How to Design the Future

Going Elementary with Design Thinking may be the key to building a brighter tomorrow.

Design is a tremendously powerful thing, and yet for all its power, it is often misunderstood and underutilized in the modern world. So why is everyone ignoring something so fundamentally useful?

Bob Gill suggest a possible answer in his book Graphic Design as a Second Language: “You cannot hold a design in your hand. It is not a thing. It is a process. A system. A way of thinking.”

That’s it. That’s the problem. The power of design can also be its greatest weakness. It takes time and energy for many people to learn and fully understand new concepts and processes, especially when they are abstract or do not readily map to existing ways of thinking. This is especially true when the current process they use appears to be working. “If it hasn’t been a big deal before now” it is often argued, “what’s the issue?

So how do we solve this roadblock in human nature? Simple: we need to teach Design Thinking to people at an age when they are most receptive to new processes. Design Thinking is a critical element, and I would argue the critical element for preparing the next generation to succeed in the world we’re making for them. A world where everything is changing constantly, and one that won’t stop changing any time soon.

Wait, So What IS Design Thinking?

Design Thinking can be defined as a process of problem-solving that consciously allows for future results and improvement that go beyond the original problem space. It short, it’s a way of solving a problem today that will also (hopefully) enable you to solve other problems tomorrow.

The key way that Design Thinking does this is by generating lots of related ideas and results that let you look beyond the immediate problem. Let’s take the following problem, which is currently viewed as an engineering issue:

“There isn’t enough room to fit all of the items I want to take on vacation with me in my car trunk.”

A classic method of solving this problem would take the elements of the problem, break them into component parts, and then attempt to find a solution that solves exactly what is expected: create a trunk that has enough room to fit all of the items needed. Most of you probably thought of that already.

Let’s break it down even farther, just because we can.

You have the car trunk (1), the items to take (2), the time frame of vacation (3), and various limitations of volume and time. This would invariably lead to the creation of a car with a bigger trunk, or more condensed items to take on vacation, and yes, these are items we see all the time in the current market. “New, smaller, more compact!” is a common trend in the world of engineering and production, and “more storage space!” is yelled by car adverts time and again. But they’re ignoring the real problem and opportunities for solutions by not engaging Design Thinking.

Design Thinking looks at the problem by taking a step backwards and re-assessing what the actual issue is. The problem isn’t really that there isn’t enough space in the trunk, but instead that there are many things required to go on vacation that have to be packed and this is inefficient for travel (or other innumerable interpretations- “what’s the deal with vacations, anyway?” One might ask).

The solution could then expand to vacation places that provide elements for your vacation that you don’t have to pack (a service-side solution), or the creation of vacation plans that require less items. There are an infinite number of non-linear ways to approach the problem, which in turn can lead to the solutions of other problems. This is at the core of many start-up cultures, and is why many Silicon Valley start-ups seem so starkly different than their East-Coast counterparts.

So is Design Thinking Just Asking the Right Questions?

At its core, yes, but design thinking is actually a process with an intuitive series of steps. The design process, at its core, can be described thusly:

1.) Defining of a problem to be solved- A problem must be defined to be solved, but design often likes to break apart a problem into component parts and follow each of them. It “goes wide” before narrowing back in, and questions if the provided problem really is the problem that needs to be solved.

2.) Research about the problem- This may expand beyond the initial parameters of the problem itself into the surrounding areas. In our example with the car trunk, research into not only cars and travel items may expand into hotel accommodations, travel destinations, average spending on vacations, breakdown of expenditures, and more.

3.) Ideation on possible solutions- Design is beholden to no one solution. There are many solutions to any one problem, and many are no better than the others. The brainstorming process is a flurry of creative energy that seeks to solve problems with as many possible solutions as it can before the next phase.

4.) Prototyping of the most promising solutions- Out of dozens, even hundreds of solutions, the most practical based on constraints such as time and money will be created for testing to see which will work the best.

5.) Testing those prototypes for functionality- Theorycrafting is great, but results talk. Test, test, test.

6.) Learning from the testing- Humans can’t predict everything, and testing tells us what works, what doesn’t work, and where to go next. This is where ideas are either pruned or improved.

7.) Starting all over again until a suitable solution is found- The design process is cyclical. Results from tests, learning new parameters, all of this can spur another branch of ideation, or perhaps teach us to better define the problem in a new way. This will continue until one of the tests works as well as it needs to.

The surprising thing about design thinking is how intuitive it is. Similar to the scientific method, which many children grasp at a young age without even being taught it because it hinges on learning through repetition and alternation, design thinking can be grasped by children with relative ease.

Car Trunks, got it. But what else is Design Thinking good for?


I’m not joking, it really is good for everything.

The world is changing rapidly in ways that we can’t anticipate, and it pays to be flexible. The next wave of high-tech jobs will be rooted not in physical skills or certifications but on methods of thinking and problem solving, proving adaptability beyond all other assets. Skills that are useful now may not be useful, 25, 10, or even 5 years from now, and by teaching students to be more flexible and creative through design thinking, our future generations will be prepared to readily adapt to a shifting landscape.

Despite this, creative thinking, engineering thinking, and design thinking are are left out of the curricula that readily showcase the scientific method, with many of them regaled to college courses. Design thinking is a matter of cognition that holds applications to almost every walk and facet of life, and children could benefit greatly from its inclusion in their lives earlier rather than later. Design thinking is about simply improving and refining experience.

But Will It Help Students Directly?

Certainly- quite possibly more than it would adults. Design Thinking has two main effects within the world of academics: on the students and on the teachers.

For teachers, it helps them craft more engaging, effective, and successful lesson plans and activities. Already used by many teachers, especially those in S.T.E.M. or Montessori schools, design Thinking also interacts incredibly well with the integration of technology. This allows the use of new technology and allows teachers to apply it to a pre-existing curriculum that was created without it in mind.

For students, it helps prepare them for life ahead and within the classroom- giving them expansive, flexible thinking that is more primed for learning and success, rather than one that will shut down at the thought or experience of ‘failure’. The world is becoming increasingly complex and nuances are everything- the skills to evolve with an ever-changing world are given to students early through Design Thinking.

K-12 is a unique sliver of society that sees more raw growth and problem solving than any other segment. The adaptive brain of a 5-year-old and the matured but still uneven brain of a 17-year-old both contain within them boundless amounts of energy that can be applied to thought, team projects, and solution building. Design Thinking can be used by students themselves not only as a means of approaching problems within classrooms, but in their lives around school- helping balance out their possible life goals, interacting with problems at home, or social or work life balances.

Given these, it’s not hard to see how this process- a form of distilling ideas and coming up with ideal solutions to problems, can benefit an individual or society as a whole. With a population taught this method of problem solving- a repetitive, creative, thought methodology to crafting solutions, the future begins to look a whole lot brighter.

So… Why Aren’t We Doing This Already?

We are. Well, some of us are, but it’s not enough.

Like many things in the modern era, design thinking has its roots back in the early 1940’s. Design thinking can trace its roots back to World War II design thinking trends, when creative problem solving was valued in a time of exploding social and scientific growth. By the time the 1960’s had hit, the idea that human creativity was something that could be understood was born. Following this, the basis of design thinking formed the 1986 thought pattern known as Six Sigma, designed to generate profit in a business environment, and Google’s famous nimble business processes that began in the mid 1990’s.

In the world of higher learning, Design Thinking has been embraced over the past decade. Northwestern University has incorporated it into their core curriculum, it has become its own degree at Radford University and Hasso Plattner Institute, and Stanford University now teaches its engineering students it as a formal thinking method for problem solving.

And despite all this, those are small corner cases. The world doesn’t use Design Thinking, and it needs to.

Design Thinking has proven itself a meaningful, effective way to both solve problems while also infusing the solutions with creativity and flexibility. Through implementation of Design Thinking, there is no problem too small, too complex, or too off-the-wall that can’t be solved, adapted, and utilized effectively. Yet there are many obstacles to Design Thinking finding itself in our day-to-day life.

A major obstacle to more widespread teaching of Design Thinking is the false belief that it is only meant for those who operate in the “creative” realm- that only the companies that appear more off-the-wall should use it. Yet Design Thinking holds as much promise in the scholastic, business, and scientific communities. Lack of understanding, even with the appreciation for Design Thinking, stands in the way of it being taught on a wider scale.

In schools, the stress on standardization is conceivably design thinking’s largest obstacle. The nature of Design Thinking to find multiple solutions directly contradicts the standardized testing metric for measuring individual student achievement. Teachers are pressured by school districts for a fill-in-the-blank-style classroom with an emphasis placed on incredibly regurgitative and hyperlinear thinking. This, in turn, limits students’ ability to develop true problem solving techniques by not allowing them to practice at an early age.

So What Now?

Design thinking is in crisis, but there are yet many possible solutions to helping spread it.

IDEO, a rather famous design firm that helped pioneer a lot of Design Thinking elements in its early days, is one team that is fighting on this front. In early 2011, they created a Design Thinking Toolkit and made it available to educators. It’s a free workbook resource for educators, and it helps a teacher walk through the Design Thinking process with their students while simultaneously helping them learn to use it in teaching within their own classroom.

For those of us not on international superteams, we can still help design for the future. To be a champion of design thinking, you must first adopt it. Incorporate it into your day: pause before you do something routine and ask “why?”. Experiment with the novel and mundane, and try to see the world from a different view. Talk to others about design thinking and see if you can delve into their mindset. Spreading knowledge is a path to success, be it to coworkers, family members, or friends. The key to the future is design thinking, and we have to think about designing the future before we can.

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