Wrong Theory Design Protocol

Wrong Theory Design Protocol

I developed this tool to help learners take on designerly roles and generate ideas. I have used it with:

  • high school students at an architecture-partnered school to help them design innovative temporary shelters for people who were homeless, using construction waste and found materials
  • instructional designers working for various clients
  • teachers working to design student-centered lesson plans
  • colleagues as we worked on redesigning our master’s program

Optional pre-activity

Read    Dadich, S., Why getting it wrong is the future of design, in Wired. 2014. p. 126-133.

Optional ice-breaker

I often start class with introductions, because I commonly have guests. My favorite starter is to ask each person to introduce her/himself and to give an example of bad design. The facilitator can make a note of these and use them as examples for why wrong theory is a good thing to do.

Important note about timing and grouping

The procedure below assumes the designers already have a design problem they are working on. The protocol works best when designers have already gotten started understanding the problem space, and can occur before or after a full needs assessment. It can be used effectively as a precursor to other ideation techniques. This version leads straight into ideation.

I typically have designers already working in teams at this point. The wrong theory can be completed individually even if they are already in groups, or can be a group activity.


5 minutes

State the problem / list needs/constraints

5-10 minutes

Time for coming up with the worst design

~20 minutes

Share out

~2 min per student, share as many as you want, depending on group size



State (something like) the following:

Often, when designing, people get stuck. They have trouble coming up with new and good ideas or they get fixed on their first design idea. Today, we’re going to try a technique called Wrong Theory. It might seem a little silly or wrong at first, but that’s okay. The purpose of the activity is to help you really understand the problem and to see it from a different point of view. I want you to engage playfully in this activity.

Remind the designers of where they are in their design process, and help them see how this activity links to what they have been and will be doing. For instance, I usually use it after needs assessment and before ideation and would state the following:

So far, you have done some good research to understand the problem you are solving, and have interviewed customers to understand their needs. You have probably started to form ideas about what you want to design. Often, our first design ideas are not the best, yet they can stop us from thinking about creative ways to address the problem. Designers use ideation –a word that comes from combining “idea” and “generation” to come up with new ideas. However, in my experience, and in the research literature, when we ask people to ideate, they often simply come up with flawed versions of their initial idea, which makes ideation busy work. Instead, we are going to try wrong theory first, before you do a more traditional ideation technique.

Today, I want you to spend some time thinking about the design problem you are working on, and the needs, constraints and other design requirements you have identified. And then I am going to ask you to come up with a design that violates all of them!

Give Wrong Theory handout, attached at end of this protocol.

I’d like you to take just 5 minutes or so to remind yourself of the problem you are solving and the needs and constraints or design requirements you have identified.

Circulate to keep them focused. Use proximity to enforce this. Give a two-minute warning to keep the pace going. This section should be quick paced to get to the main activity, and should not be difficult, assuming they have already become familiar with the problem and are invested in it.

If this is not the case, you may need to provide additional scaffolding or even to fill out the top two questions for them, using this as a way to introduce the design problem from the beginning.

Now that you have reminded yourself of the needs, constraints, or requirements, I want you to come up with a design that violates these, and addresses none of the needs. The point is not to come up with a lazy design, but one that really is horrible.

You may need to give an example. I use the following if they seem slow to get started or hesitant: Imagine you are designing a doghouse for a small dog to protect the dog from rain and provide a cozy day-time shelter. A lazy design would be one that the dog can sit in, but is not very cozy, and has a wood roof that is not well sealed. A horrible design would be one that has a roof made of sprinklers and a bed of spikes.

Some people may feel hesitant or uncomfortable about doing this, but it will help you understand the problem. Remember to engage playfully! Spend about 20 minutes, and be ready to share your horrible design and defend why it is the absolute worst.

Circulate while they work. You’ll likely find that some people are not coming up with horrible ideas. You may need to check their list of needs to help them think about how they are violating those needs. Give them the time they need for this. The goal is to really get them to be a bit silly, to get into it.

I’d like to hear about some of your horrible designs. When you share, help us understand why your idea is the absolute worst. Let us know how you design violates a constraint or avoids addressing needs.

You may need to model this a bit, or draw out examples if the first couple sharers don’t defend their design. Pace this based on your timeline to ensure you have time to start ideation in class.

Now that you have come up with truly horrible designs, it is time to come up with good ideas. I want you to stay tentative, and try to come up with a few really different ideas. You have a few minutes to get started, and will turn this in at the beginning of next class. There are several techniques you can use, and it is up to you to decide which you like. Spend about 10 minutes ideating. Don’t focus on trying to get the best idea. Instead, try to be open and generative. Suspend judgment: don’t discount or eliminate any ideas at this point. Try to come up with different ways to meet the needs you identified, not just minor variations of the same solution. Your exit ticket is evidence of this ideation.

Give Ideation Activity handout. Circulate to keep the talk on ideation and not on other aspects of project planning to really use the moment, and watch out for partners who shut down ideas. Take photos of their ideation as an exit ticket, and give Ideation: Four design Ideas as homework.


Below are the handouts 

 Wrong theory

State the problem. Briefly describe the design problem you are trying to solve


Needs, constraints and requirements. Briefly state the primary needs, constraints or other design requirements you have identified.


Now violate these! Your task is to come up with the worst possible design, one that violates constraints and does not address needs. Sketch and label your ideas below. Use the back if you need to. Be ready to share your design and defend how/why it is the absolute worst.


Ideation activity

Don’t focus on trying to get the best idea. Instead, try to be open and generative. Suspend judgment: don’t discount or eliminate any ideas at this point. Try to come up with different ways to meet the needs you identified, not just minor variations of the same solution. Here are a few ways to come up with ideas:

  • Think about the category of the problem you are solving and then investigate how others have solved similar problems. For instance, if you need to come up with a way to close a cat carrier, do a google image search of lids to get ideas. But don’t get mired in what others have done.
  • Try role playing. Imagine you are the customer. What do you want?
  • Sketch lots of ideas freeform. Use stick figures or simple diagrams, not detailed pictures.
  • Tell a story about the situation and how it could be solved, starting with “What if....” It is okay to begin with a silly story to get your ideas flowing. “What if the learners were all on a 3 month space voyage, and the design was intended to prevent them from getting bored?” “What if the learners were all color blind?”

You should turn in evidence of your ideation process. This ideally should include the following: notes and sketches, any websites visited, and a recording of your conversation.


Ideation: Four design ideas

Once you have generated lots of ideas, elaborate on four different, specific ideas that you think are worth pursuing further. Include sketches where appropriate, and label them so that they are understandable.

Evaluate each design idea:

  • Does the idea violate any constraints?
  • What specific customer needs does your idea address?
  • Is the idea feasible?