Design Thinking

Re-imagining our learning culture through Design Thinking

With the dramatic changes happening in education, in particular with the introduction of technology, many districts, schools and teachers are re-imagining the learning culture of the classroom to match 21st Century needs and skills. With this change comes a need to reexamine our pedagogical approach to teaching. Design Thinking, long used and popularized by innovative companies like IDEO as a learning process to solve problems, is rapidly gaining traction as a powerful pedagogical structure for 21st Century learning.

So, what is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is a process that includes a mindset that believes in the power of curiosity and on capitalizing on empathy as drivers of solving problems and creating innovative solutions. Design thinking requires diverse thinkers and personalities to collaborate around a single problem and to experiment with new ideas and solutions to solve the problem. Design Thinking (DT) asks participants to embrace the following skill set: begin with deep empathy, by understanding the needs and motivations of people; bring together diverse minds to collaborate, each with unique strengths and perspectives; believe that you can solve the problem and bring joy to the process; experiment, by giving yourself permission to fail as you learn from your mistakes. This skill will require a culture of risk-taking!

design thinking process image
tablet with definition of design

Where did Design Thinking come from?

A difficult question to ask of a pedagogical process that most likely has roots in many cultures whose journey of learning goes vastly unrecorded. To jump into the academic and business history of design thinking, check out this lengthy article on all the players of Design Thinking.

"IDEO Shopping Cart Project - YouTube." 4 Feb. 2013, Accessed 27 Jul. 2017.

Watch this video on the application of Design Thinking from "To demonstrate our process for innovation for a 1999 episode of ABC’s late-night news show Nightline, IDEO created a new shopping cart concept, considering issues such as maneuverability, shopping behavior, child safety, and maintenance cost. The show concentrated on IDEO’s design process, recording as a multidisciplinary team brainstormed, researched, prototyped, and gathered user feedback on a design that went from idea to a working appearance model in four days."

From: "Reimagining the Shopping Cart|

The Stages in Design Thinking

empathy mapping tool

Using an empathy mapping tool like this one can be helpful (optional).


The starting place for solving any problem or challenge, is to understand it. In DT empathy is called to the forefront of the DT process. Trying to identify multiple perspectives of a problem, the diverse perceptions and experiences of the people involved in the problem and their motivations in solving this problem are key to gaining a whole picture of the challenge in front of you. This can often take an extensive amount of time to ensure you have enough information for the next stage in the DT process.

desk with photos organized on clips


Armed with the information gained from the empathy stage, you are now ready as a team to analyze and synthesize the information to core problems you have identified. In the define stage you want to create a human-centered problem statement. It is important not to define the problem as something you or your team would like, but a true reflection of the needs identified in the empathy stage. You can go back to the empathy stage if you feel you don’t have enough information.

A human-centered needs statement frame could be (optional):

Who? What is the need? Why?

↘ ↘ ↘

________ needs a way to_________ because _______.

Here’s a sample using this frame:

The U.S. government needs a way to systematically develop the capacity of the American people because after the Emancipation Proclamation there are entire communities that have been either subjugated to slavery or is of those who enslaved, and they now need an opportunity for a different education and new work structures and development.

Without the frame a sample define statement could be:

Create a systematic way for the U.S. government to develop the capacity of the American people after the Emancipation Proclamation, as the mindsets and opportunities for both those communities subjugated to slavery and those who enslaved, need an opportunity for a different education, work structure and opportunities.

A good human-centered needs statement needs to keep in mind the following traits:

    1. Human-Centered: Should be about the people/person the team is trying to help
    2. Creative Freedom: Should not include a specific method that would constrain the team from thinking creatively, nor should it list technical requirements
    3. Narrow and Manageable: Should not be so broad that it is unmanageable. It needs sufficient constraints to make it doable.


Now with the problem clearly defined, we get to ideate! This is where the designing team begins to generate ideas to solve the problem. It’s important to allow all ideas to surface and let the creative juices guide designers to think outside of the box and identify new solutions to the problem. ALL ideas are valid and should not be dismissed because of how unrealistic or divergent they may appear. It’s important to get as many ideas as possible on the table to solve the problem at the beginning of the ideation process. This is not the time for discussing ideas, just get them out!

Techniques for brainstorming are varied. When thinking of the methods you can apply to brainstorming, consider how to use web 2.0 tools to assist in giving all students a voice to participate.

Toward the end of the ideation phase the strongest ideas should begin to surface. It can be more than one idea that surfaces to solve the problem and team members can coalesce around the idea they feel offers the best solution. Teams may naturally form around each idea as the design team moves into the next stage.

lightbulb held against pink sky

Here are a few brainstorming techniques that can help open up thinking:

Worst Possible Idea


Brainwriting, Braindumping, Brainwalking



The design team may have now broken into smaller teams around each of the strongest ideas that surfaced or they may have agreed on just one idea. Either way, it is time to build a prototype of the solution identified to solve the problem. It’s important to remember this is an experimental stage with the goal of identifying the best possible solution to the defined problem. The prototypes should be inexpensive, scaled down versions of the solution. Prototypes are tested among team members of the same design team or small group of people who are potential users of the prototype. During this stage, the user feedback of the prototype is crucial to refine the prototype, sometimes to throw-out one idea or element of an idea. At the end of this stage, the design team should have a much clearer picture of the solution to their identified problem and how their solution is felt and experienced by users.


With adjustments made and finalized from the previous stage, the final product is fully tested with diverse users experience continuing to inform the team of the strengths and weaknesses of their product. It is important to remember that even though this is the final stage of the Design Thinking process, it is iterative, and refinements and changes can still be made to the final product.

stopwatch held in a hand

Design Thinking: A Non-Linear Process of Thinking

It is important to remember that Design Thinking creates multiple lines of thinking and though it is solution-driven, it may open up other possibilities and other ideas that need to be explore. For this reason, once the design team arrives at the Testing phase it may find that new ideas have surfaced before not explored, which can lead them back to the Ideation stage or new problems arise from users use of the final product and that leads them to begin the design process again.

This process of thinking ultimately leads to innovative thinking and solutions!

Design Thinking in Education

Design Thinking is making strides in impacting the learning environments of our educational system. Here are a few great resources to consider using as you learn more about Design Thinking:

"Design Thinking: Prioritizing Process Skills - YouTube." 6 Apr. 2017, Accessed 27 Jul. 2017.

Edutopia Published on Apr 6, 2017

Watch kids become master problem solvers and collaborators by designing, building, and iterating on prototypes. Birmingham Covington School GRADES 3 - 8 | BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MI Explore more resources from this school:




Standard YouTube License

Resources and Citations

"Design Thinking for Educators." Accessed 19 Jul. 2017.

Design thinking origin story plus some of the people who made it all ...." 4 Jan. 2017, Accessed 19 Jul. 2017.

"IDEO is a global design and innovation ...."

"Design Thinking - IDEO U."

"5 Stages in the Design Thinking Process | Interaction Design Foundation." 20 Jun. 2017,

"Reimagining the Shopping Cart |" Accessed 27 Jul. 2017.

Empathy Mapping image created by Mary Kraus, 2017.

Design Thinking Graphic is labeled for reuse through Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.