle, paying relatively more attention to one or another stage, or indeed simplifying the stages or changing the language used to describe them. Most folk also develop their own tools and sub methodologies with the cycle. Just like each village in France makes it’s own cheese, most design studios have their own signature design thinking approaches.

For example: The well know IDEO in their University Toolkit talks about the stages of : The brief – Inspiration – Concepting  – Refinement – Realisation; Design for Change, referenced below, in the ‘I can’ method calls their stages: Feel – Imagine – Do – Share; At Butterfly Works we worked with: Social Need – Research – Ideation – CoCreation Workshop – Making – Pilot – Scaling; and the ‘Creation Flow’ of  the THNK Creative Leadership program, uses the stages: Sensing – Visioning – Prototyping – Scaling.
And probably that is key in this discussion about the pros and cons of design thinking. Design thinking is a powerful method, when done consciously with methods continually under development and adapted to the caucus at hand, by experienced practitioners.

So do I have any doubts about design thinking?
Not fundamentally. As a designer by trade who has applied the design cycle, aka design thinking, in many forms, to a number of domains, from international development to conflict prevention, youth participation to education, across some 16 countries, with good effect. Effects such as heightened engagement of participants, ownership of long term solutions, unexpected solutions and development of cross-disciplinary partnerships. The key is in the authentic doing. If one would take design thinking as some copy paste process or a hat of tricks, it will have little or no effect on the run of the mill practice.

Yes, where some, design thinking process fall short in my view is on three points:
1. The re-frame of the original brief;
To explain, the step of re-framing the original question posed at the start of the design process is fundamental to a good design cycle, this is regularly understated in the approach. Question the question.
2. The presumed availability of creative thinking skills;
While everyone is essentially creative, many of people have the creative confidence knocked out of them at an early age and little attention paid to developing their creative thinking skills thereafter. Any design thinking process would be greatly enhanced by people who have had the opportunity to hone their creative fluency, flexibility, originality and elaboration.
3. Experienced pattern recognition;
Creating ideas is one thing, choosing the best one for the situation at hand, is where the real brilliance or experience comes in.

The articles this post was triggered by are:
– ‘Design thinking is a failed experiment. So what’s next? by Bruce Nussbaum, one of design thinking earliest and longest proponents of design thinking,
–  ‘Why design thinking doesn’t work in education‘; a well written and researched article yesterday from @onlinelearning!
Beyond design thinking in education and research by Jordan Shapiro in Forbes.

Taking the them one by one.
Bruce’s Nussbaum’s main point of concern as I understand it, (with which I totally agree) is that as Design Thinking is usually prescribed as a step by step process many people have followed it in form but not in essence, thus missing the essential creative experience. My answer to Bruce would be, just because people are using a method badly, don’t blame the method. The attitude with which you go into and through any design process has to be one of open curiosity, you have to be able to delay your judgement long enough to allow new insights to arise.  And it’s at this point in the process that many (groups of ) people want closure and they go for the easy or known solution, almost defeating the purpose of the design thinking exercise.

@onlinelearning! concludes in her article that design thinking with it’s user centered approach can be helpful for instructional designers and teachers to enhance their methods but for children it’s a bridge too far, for their level of knowledge and understanding to be able to use design thinking. With the second part of this conclusion I couldn’t disagree more strongly. To me, if anything design thinking is particularly suited to children’s levels of curiosity, their ability to ask good questions, to help enhance their creative thinking skills and in making  education contextually relevant to them. The best example of doing design thinking with children has to be the Indian Design for Change, running in some 180 countries.

Jordan Shapiro, in his Forbes article asks, what the heck is this design thinking that he is hearing all the hype about and wonders if a healthy skepticism about solutionism can exist simultaneously with design thinking. To which I would answer with a resounding yes!. The rest of the article shares ideas about a particular application of design thinking within medical research. A main point here being that innovation is rarely an individual effort.

In sum, while Design Thinking, is of course not a one size fits all methodology nor does following it’s  steps guarantee one  success or creativity, it is a potent formula for any age group to have in their toolbox. Indeed, have you ever had a serious question that didn’t deserve to be critically and creatively appraised? I say bring on authentic design thinking, let young people learn it and assess it for themselves. I’m glad it’s finally become a buzz word, let’s hope it goes main stream.

Note: Other terms often used for similar processes to design thinking:
Service Design
User centered design
Social Design
Design research
Meta Design
Critical Design
Design Management
the list goes on.

12 thoughts on “Why you SHOULD use Design thinking approaches in education!

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  5. Hallo Suzana, yes I believe you can add experience design, to the list, children design play experiences for themselves regularly and this is something they could do learn to do more explicitly and to design experiences for others. Nice addition.

  6. Dear Emer,
    Bout your post: “Why you SHOULD use Design thinking approaches in education!” – I would like to know if, in your opinion we could also include: Experience Design and Relational Design (Blauvelt)* into the list you suggest, about terms with similar processes?
    Thank you very much.

  7. Thanks for such an insightful article. I discovered my passion for design as a way to tackle seemingly impossible social problems right at the end of college, where I studied physics. As a result, I’m extremely passionate about design and want to work in the field, but I have no formal design background.

    After reading your article and the various criticisms against design thinking, I’m now much more aware of the danger of relying on design thinking as some magical process that will yield creative solutions to social problems. What struck me the most is your statement that,

    “Design Thinking is usually prescribed as a step by step process many people have followed it in form but not in essence, thus missing the essential creative experience.”

    I recruited a multidisciplinary team to explore the design-thinking method to tackle a local community issue in our area. Do you have any resources, thoughts, tips on how we can use the design process without abusing it, or using it “wrong”? How do we take advantage of the design-thinking process while following the “essence” of the design principles behind it? What are common pitfalls?

    I’ve been reading as much as I can from respected designers who are talking about design thinking in the social problem context, so I can learn as much as I can. I would love to learn from your insights.

    Thanks again, this was a very eye-opening article!

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  10. First, thank you for the mention of my blog post on design thinking. Your post here prompted further thought, more so after I visited the Design for Change Website and watched several of the videos. I see the value of this process, and agree with you that children have many creative ideas, can solve complex problems, and have unique perspectives. The Design for Change model as presented on the website, http://www.dfcworld.com/icanmodel.html appears to be a version a problem solving model, with a goal of impacting change, (#1 Feel, #2 Imagine, #3 Do and #4 Change). One could certainly call it a model of Design Thinking for K-12 — one of several others designed for education, IDEO, Butterfly Works etc. However, after considerable research, I’ve found that one of the critical components of Design Thinking is the ability to create a collection of insights that come from a variety of disciplines, many outside the scope of the problem. This concept is explored extensively in Rowe’s book, Design Thinking, as I mention in my post, “Quite often references are made to objects already within the domain of architecture. On other occasions, however, an analogy is made with objects and organizational concepts that are farther afield and outside of architecture” (Rowe. 1987).

    I also found reference to this multidimensional thinking in the book, ‘Innovation: Why a Company’s Problems are Its Greatest Advantage’, by Adam Richardson, creative director at frog Design. Richardson delves into the process problem solving for addressing complex problems by applying Design Thinking principles. He stresses the need for thinking and researching that goes beyond the context of the problem at hand, and the need to start with solutions even while researching the problem – where formulation and implementation are blended together as insights gathered are synthesized, which is a less predictable approach to problem solving.

    For these reasons I see that Design Thinking as described by Rowe & Richardson requires a breadth of knowledge, not necessarily intelligence or creativity, but knowledge and exposure to various subject areas.

    Though I do agree that there appears to be a tremendous value in applying problem-solving models such as Design for Change with students. These are necessary skills for all K-12 students. We are on the same page there; my position is that Design Thinking as presented in several sources, requires a level and depth of knowledge that many K-12 students do not have. I see the need for K-12 education in the USA at least, to focus more on the humanities, thereby providing a sound base of knowledge that students can draw upon for critical thinking [and Design Thinking] as they mature and develop cognitively.

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