Credit photo: Ahmad Nouh

Cooking up a Design Training Curriculum for Non-Designers

This is not working,” I thought as I looked at the struck through, scribbled out training agenda on my table that was already on its fourth iteration. We were nearing the lunch break on Day 3 of a 5-day design bootcamp in which 40 individuals had been chosen to participate, 12 of which were going to be selected to do a 10-week design sprint tackling the challenge of income in Jordan as part of the Mahali Lab.

The week started off with one question: How can we ensure that vulnerable households have access to sufficient, predictable income that does not expose them to risks? These 40 participants were split into 8 teams, each prompted to look at the challenge question with a more focused lens based on topic preferences they had ranked prior to the bootcamp. During the first couple of days of the bootcamp, the teams explored their chosen topic, conducted design research, and synthesized learnings. By that third day, they had begun brainstorming potential solutions. Given their nascency, the ideas at this stage were not particularly unique or groundbreaking. Yet somehow, participants were reluctant to share them with others.

A strong sense of idea ownership, coupled with the competitive environment (participants knew there was a selection at the end of the week) made it really hard for us to facilitate an environment where everyone was comfortable seeking, giving, and receiving feedback. All of our efforts up until that point — whether through having team share-outs, structured feedback sessions, or gallery walks — did not receive the embracing response we had hoped for, despite our repeated assertions on the importance of cross-pollination for innovation.

So we reviewed the plan for the day. We thought of an activity that we hoped would get participants to think of ideas as building blocks that can be combined, separated, and rearranged at will, hopefully to form a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. We based the accompanying worksheet off of a simple yet effective metaphor: mix a set of unlikely ingredients to make an interesting new recipe. Participants were tasked to go around and “shop” for ideas or components of ideas anywhere from the other teams wall artefacts, select at the very least five of these ingredients, and combine them into a new solution.

And shop around they did. The activity finally clicked with participants. Now they were up, moving around, browsing their peers’ stations, asking for clarification on existing ideas, discussing new ones, and trying to think of the best meal they could make.

This exercise is one example of a number of tools and activities that we created. Going into the bootcamp and subsequent 10-week design sprint, we reviewed existing curricula that could serve as inspiration, including from the Stanford, the Jordan River Foundation, UNICEF, and others. While there are a plethora of design and social innovation-related resources out there, not many are available in Arabic. Fewer still are available in an Arabic vernacular that would make sense to Syrian refugees and vulnerable Jordanians. And even fewer are concepts and frameworks that translate — beyond the language — into the local context, whether in terms of level of abstraction, relevance to cultural and educational cues, or closeness to prevalent mental models.

In developing our curricula and tools, we also had to make sure that we, as a team, were speaking the same language. We created a glossary of common human-centered design terms, in Arabic and in English, to reconcile disparate terminology found in the literature, and propose a new language that is both consistent and accessible to the intended audience.

However, like with any new language, it took time to learn. None of our participants had any exposure with design prior to engaging with Mahali. During the bootcamp, using this vocabulary felt a bit awkward, tough, slow-going. But by the time we started the design sprint, everyone became more comfortable and fluent.

When it comes to design, our goal wasn’t just that it becomes something that is natural for our participants to speak, but more importantly something that is natural for them to do. Weeks later, during the design sprint, we had another “this-is-not-working” moment. While brainstorming, participants couldn’t get past conventional, very much inside-the-box ideas, despite trying to expose them to different things that could bring about inspiration, from visits to local entrepreneurs, startups, the Zaatari refugee camp (home to countless frugal innovations), external guests, and speakers.

So we dedicated a morning to conduct what we called the hardware store challenge. With very limited time, budget, and access to a store whose products were unfamiliar, the participants were given a challenge similar to the one they were working on, and asked to explore the store and buy the materials necessary to create a prototype for a solution to said challenge. Immediately after, the participants were to build and present their prototypes, right there in the parking lot in front of the store. In addition to preparing them for the prototyping and testing phases of the design sprint to come, the main goal of this exercise was to get participants to “build to think,” find inspiration in unlikely objects, and ideate on the fly.

Design sprint participants during the hardware store challenge.

The hardware store challenge was a huge success. Not only were the training goals of the exercise easily understood, but the debrief discussion that followed was one of those times that made me, as a trainer and facilitator, viscerally feel the aha moment — the moment it all clicked in the participants’ minds — take place right in front of my eyes. A couple of weeks later, when one of the design sprint teams felt discouraged after a series of ill-fated prototypes, they took it upon themselves to set a time limit, lock themselves in the project room with a box of random materials, and use a similar process to get unstuck.

Reflecting back on the 3+ months of the bootcamp and the design sprint, we learned a lot when it comes to understanding how to develop and implement a training curriculum, when to value teaching over technical assistance, and how to recognize and tap into transferable skills that participants brought from their various backgrounds. But the most important lesson of all was the need for flexibility and adaptability in the way we approached these curricula. Before we started the bootcamp, we had outlined a day-by-day, minute-by-minute agenda, detailing every activity, facilitation process, and supporting material required. And while the structure was helpful going into the 5 days, we ended up making a huge amount of changes to the original plan, and for good reason. In contrast, we approached the subsequent 10-week design sprint with a broadly stroked weekly outline that offered more flexibility to adapt to the needs and progress of the teams, while still hitting the necessary milestones. To ground the process, we made sure to highlight desired outcomes throughout, so that even when things didn’t go according to plan, we were able to think of a different path that would still allow us to reach the same endpoint.

This blog post is part of a series that documents the journey of the Mahali Lab in Jordan. Learn more about the first design challenge that the Mahali Lab participants, like Wesam, worked on solving.

This project is funded by UK aid from the British people; however the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies.

Also known as سارة فتح الله or ⵙⴰⵔⴰ ⴼⵜⵃⴰⵍⵍⴰⵀ. Social designer and researcher. More about my work at