What the Netherlands Taught Me About Design Thinking

Last week, I stepped off the train and walked into the bustling streets of Eindhoven. I had never been to the Netherlands, much less Europe, so I became the obnoxious American taking quick snapshots, attempting to soak up the feel of the city. My first thought was, “Man, every dude here is 6 foot 4 and 140 pounds. I look pretty short and pudgy.”

But after that, I lost myself in the city. As I walked the meandering brick streets, I set my phone in my pocket and watched the golden hour light illuminate a cathedral. It struck me, in that moment, that I was surrounded by a world of design. That cathedral. Those winding streets. The shops. The clothes. The iPhone. People designed those things painstakingly, intentionally, through hours of work.

But it was also in those invisible designs, like the way I always knew where to go and what to do and how to avoid getting hit by a cyclist (it’s a real thing). Or the sound design creating audio cues at a crosswalk.

Everything around me was designed by someone. Or, more often, designed in a community.

I realize this isn’t earth-shattering but it was a reminder that creativity is all around us when we’re paying attention.

Although I was there to give a keynote and help facilitate a three day design thinking workshop, standing on the street in Eindhoven, I had the sense that I wasn’t there to teach. I was there to learn.

That night, I had dinner with Jochem Goedhals and Trevor Muir and I was struck by the beauty of simple designs all around us, like the way the restaurant did their menus or how the bike racks worked or the font choice in a nearby advertisement. But as we geeked out on ideas and shared our stories, it was a reminder that the best design often goes unnoticed because of the quiet way it brings people together. For me, that was the overall theme of my week at the EDEX Design Thinking Expedition in Eindhoven — this idea of the human element in design. I spent the rest of my time listening as much as possible, asking tons of questions, and trying my hardest to be present in the moment.

Here are my take-aways . . .

Lessons Learned Along the Way

The following are seven of my key take-aways from my time spent in the Netherlands.

#1: Great design is story-driven.

I knew Trevor Muir would talk about the concept of story. As the publisher for The Epic Classroom, I read and re-read his book numerous times. However, he gave a powerful keynote about the power of epic stories and connected that to project-based learning in a way that I had never seen before. I’ve never seen so many people locked in to a story, hands free of their devices, eyes focused on the storyteller. It was powerful. For the next two days, people talked through their designs through the lens of story.

#2: Ask teachers to redesign their practice first.

I was a little skeptical about this idea at first. The leaders at Fontys wanted teachers to begin with a problem they wanted to solve or an idea they wanted to pursue. They then broke into teams and chose one person’s idea as the focus area. What would happen when people wanted to innovate within their own context only to find that they had to work on another person’s project?

While there was an initial pushback, each group formed into tight collaborative teams.  Complete strangers began to trust one another and share openly as they asked questions, engaged in research and designed solutions. True, they didn’t all get to solve the problems they had hoped to solve initially. But they learned a process that was empathy-driven.

Some of this could be the “Dutch direct” aspect of their culture that can border on being blunt. However, I noticed similar situations when I taught middle school and students in design thinking teams would form a tight bond that I didn’t see in other group projects. In other words, it was the difference between cooperative groups and genuine collaboration:

In the past, when I have run design thinking workshops, I tended to focus on doing a hands-on design thinking project that mirrors the type that students might do. However, there was something powerful about watching teachers using the design thinking process to innovate within their own practice. By the time they launched their finished prototypes, they had created the kinds of educational experiences I would want my own kids to experience.

#3: Teachers everywhere have the same fears.

Whether it’s in China, Canada, the U.S. or the Netherlands, teachers experimenting with design thinking experience similar fears. What about the test? What will my leadership think? What will parents think? What about the time factor? These fears are universal and it takes a certain level of courage to say, “I’m going out on a limb and using design thinking anyway.”

I once created this sketch-note exploring my fears around empowering students through design thinking. However, I now see that these fears weren’t tied to my immediate context. These are the universal fears that teachers experience all over the globe.

student ownership fears john spencer

#4: The design thinking process is uncomfortable, frustrating, and disruptive. Embrace that.

We hit a moment in the second day when just about every group looked angry. They were attempting to clarify what exactly they wanted to create and they couldn’t get there. I remember wondering if we had made a mistake by allowing them to wade into those frustrations. Maybe we were doing design thinking wrong.

And yet . . . these were the same emotions my middle school students used to experience. Creativity isn’t always fun. Sometimes it’s frustrating, boring, and so hard you want to give up. We tend to view creative work with images of kids skipping in the grass surrounded by rainbows. But real design is gritty. It’s frustrating. It’s nerve-wracking. But it’s also totally worth it.

There was one moment when Peter led a group through an open Socratic seminar exploring what it was like for people to go through the design process. As you can see, there’s some level of frustration here.

However, each member also spoke about the power of the design thinking process. They described how they planned to use this with students. Was it easy? No way. But it was life-changing. As one teacher put it, “I hated the feeling of not having a solution and I wish I had more time but I also want to use this to redesign all of my units. This is the first time I’ve designed things with the student in mind.”

#5: Being a guide on the side isn’t easy.

We often hear people say phrases like, “just be the guide on the side and let the students do the work.” But the best guides understand the art of being “on the side.” However, design thinking is difficult and being a guide requires more than simply showing up. Guides know when to push and pull. They understand what it means to speak truth but to do so with humility. They are always present but they have the ability to look invisible. I learned so much about the art of being a guide by watching three different facilitators working with teams.

These guys were phenomenal facilitators:

#6: There’s power in the vintage.

One of the highlights of this experience had nothing to do with design. Jochem gave each group fire starters and asked them to create their own fires. It was a simple idea and as old-school as it gets. But it was memorable.

We often talk about the creative and connective power of technology. However, design thinking often thrives in the moments that are vintage. It’s what happens when we make things with duct tape and cardboard or when we dialogue in-person, giving eye contact and sharing our experiences.

Notice that nearly all of the tools groups are using in these photos are low-fi, tangible, and analog. For all the talk of “hands-on” learning, there is value in actually creating things with our own two hands. This isn’t a rejection of technology outright but a reminder of the power of the vintage innovation that happens when we use old ideas and old tools in new ways.

#7: It’s not about the process or the product. It’s about the people.

“Do you notice something different about this?” a man asked me.

“People are talking during the breaks.”

“Yeah, they’re talking without their devices,” he pointed out.

That was true. We were in a break time, when people would typically check social media or look at their email. Instead, they were talking together. But this was just an extension of something deeper. We had broken bread together, sharing meals in a leisurely way. We had told stories. We had made something together.

People who were once strangers were now friends:

I went into this experience expecting to share the details of how different the Dutch culture is to the American culture. But for me, this was a reminder of the shared human experience. Yes, we created products. True, we learned a process. But it’s not about the products or even the process. It’s about the people. It’s about the relationships you develop when you work together to make something awesome. That’s where the real magic happens.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

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