Using Design Thinking to Think About Design Thinking

Michelle Luhtala

This is long overdue. No, not this post. I have no guilt about extended lapses between posts. It is overdue because back in 2014, when I interviewed ten Maker experts ( MakExperts?) to prepare for my 54th edWebinar, I noticed the similarities between the Stanford Design School’s design thinking model and our Barbara Stripling-inspired New Canaan High School inquiry model).

At the time, I thought I should spend some time thinking about that alignment. Spend time is exactly what I did. I wondered about that alignment for five years! Over the years, I visited and revisited the idea of an “overlay project” that would involve animating superimposed Design Thinking models… maybe? I hardly ever made these visits alone. Many friends hashed this out with me at conferences, via Hangouts, over the phone, and right in the library where I teach.

And this is what I love about webinating: my May webinar ( slides, resources) at edWeb focuses on Design Thinking, thus forcing me to deliver on what I promised in the description — to “explore design models that guide innovative thinking… examine points of intersection and divergence.” Clearly, I had run out of thinking time, so I buckled down and got to work.

I am an independent worker, but a social learner. I knew that I needed help with the content of my webinar so I invited one of my favorite tinkerers of all time, Bill Derry, to present the webinar with me.

Bill was one of my first instructors in the library science program at Southern Connecticut State University (where I now teach). Later, I shadowed him for a day in the library where he taught at Greens Farms Elementary School in Westport, CT. Still later, when he became the Library Coordinator for the Westport Public Schools, we collaborated on a project although embarrassingly, I cannot remember what that project entailed. I only remember working on something with his team. Still later, when he became the Director of Innovation at the Westport Public Library, I was dazzled by his leadership, which led me to reach out and interview him for the aforementioned 2014 webinar on maker culture. Shortly after that, Bill invited me to speak at a TEDx event at the Westport Public Library, which was quite an honor. Since then, we have remained connected through two separate “projects.” We walk our dogs together, and Bill co-facilitates innovation workshops in which our district participates.

I had seen Bill present on Design Thinking, the Entrepreneurial Mindset, tinkering, and innovation. I knew he had much to share, so we met online to review the organization of our upcoming presentation. I asked tons of questions and, as I’d hoped, he shared a plethora of incredibly valuable resources. I researched, investigated, took notes, analyzed, outlined, made charts, sketches and then I dug deeper and then deeper still into Design Thinking hoping to discover, among other things, the key to my “overlay project.”

Let’s pause for a minute. Why was I so fixated on this “overlay project”? What did I hope to accomplish? There was an empathic element to this quest. A Google Image search for Design Thinking produces results that look like the screenshot below. As a maker leader in our school, I was expected to integrate Design Thinking across disciplines, yet I could not envision how to help teachers who already relied on their own discipline-specific workflow guidelines to adopt an unfamiliar model on the promise that it would promote creativity and innovative thinking.

Innovation was my priority. Theirs was content. We needed to find the points of intersection between their templates and some of the Design Thinking models that aligned with our common educational objectives. I theorized that the alignment had to be there. After all, I didn’t have to look too hard to find the parallels between inquiry and Design Thinking so we should be able to identify similar connections in other content areas. This was my thesis (I’m gonna do this like a teenager): While design thinking purports to promote creativity across disciplines, it is important to help teachers see where Design Thinking intersects with their current practice before asking them to adopt an unfamiliar model.

I was finally ready to tackle the “overlay project” I’d long envisioned. I used Google Slides because I figured I would start with one of those handy little diagrams they provide (Haha! Get it? Figured?). There was one problem. I was looking at well over a dozen models and their step count ranged from 2–9. The Slides diagrams feature a range of 3–5 step options, so I knew I was going to have to do a lot of tweaking before inputing the stages. If you are wondering which models I used, here they are:

So I spent a ridiculous amount of time on graphics. This is pretty typical. I suspect that I would not have a time management problem if it weren’t for trying to get the visuals right (I didn’t, by the way. I hate these diagrams). Ask anyone at edWeb.net about this and they will laugh out loud. And then cry just a little bit. You’ll get the same result if you ask my daughter about her wedding invitations.

I got through 5, 6, 7, and 9 step models before realizing that I hated the project. Oh sure, making the diagrams was a pain, but more importantly I wasn’t learning anything new. Plus, did I mention they were super ugly? My longed-for overlay project was no more productive than looking at the screen shot of a Google Image search for Design Thinking (see above). The connections were not materializing for me at all, and if it wasn’t happening for me, it sure wasn’t going to help teachers! It was time to start practicing my #failforward skills.

It occurred to me that if I layered the elements of each model in rows, I could align like tasks in columns and find connections, so I tried a table. I started to make one in Google Docs, but the aesthetic value wasn’t worth the time it took, so I just sketched my table on a large notepad.

I soon realized that if placed the model with the most steps on the bottom and the one with the least steps at the top, I could reshape my table into a pyramid — a Design Thinking pyramid that looked a little bit like the old food group pyramid if the carbohydrates were broken into many subgroups. Remember back when carbs were the most important food group? Yeah, I miss that too.

Well this was an improvement, but I still could not see the connections as clearly as I’d hoped. The structure was sound, so I decided to rainbow-ify my pyramid.

This was a super helpful revision. I could now see what I was pining for during all those wonder years. There were strong connections! Some models (mostly education models) scaffolded the problem side of the pyramid with additional steps. Others (mostly business models) emphasized the solution side with incrementalization (yup, I just made up that word). This makes sense. Businesses need to provide solutions to problems while educators focus on teaching the process of problem solving.

But wait. There’s more!

That pyramid is a list of verbs that describe what kids will be doing while Design Thinking. Isn’t that a taxonomy? Could this be a taxonomy of Design Thinking? What if teachers could build their own design thinking models to suit their disciplines, tasks, learners, chronological proximity to a holiday/lunch/nap/Friday?

What if kids personalized their learning by using this taxonomy to customize their own plan for creativity and innovation?

Isn’t this what Design Thinking is all about? Empowering the learner with ownership of the creative process?

Natasha Jen, a graphic designer for Pentagram gave a talk in June of 2017 called Design Thinking is Bullsh*t. I want to thank Bill Derry for sharing this with me. Ms. Jen has a few issues with Design Thinking, but this is the one that caught my attention.

“The problem with design thinking as a diagram is that you

really cannot understand the outcome of it and without

an outcome, you cannot critique how good it is.”

If I was a graphic designer and my livelihood depended on a product as an outcome, I would probably agree with that statement.

But I am an educator and this is what “products” look like on good days. Teaching helps us focus on process rather than product.

Isn’t this the product of Design Thinking in education?

And if this is the product, how can we “critique it to know how good it is”? Should we? Or should our learners? Well… I thought about that. How about this as a self-critiquing guide?

So there we go. I used Design Thinking to think about Design Thinking and now, I am sharing this with you.

This process helped me identify a new problem to solve. I loved our inquiry model when we first made it, but I’ve noticed lately that students are not often afforded adequate time for revision. This comes into play when we offer them feedback on their research but they do not have time to make revisions based on that feedback. Unfortunately, the students who need it most are those who get discouraged and give up on one of the most valuable services we offer. We need to give kids time to revise their work.

So yeah. Now I want to change our Inquiry Model. Damn! I promise to share after I wonder, investigate, theorize, produce, and revise. Hopefully, it won’t take five years.

“Design Thinking: The Process to Innovate.” SAP Design, design.sap.com/designthinking.html, Accessed 13 May 2019.

Hoffman, Libby “10 Models for Design Thinking.” Medium, 29 July 2016, medium.com/@elizabeth7hoffman/10-models-for-design-thinking-f6943e4ee068.

Holcomb, Sarah, et al. “Design Thinking Bootcamp.” Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, Stanford University, 2019, dschool.stanford.edu/executive-education/dbootcamp.

“IDEO’s Human Centered Design Process: How to Make Things People Love.” UserTesting, 5 Dec. 2018, www.usertesting.com/blog/how-ideo-uses-customer-insights-to-design-innovative-products-users-love/.

Jen, Natasha. “Design Thinking is Bullsh*t.” 99U, 7–9 June 2017. YouTube, youtu.be/_raleGrTdUg.

Jenkins, Martin, and Nicole Halliday. “Design Thinking — Silver Bullet or White Whale?” From the Exosphere, Medium, 17 Dec. 2017, medium.com/from-the-exosphere/design-thinking-silver-bullet-or-white-whale-89b679db377d.

Michaels, Phil. “Stanford D.School.” Medium, 11 Jan. 2017, medium.com/@philmichaels/5-components-to-design-thinking-by-stanford-d-school-48dd111bbbe5.

Saveker, Dani. “A More Beautiful Question — Warren Berger.” Visual Synopsis, 2019, visualsynopsis.com/question-2/. Accessed 13 May 2019.

Spencer, John, and AJ Juliani. “The Launch Cycle: A Design Thinking Framework For K-12.” The Launch Cycle, 2016, thelaunchcycle.com/#Beginners.


Originally published at http://mluhtala.blogspot.com.

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