An Introduction to Design Thinking

Design Thinking was born from a marriage between the business world and traditional approaches to designing products for people. At Cohort 21, we use Design Thinking as a framework for developing teacher action plans for their classrooms. Before you dive into this year’s Cohort 21 experience, I thought I’d share a little about the history and philosophy behind this powerful process and mindset.

At the heart of all design disciplines – from Architecture to Graphic Design, Experience Design to Industrial Design – are people. While these designers are using traditional elements and principles of design, such as scale, pattern, colour, line and repetition, a designer’s primary goal is to solve problems for people.

Graphic Designers solve the problem of communicating information effectively to people. Architects design spaces for people to live and work. Experience Designers design digital products and experiences for people. And Industrial Designers (the discipline where Design Thinking was born), design products and objects that make people’s lives better.

For decades, great designers have practiced human-centered design, and they use a creative process to generate, test and “ship” their ideas. Design Thinking aims to demystify the creative process and make it accessible to a wider audience.

The first step in the design process involves learning as much as possible about the problem by understanding both the context of the situation and understanding the problem at hand from the perspective of the “user.” This is often referred to as the Empathy stage of the design thinking process.  

After the designer has an excellent understanding of the problem and has gained empathy for their user, they will set about interpreting this information. This often involves collaborating with other designers or experts from different disciplines to synthesize the user-research into one or many “How Might We?” questions.

The term How Might We is used because it is inherently optimistic. Whereas how can we, could we, or should we imply that there is a right or wrong answer, How Might We implies that there are many possible solutions to any given problem. The We is also important, because all great designers must work collaboratively with other people, from their users to other experts, in order to solve the problem.

Next, the designer will enter the “sketch” or ideation phase. Here, they attempt to come up with many possible solutions to the problem. At this point, the designer is thinking divergently – there are no right or wrong answers, but rather the goal is to come up with many (sometimes hundreds) of ideas.

The first idea is rarely the best idea, so it is important to keep an open mind and consider all options. It is also important to consider the needs of the user and keep your focus on their motivations, feelings, and needs. The designer needs to fall in love with the problem, not the solution.

Prototyping some of the many solutions is the next step in the design process. Here, the designer might make rapid prototypes or models of their solutions and use them to gather feedback from their users. It is important to focus on the minimum viable product, or the concept of an idea, rather than worrying about creating a perfect finalized version of your idea at this point.

The images below provide a great example of the process of prototyping. Here, Smart Design, the company behind the Oxo brand of household items, tested many possible concepts with users by making quick and cheap prototypes before settling on a final design. You can see how elements of each iteration of the prototype carry through to the final product.

The testing phase goes hand-in-hand with the prototyping phase of the design process. As the designers continue to iterate and test their ideas with users, their solutions evolve into more refined products. Each time new feedback from users is received, there is an opportunity to make changes that will improve the product or the idea. This is a great opportunity for students to develop a growth mindset – every challenge is an opportunity for growth as they grapple with things that don’t work, learn from failure and develop even better ideas.

At some point in this process, the designer must decide to “ship” a product to market. They often continue to iterate and develop new versions of the product to be released later (this is especially common in Experience Design as digital products are constantly changing).

The design process is cyclical and never-ending. Great companies are constantly iterating on their products to keep up with new technologies and the needs of their users or customers.  

In that past twenty years, thought leaders in design began working with thought leaders in business to apply this design process to other problems in the world, beyond those which might typically result in a physical product, from experiences and services to systems and structures. The result has been the discipline known as design thinking.

Design Thinking is particularly relevant and applicable in education. Teachers are natural designers – we get to know our users (students), try to interpret their needs, and develop many possible ways to respond to their needs to achieve an outcome. We create lessons, learn from what works and what doesn’t, and iterate on our approaches for the next class, or even the next school year.

Students can use the design process to develop solutions to real world problems. Because solving the problem requires students to understand an issue from multiple perspectives, empathize with other people, grapple with big questions, experiment with ideas, and learn from their successes and failures, a design-based approach to student learning can be leveraged to build core competencies in students such as problem-solving, creativity, resilience, and empathy. In my work at Future Design School, I teach teachers how to use design as a framework for building future ready skills in students. 

This year at Cohort 21, we are excited to work with you as you use the design process to develop an action plan for your classroom. The first step in developing that action plan will be deciding on a challenge that you’re facing in your classroom or school that you would like to tackle this year. Leave a comment below and share with us some challenges that you are facing!


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5 comments to “An Introduction to Design Thinking”
  1. The design thinking F2F of the Cohort21 was my favourite! I will miss the Cohort21 gatherings this year but can’t wait to follow along on social media!

  2. LOVE the design thinking process as it enriches all curriculum by allowing for a ‘deep dive’ into specific issues (take transit in geography for example). My challenge is how to use it more but still cover ALL the curriculum required for IB diploma level?

    • I feel you ACR. The demands of a prescriptive and intense academic program such as the IB Diploma make it difficult to build in the time for projects and design thinking. Maybe the IA would be a great opportunity to test drive design thinking in DP.

  3. A few of my students seem to be struggling with anxiety. I am in the process of coming up with ways in which I help reduce student anxiety throughout the day (meditation and other relaxation practices). I may want to focus on this but will need to think about it further.

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