Design Thinking Differently

Design thinking process adapted from Stanford University

Do you practice design thinking? Do you teach it?

What Is Design Thinking?

This is a big question that many design experts have already written about. You can find a general overview in this blog post: What is Design Thinking and Why Is It So Popular? Here we talk about introductory design thinking for business in higher education. 

Why Do It? 

Design thinking is now used widely in education to understand problems, collaborate, and creatively develop solutions (Razzouk and Shute, 2012). Design thinking can be applied as an active and multidisciplinary learning approach (Welsh & Dehler, 2013), and the reflective and collaborative learning skills it supports are in demand.  Through design thinking we can innovate and wrestle with complex and messy problems: think climate change. 

More than ever, we need business students to develop attributes such as empathy, openness, and curiosity (Dunne and Martin, 2006). A design thinking mindset can help graduates on their journey into an uncertain future (Koh, 2015). If anything, the pandemic has taught us to embrace ambiguity and stay human-centred. 

But How? 

How might we introduce design thinking as both a practice and a subject? Typically, design thinking is practised by small groups in dedicated physical spaces like a studio. We wanted to introduce and practice design thinking in large online spaces for a diverse first-year undergraduate business subject. A self-paced interactive model was designed and developed with basic design thinking concepts. On Zoom, students were guided through an abbreviated process (as in the diagram above) to design a chair.

Afterward, we interviewed students and teachers about their design thinking experiences. We then analysed how students were developing design thinking skills, processes and mindsets by comparing their responses to the levels outlined in the design-led education innovation matrix (Wright & Wrigley, 2019). We also found students’ virtual whiteboards diverse and interesting.

What Worked And What Didn’t?

Most students found design thinking to be an engaging collaborative learning activity. This was encouraging, given that students felt isolated and sometimes unmotivated during their remote studies. Most learned novice design thinking skills, mindset, and process knowledge despite having limited or no prior experience. We identified key online design thinking enablers and inhibitors, as well as suggestions for mitigating some of the challenges. See the table below.

TABLE: Design thinking online insights
Learning sequence 
Clear and logical structure Content that is not detailedAugment design thinking resources
Thoughtful schedulingRapid transition between activitiesAllow more time online
Learning by doing 
Fun factor  Too little time for abstract complex thinkingSchedule time to explore and reflect
Hands-on activity Unfamiliarity with creative learningOrient design thinking as pedagogy
Creative content and change of style of learningPerception of lack of rigourIntegrate design thinking into business problems
Meeting new people Communication difficultiesEstablish group norms
Increased social interaction and sharing ideasGroups that are not diversePlan and form larger, more heterogeneous groups 
Externalising ideas on the digital whiteboardDrawing with a mouse or trackpadKeep technology simple
Ease of adding web content to designsDigital whiteboard limitationsEncourage student choice in how designs are represented
Preference for online tools over pen and paper for some studentsManaging and switching between multiple tasks and software at short intervalsExperiment with integrated design thinking software
Easy access and sharing of artefacts, independent of locationWeb conferencing software hindered communication from teachers to groupsConsider asynchronous group work where technology is a barrier
Adapting design thinking in workshops to suit the cohortLarge number of small groups to facilitate and monitorFactor in more time and attempt fewer tasks
Teacher empathy and encouragementCognitive difficulty of managing technology and design thinkingUp-skill in design thinking and recruit students as design partners or leaders
Learning Design insights into design thinking online

To Sum Up …

Teaching design thinking online is challenging. Design thinking activities need fewer, less frequent steps in large online student groups. It means balancing sophisticated design facilitation skills with the affordances and limitations of software. Trying to replicate the in-person experience won’t work. All design thinkers need an open and curious mind and focus on the human, rather than the technical. Above all, universities need to acknowledge and support design thinking as a pedagogical practice. 

Read more about this case study in our research paper Introducing design thinking online to large business education courses for twenty-first century learning (Vallis & Redmond, 2021).

Published by Carmen Vallis

Carmen is an educational designer, researcher, and writer based on Wangal land in Sydney, Australia. Lurks on twitter and LinkedIn @cjvallis.

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