What is design thinking?

The term “design thinking” is often attached to maker spaces and STEM labs. However, design thinking is bigger than STEM. It begins with the premise of tapping into student curiosity and allowing them to create, test and re-create until they eventually ship what they made to a real audience (sometimes global but often local).

Design thinking isn’t a subject or a topic or a class. It’s more of way of solving problems that encourages risk-taking and creativity. In other words, design thinking is a flexible process for getting the most out of creative work. It is used in the arts, in engineering, in the corporate world, and in social and civic spaces. You can use it in every subject with every age group. It works when creating digital content or when building things with duct tape and cardboard.

For over a decade, I’ve used design thinking. As a teacher, I used it for everything from coding projects to service projects to documentaries to engineering challenges. As startup co-founder, we used the design thinking cycle for product development. As an author, it’s a framework I use for publishing.

I’m not alone. In countless industries, people are embracing design thinking as a process to spark innovation and boost creativity.

Design Thinking Is Used (Just About) Everywhere

Design thinking is used at universities, within social and civic organizations, by artists and designers, by engineers, and in product development in the business world. Here’s a sample of where you might see design thinking:

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Let’s take a look at the growth of the term “design thinking” using Google’s Ngram Viewer:

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The term has skyrocketed in recent years. But notice, too, how this isn’t simply a sudden trend. Design thinking began as a concept in the 1940’s and 50’s and steadily grew, really taking off in the mid 1970’s.

While design thinking first grew in popularity as a means to design products, innovators in every industry are using it to tackle major problems in every sector. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review titled, “Design Thinking Comes of Age,” takes a look at the growth and how this design mindset has grown exponentially over the past few decades.

David Kelley, who is the founder of the design firm IDEO as well as Stanford d.school’s Institute of Design (and author of Creative Confidence) puts the benefits of design thinking into a simple statement:

“We moved from thinking of ourselves as designers to thinking of ourselves as design thinkers,” he continues. “What we, as design thinkers, have, is this creative confidence that, when given a difficult problem, we have a methodology that enables us to come up with a solution that nobody has before.”

Design thinking provides a methodology for creating innovative solutions to a vast array of difficult problems. It is no surprise that many universities are developing innovative research labs to study design thinking. The following are some examples:

    • Stanford d.school
    • Agency By Design (Harvard’s Project Zero)
    • Rhode Island School of Design
    • University of Cincinnati
    • 32 of the world’s best design schools

Many Amazing Models Exist

with The Sciences of the Artificial. Others point to Design Thinking, which focused more on urban planning and architecture. Still others point to Robert McKim’s work in Experiences in Visual Thinking. Like all great ideas, it has been an evolution, influenced by thousands of people.

Notice how design thinking began as a cross-discipline approach from the start. This is because creativity can’t be bound by a single subject or topic or industry. Innovation is everywhere.

We know that our work around design thinking has been influenced by people like Tom and David Kelley, Tim Brown, John Maeda, Peter Rowe (as well as organizations like Stanford d.school and IDEO).

There are a number of different interpretations of the phases in Design Thinking.

Here are the phases of Design Thinking as described in IDEO’s “Design Thinking for Educators” toolkit (an awesome resource):

Design Thinking for Educators by IDEO

Here are the phases of Design Thinking as shared by Stanford d.school (and they again have fantastic resources):

Design Thinking Phases for Stanford d.school

And there are other models, frameworks, and descriptions of the design thinking phases from various organizations and universities:

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The Need for a Student-Friendly Framework

I began using the design thinking process when I taught social studies and digital journalism (an exploratory class). We used it to plan service learning projects, to film documentaries, to engage in blogging, and to paint murals. Later, when I taught a STEM class, we used design thinking to go through the engineering projects. Eventually, when I embraced 20% Time and Genius Hour, I reached out to AJ Juliani (an expert and pioneer in Genius Hour) and we realized that we had been independently developing our own design thinking frameworks.

AJ and I agreed that our greatest struggle we had experienced when using design thinking and sharing the process with other educators was its implications for K-12 students. How could we modify the process to make it fit the needs of our students?

What did we do about this problem? We began to try and solve it using the design thinking process.

We looked at the terminology used, the sample exercises and activities available, and how teachers and students responded to the different phases. We talked with teachers using design thinking in their classrooms and met with those that wanted a framework for creative work.

We discovered a few key areas missing from many of the conversations around design thinking:

    • a broader starting point than empathy (in our case we expanded to awareness)
    • the need to tap into student inquiry
    • a dedicated time to do research and engage in media literacy
    • launching and marketing to a specific audience

We also knew that we wanted to create a framework that would be accessible to students and memorable as they engaged in the process.

Slowly, we moved toward the ideation phase, where we played around with different concepts before eventually narrowing it down and building upon a single idea. Eventually, we tested this new framework with classrooms ranging from early elementary all the way up to high school. We highlighted what worked and kept on revising until finally we launched the framework to the world.

The end result of this launch was LAUNCH, a flexible design thinking framework tailored specifically to K-12 classrooms. It can help to think of it this way: Making is the mindset. Design thinking is the thinking process. The LAUNCH Cycle is the framework.

Read this next:

Curious about the LAUNCH Cycle? Check out this article:

The LAUNCH Cycle

 

looking-for-moreStill curious about design thinking? Here are a few more resources:

Get Your FREE Design Thinking Toolkit and Maker Project

Curious about design thinking? This toolkit provides a set of free, out-of-the-box resources you can use from day one. Simply fill out the form on the left and the entire toolkit will be sent to your inbox. You’ll also be enrolled in the Creative Classroom newsletter. The toolkit includes:

1. Getting Started with Design Thinking: a comprehensive eBook explaining the LAUNCH Cycle

2. The LAUNCH Cycle Video

3. A free maker project that you can adapt to your K-12 classroom

4. The Creative Classroom Assessment toolbox, complete with nine assessments you can integrate into a design thinking project