Unlocking the Educational Power of Design Thinking through Introspection
- Design Thinking introduces empathy to problem-solving processes, shifting our focus from products to people.
- The systemic process for Design Thinking pioneered by the Stanford Design School provides a useful core.
- Innovative new models such as Liberatory Design have engaged with deeper issues in design such as equity and bias.
- These tools are somewhat inaccessible to lay users, especially children and youth, who need to (1) understand the terminology and (2) begin with personal growth and development.
- The Mind Lab proposes the Developmental Design Model, exploring introspection before empathy to offer an accessible entry point for young designers.
As humanity grapples with solutions for our most pressing global challenges, a drastic change in how we do business and the culture that governs the workplace seems necessary. This need has brought about the development and popularization of concepts like Design Thinking. One model of human-centred design, Design Thinking integrated empathy into solution design to create innovative and effective products and services. For activists and advocates in development, it is seen as a systematic way to change how people think about problems to increase equity and inclusion in creating new solutions. This is why I spent my last years as Executive Director of the Mind Lab, an educational social enterprise, adapting Design Thinking and creating a process for teaching it to children and youth. We found that using Design Thinking as a way to teach problem-solving to younger audiences meant that we needed to shift the focus of Design Thinking to start with introspection and self-exploration. This led to the team adding some steps to the standard process that helps young problem solvers to orient themselves and grow as individuals before utilizing Design Thinking to work with others with empathy.
The Standard Design Thinking Model
As an idea, Design Thinking is nothing new. Understanding the stakeholders and working with communities to creatively and locally solve problems, instead of imposing ready-made solutions, sounds like a very intuitive concept that very few would argue against. Design Thinking came as a way to systemize this intuitive concept and create a model that appeals to companies and organizations that previously saw similar concepts as too emotional or disorganized to be implemented.
The standard Design Thinking model consists of five stages, starting with empathy, in which the person trying to find a solution is focused on understanding the people involved with the problem or need. At this stage, the person is supposed to let go of their personal opinions and dive deep into other people’s experiences, seeing the problem from others’ perspectives. After collecting information through empathy, the process moves to problem identification. Then moves to ideation, where creative ideas are brainstormed then brought to life through the following stage, which is prototyping, and finally testing to verify the validity of the solution.
This model is a very useful tool as it stands, however it does pose some challenges when used by younger problem solvers or outside of a professional setting. This is mainly because the process assumes that the user already knows the general topic they want to tackle, that they have a clear awareness of their own identity, and that the awareness is developed enough to allow for true empathy. This process also assumes that the user has the tools and experience to carry the solutions to fruition once testing is completed successfully.
Reimagining Design Thinking
For youth to make the most out of the design process, I worked with the Mind Lab team to develop what we call a Developmental Design model. This new model does not change the core process, but simply expands elements that are taken for granted in the original model. This makes it clearer, easier to use, and more impactful for youth who are still looking to understand themselves and their goals.
Before developing our own model, the Mind Lab team had challenges working with youth or children on Design Thinking because participants struggled in three main areas. The first was their lack of clear direction or interest in a specific subject that can guide the process, especially if they are to carry design thinking beyond suggested challenges to develop their own goals. The second challenge was with empathy, especially among younger participants around the age of seven who lacked a developed understanding of who they are, their own values and goals. Children usually develop theoretical thinking and higher emotional skills after the age of eight. This blurred the line between truly empathizing with the subject and simply projecting their own thoughts. The final challenge the participants faced was not knowing how to continue after their solutions were tested. Whether because they are from an underserved community with little access to skill development opportunities or simply young, they had no experience in implementing solutions and turning ideas into reality.
My team had the great fortune of working with Tania Anaissie and Beytna Design who introduced us to new ways of thinking through Liberatory Design, exploring how we can notice inequity and identify assumptions to create a space where power is redistributed and true empathy is offered. This inspired us to rethink how we view Design Thinking and look at a similar model that focuses on the personal development of the “Designer”. Where Liberatory Design focused on identifying and combating inequity through identification and reflection, our Developmental Design model is meant to equip children or youth as problem solvers. This is why it shifts focus to the internal exploration of identity, guiding children and youth through a personal growth journey.
The Developmental Design Model
This is why we introduced two additional stages to the Design Thinking process. Utilizing our experience in mindfulness, introspection was introduced before empathy. In this new stage, participants identify their own values, goals, life priorities, as well as their spheres of influence. Introspection is meant to help participants draw the lines of who they are, for them to step over those lines and truly empathize with others, not only being aware of their thoughts and biases but also understanding their own interests and goals. This stage is also helpful in adjusting expectations and making participants think about where they can be most impactful, so they can create solutions that take into account their limitations and the space of influence they have. It might not be possible for participants to develop a full understanding of themselves, but taking some time to be mindful and focused on their own personalities can go a long way in enhancing the impact of the next steps of Design Thinking.
After completing introspection and moving through the other stages from empathy to testing, the Mind Lab added an actualization stage. This stage combines implementation with mobilization, in which participants apply different tools to identify resources and support networks, create an action plan, and present their solutions to different stakeholders to mobilize support.
Design Thinking is one of the human-centred design models that are vital to improving problem-solving skills for youth. Its focus on empathy and innovative problem solving provide a space for equity in growth and a chance for humanity to reexamine the current systems with new eyes. The Mind Lab’s amendment to the model provides a small contribution that takes into account the needs of the young designers and problem solvers, so they can create innovative solutions for a better future, improving their empathy for others through a better understanding of themselves.