Design Thinking: An Introduction

No doubt that independent school educators are often excellent designers. We explore the needs of our students, research best practices, call on peers and outside experts for input, come up with new ideas, experiment with new curricula, get feedback, revise, and try again. Our work as independent school educators is in many ways aligned with a process called design thinking. Three years ago I gained hands-on and theoretical exposure to design thinking at a conference; ever since, I've learned more by experimenting in my own classroom and integrating its approaches into the way our school deals with senior projects. 

When you research design thinking online, you will quickly see why some refer to the term as a kind of "meme." Originally used in the domains of architects, city planners, and designers of all stripes, it is now increasingly embraced by businesses and schools as part of what might be called the 21st century "innovation and creativity agenda." Pat Bassett, president of NAIS, went so far as to include design thinking in NAIS's strategic visioning for 2011-2012. But what is it? Simply put, it is a problem solving strategy that builds a “can-do” attitude.

The term became popular in the 1980s at institutions like Stanford and MIT, but some point to the 1960s as when it began to evolve from participatory design. Participatory design, where the user of the design becomes a part of the research process, informing the design, is taken further in design thinking. The user is not just used to test a product; in design thinking, the user's needs are an integral part of the design process itself, not an afterthought. In curriculum design this shift would include students in the creation of curriculum, as opposed to simply asking students for feedback after delivering curriculum. 

User empathy, or putting yourself in the user's shoes to find solutions, is a big concept distinguishing design thinking. But much of design thinking is best viewed as a creative, action-oriented mindset (think Leonardo daVinci or cavemen experimenting with fire or a parent experimenting with ways to soothe his or her child). It's really what humans do as they problem solve. 

There are three key themes to the design thinking process: exploration, idea generation, and prototyping. Design thinking is non-linear, so I prefer to discuss the three broad areas as themes rather than phases, which might imply a rigid order. As it turns out, there are elements of all three themes throughout any design thinking experience. You will tend not to say, "I am exploring now, therefore, I cannot ideate!" For clarity I will discuss exploration, ideation, and prototyping as semi-permeable arenas. 

The exploration arena values looking beneath the surface of things and is commonly referred to as the "deep dive." This dive can include research, observations, and questioning to gain insights. In an architecture unit I had been presenting for several years, I made two key changes after integrating design thinking. Before, I had students brainstorm house ideas and do research individually, answering elaborate programming questionnaires. After, I had students interview each other to try to understand each other’s "needs" and to gain insights into why their interview partner desired or needed certain elements in his or her house. I was blown away by how much more engaged students were because of these interviews. Before, during the schematic phase, I insisted each student create several low resolution "prototypes" for floor plans before tackling a longer drawing. After, I had students create these low resolution prototype floor plans for their interview partner and then get feedback to explore which layouts were best and why. At this point the project was handed back to the student whose house it would become to take it from there. This year I explore integrating design thinking further so that students ultimately design houses for each other, rather than for themselves. It will be interesting to see how many students will miss designing their own house and to weigh that against the potential advances in communication skills, empathy, and insights gained by the new method.

The idea generation arena of design thinking favors divergent thinking at the beginning and withholding judgment as ways to improve potential solutions. Before my exposure to design thinking, I would hold brainstorming sessions in a rather haphazard way, taking notes at the whiteboard while students rattled off ideas. Not bad, but after discovering several design thinking "rules of engagement" for brainstorming in groups, I have felt more confident on my feet in front of the class. In fact, I was able to quickly integrate the rules into a session that got off to a rocky start last year. We were brainstorming ideas for dichotomies and hybrids. One linear-thinking student quickly took out his iPad, identified dichotomy as a mathematical concept only, and proposed that is was a waste of time to go further. Peer-sensitive teenagers began to shut down before my eyes, until I put the rules in place: do not censor or judge ideas (there are no bad ideas at this phase), build on others’ ideas (use and not but), go for quantity, think big and wild, one conversation at a time! Soon, students felt safe again and we had a whiteboard full of wild robotic and animal hybrid creatures, bioengineered foods, and many questions about false versus real dichotomies, such as natural and unnatural, success and failure. Looking for many possible solutions first, before judging, is how design thinking works. Until I understood the concrete methods to this one aspect of idea generation, I was selling my students short. Students then selected three ideas to work and reflect on before focusing on one final graphic design. 

In the prototyping arena, openness toward both positive and negative feedback and willingness for revision are emphasized. One huge take away from my hands-on design thinking experience is the importance of taking all feedback as information. With the design mindset, there is really no positive or negative feedback. Rather, all feedback is seen as helping the designer better meet the needs of the user. When my conference partner let me know that she did not like pink for a wallet I was designing for her, this was a prototype "failure" that helped me fine-tune the design to meet her needs. Also, the idea of creating "low resolution prototypes" as a way to get feedback quickly before developing more elaborate versions is something that I use in almost every assignment through mandatory thumb-nail sketching and reflection. One easy take away from a design thinking philosophy is to explore your options and put conditions in place such as valuing negative feedback and failure as the route to future success. Most importantly, it is necessary to build in the time for these discoveries.

For the past two years I have enjoyed bringing design thinking to our school's work on senior projects. Since bringing the mindset to the process, we have initiated a “three-two-one” approach to helping students figure out their projects. Instead of casually assuming they will explore several ideas before settling on one, we make it mandatory through a two-tiered interview process that they come up with three potential projects. They discuss three potential ideas with a peer, get feedback, narrow it to two, and explore these in an interview with their advisors. The job of the peer and advisor interviewers is to ask why, and to try to look beneath the surface to help students design the best, most meaningful project. My favorite example of a success is a time a student proposed a project doing extreme sports but after several interviews discovered he was really interested in the culture of risk taking and the drive to escape boredom. A senior project that may have ended in broken bones or worse was pitched as a more scholarly one. In the end, this student chose an internship at a local magazine to explore investigative journalism.

Another design thinking integration occurred last year when we helped seniors become extremely concrete about "action items" by using lots of verbs from a design thinking toolkit put out by a consulting firm called IDEO. With the cues, prompts, and articulations from IDEO's design thinking toolkit for educators, we were able to pull 18 categories for sticky notes on a 24 foot butcher paper chart for seniors struggling to organize their thinking around self-directed three-week projects. The process allowed seniors to survey a tremendous range of next steps and pick five to ten to actually do. I always tell fellow teachers that design thinking may sound abstract and conceptual with its emphasis on user needs and digging beneath the surface, but it is also very concrete and practical.

It has been my goal to share how I have integrated design thinking into my teaching, but I'd like to share five ideas for how a teacher might use the design thinking approach. 

  1. Have students pitch three ideas for an English paper addressing a key theme in a novel. Then, have them interview each other to determine which idea is most likely to engage the writer and reader most and why. 
  2. Allow students to make three rapid (five minutes or less each) prototypes of a contraption for an egg drop challenge, rather than building one larger solution. Use small prototypes to begin a conversation about which models would be candidates for larger, more refined versions.
  3. Have Calculus students design a lesson plan to teach and demonstrate their understanding of the uses of calculus (not how to do calculus) to fifth-grade students. Then have students get feedback from fifth graders about their understanding based on the lesson.
  4. Have any students working in teams or collaborating routinely reflect on the group dynamics of the team by addressing leadership and ability to motivate and inspire others, as well as aspects of the dynamics that may be counter-productive (without judgment).
  5. Require all science and technology students to research the term "deep user empathy" and design a short PowerPoint on Temple Grandin’s contribution to slaughterhouses.

Design thinking provides strategies for building problem-solving confidence in those who experiment with it. As we face a world increasingly filled with complex and open-ended challenges, the incorporation of design thinking into curriculum is timely. Students benefit from having time to explore, ideate, experiment, and revise across disciplines, while becoming attuned to needs below the surface. Design thinking seems like a great way to fortify tomorrow’s leaders.

Additional Resources

Design Thinking 64-page toolkit for educators by IDEO, (

Design Thinking "Map" by Kim Saxe (

Free mini-courses from Stanford’s D-School: