Uh, oh. That was the first question I received after a recent presentation I gave on design thinking in schools. Of course, when you present on a topic, you’re supposed to be an expert, but this one caught me off guard. I’m sure I stammered through an answer, but it wasn’t a good answer. I’ve been thinking about the question ever since. Here’s the answer I wish I could’ve given:
Design Thinking is a process for solving complex, open-ended problems that don’t have a “right” answer. It’s not simply a way of thinking about objects or “the way something looks”. Design Thinking is a critical process that was refined 20 years ago by Tim Brown, David Kelley and the team at IDEO.
Design Thinking has five specific phases: empathy (understanding the world from your customer’s point of view), problem definition (defining the problem carefully), brainstorming (creating as many ideas as possible), prototyping (building a low fidelity prototype from which to learn), and testing (having the customer use the prototype and gathering any feedback).
Design Thinking was initially used by IDEO to create physical products such as the mouse that was used for the first Apple Macintosh. They quickly found that it could be applied successfully to many other complex problems, including processes and procedures. Design Thinking has been used in a wide range of industries, for instance, in the finance industry to boost customer savings at Bank of America; and, in the healthcare industry to improve nursing shifts at Kaiser Permanente.
IDEO also put Design Thinking to work for education and released the Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit in partnership with Riverdale Country School. Overall, Design Thinking is largely a human-centric process, and driven by the people involved.
Making, on the other hand, appears to be centered on the object. You’re “making” a “thing” that didn’t exist before. There’s a certain celebration that comes with the act of creation and this joy is epitomized by the “maker movement”, including Maker Faires, events where makers get together and share their creations. Partly due to the emphasis on computers and electronics in the current maker movement, there’s a common misunderstanding that you need to use Arduino’s, 3D printers and lots of technology to be a “maker”. But you don’t need to be a computer programmer or electronics wizard to make things. My kids make pens for their store on Etsy. I made dinner last night. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away you may have made a CD or cassette tape with a collection of songs for a friend or loved one. All of these count as making. We’ve been making things for millennia.
It’s tempting to say that “we just make stuff”; somehow our genius flows freely from our hands without much thought. However, when you take a closer look, you’ll see that there are a lot of decisions which occur before, during and after the process of making and of these items.
For example, let’s say that someone asked you to make a chair. You might have a few questions before you get started, such as: how big? Who’s it for? What will they be using it for; is this a kitchen chair, office chair?…and so on. By asking these questions, you’re studying the chair’s customer and proposed usage to create a design, which sounds suspiciously like the empathy phase of Design Thinking.
A little bit further along in our example and you might conclude from your research that you need to make a chair with a seat that is 15 inches square and 20 inches off the ground, with four legs including two that comprise the back of the chair. In fact, you might even make a drawing, which seems strikingly like a problem definition, the second phase of Design Thinking.
At this point, you might even start thinking creatively about a wide array of fasteners, joinery, sequencing, and the tools needed — all of which is part of the brainstorming process. When you are finished with your prototype, it’s likely somebody is going to sit on it. That’s the final test for a chair.
In other words, when you look closely at the act of making, you’ll find that it’s a process which hits every point in Design Thinking.
Ok, you’ve convinced me with the chair example, but what about something that seems even more simple, like when you made dinner last night? Did you really go out and do empathy research, define the problem, brainstorm and prototype?
The problem I was solving last night was not really how to make dinner; instead it was, “how can I make a nutritious and tasty meal in 30 minutes that my kids will like?”. As a devoted father and resident cook, I’ve conducted 10 years of research and hundreds of experiments to create a mental list of what my children will eat. When I made dinner last night, I checked my mental list against what I had in my fridge (design constraints), brainstormed a bunch of ideas (sorry, no whiteboard in the kitchen) and picked a meal to prototype. I made the prototype and they ate it. Happy kids, happy dad. So my test was successful. And, while this may have all happened in the space of less than an hour at home, making dinner last night also hit every step of the Design Thinking process.
That’s all well and good, but what about tools that we’ve been “making” for thousands of years? How ‘bout a bow and arrow, for instance?
A bow and arrow are another good example. While they appear to be a simple set of objects to modern eyes, a bow and arrow are highly reflective of the Design Thinking process.
The archer’s kit is most likely the answer to a well-defined problem, “how can I kill an animal while being far enough away to avoid getting hurt?”. Of course, the men and women who encountered this problem didn’t have the concept of Design Thinking. However, we see the same principles at work.
It’s likely that whoever framed the design challenge of the bow and arrow had tried the up-close method of hunting and now wanted to avoid the injuries which were sustained as a result. Clearly, there was some empathy for the problem. Now, let’s imagine that our inventor brainstormed based on the materials at hand, created several prototypes, and then started iterating based on what she learned. Unbeknownst to her, she kickstarted a process of iteration that lasted thousands of years and had profound effects on our civilization.
Design Thinking is a vocabulary for describing the process of making and improving.
Creating a bow and arrow is clearly a process of making, and as we’ve seen, the five phases of Design Thinking occur whenever you make something. IDEO didn’t “invent” Design Thinking any more than Sir Isaac Newton “invented” gravity with his theory. Gravity has always existed. Design Thinking is a way of a describing process that has existed for thousands of years and we continue to use every day in many parts of our lives.
The gift that Brown, Kelley and the team at IDEO gave us was to name and codify the process of making things. Naming the process is a powerful gift because once we have vocabulary to talk about the process of creation, we can try new approaches to the process, teach the process to share what we’ve learned, and ultimately, improve the process.
For educators, having a vocabulary to describe the process is a vital component that allows making to be more easily incorporated as part of a more robust set of curricula. Design Thinking offers the opportunity to gain a far broader set of lessons and expanded perspective than simply building a birdhouse in shop class. The old “wood shop” was where many of us had our first experiences making things. With Design Thinking applied to the process, the act of creating a birdhouse provides an opportunity to learn about different types of birds, bird seed, and many other things, not to mention the physical building of the object and the lessons there.
To return to our example of the chair, students may not know how to build a chair, but if they have a process to lean on and a way of talking about what they are making, a richer learning experience can be established that expands upon the phases of Design Thinking.
A good practical example is the work by Simon Hauger, principal and founder of The Workshop School. Hauger and his students received national press coverage when they built an electric hybrid vehicle that competed and bested some hybrid vehicles made by major auto manufacturers. These were High School students. And, they were kids who were underprivileged, and supposedly, underachievers. Hauger proved that the kids were not “underachievers”, they were underperforming because they weren’t provided the right learning opportunity. Hauger expanded the process of making an electric hybrid vehicle, including elements of the core curriculum. For instance: “How do you determine the correct voltage for the car’s battery? Well, you better study that math book over there, and then you tell me.” The result was remarkable. Students who were receiving C’s and D’s started turning out A’s. And, in the midst of budget cuts from the school district and other challenges, the program at West Philly High that Hauger started boasted a 98% college matriculation rate.
The gift of Design Thinking for education is the ability to incorporate the hands-on engagement of making something within the broader lessons that expand to all areas of curricula. This is the type of hands-on learning that educators have been advocating for since Maria Montessori and John Dewey first spoke about education as an interactive process. Design Thinking provides a structured way to bring hands-on learning to the classroom so that it enriches the learning experience while still fulfilling required milestones.
Oh, and the really cool part? Kids get to make stuff. There are few experiences that are more fulfilling as a parent or educator than when a child holds up their creation and says “I made this”. Right?