Design Thinking And Learning

Dennis Hambeukers
Jan 29 · 5 min read

If I think about the value that Design Thinking can bring to the world, I think it’s primarily about learning. In essence, Design Thinking is a different way to learn, a different learning strategy. And learning is becoming more and more important, as expressed elegantly in this quote from Alvin Toffler:

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” — Alvin Toffler

Learning is the crucial step in the Lean Startup’s build-measure-learn process. If you don’t learn, the whole process is useless.

Learning is also the key objective of the popular Google Ventures Design Sprint. The deliverable of a Design Sprint is not a prototype, it’s learning.

Learning strategy

The way designers learn is what separates them from other people and it’s the key to understanding, learning, mastering Design Thinking. If you look at how designers work, you’ll see that they don’t spend months discussing what to design. Even if not all information is available, even if the objective is not clear, even if the whole project bathes in uncertainty, they start to do, to make, to design.

Why is that? How can you start designing when you don’t have all the information? Where do you start when the goal of the project isn’t even clear?

Navigating complexity

Designers do this because learning by doing is by far the best way to navigate complexity and uncertainty. Imagine first gathering all the information there is about a complex activity like walking upright or driving a car before you start. If we would learn to walk like that, not a lot of people would be walking. Learning by doing is far more effective strategy for solving complex problems. Yes, you are going to bump your head a couple of times. Yes, you are going to make a fool of yourself. But the other way, research until you know all the answers, takes too much energy, effort, time, money and will not guarantee better results. The complexer the problem, the more true this is.

All the big innovators of our time use this method. Elon Musk is learning by doing how to get people to switch to electric cars, how to get a rocket to the moon. Google, Twitter, AirBnb, you name them, all move before they are ready. They all learn by doing. They all make fools of themselves from time to time. They are all focussed on learning. The faster you can learn, the better your organization will perform. The world has become too complex to rely solely on research. There are too many variables, too many interconnections.

Designers do their research, but what separates them from non-designers is the moment they stop talking, reading and analyzing and start doing.

Getting all the help you can get

The other reason why designers start doing way earlier than other people is because they need all the help they can get. When you navigate complexity, you definitely need all the help you can get. Doing, starting before you are ready, enables you to call in the cavalry when it comes to learning, to getting ideas, to validating. It allows you to:

  • Engage your visual mind. Once you start making, you start to see. Once you start to see, your visual mind kicks in and helps you think. 75% or so of the energy in the human brain is dedicated to visual signal processing. It would be a shame not to use that.
  • Create a common language. If you make things concrete, you create a common language all stakeholders understand. This enables you to collect insights far better than just talking to people in abstract terms.
  • Access your intuition. Buddhists call our rational, thinking mind, the small mind and intuition our big mind. The big mind is far more creative than the small mind. Doing, seeing, using your visual mind opens up the door to intuition. All good designers use it.
  • See the gaps. If you start making, you quickly see what you don’t know, what you don’t see, what you need. Nothing beats executing in reality when it comes to pointing out the gaps in your ideas, knowledge and approach.
  • Think outside the box. If you spend too much time researching, you run the risk of thinking in best practices, in familiar patterns. Being bold and naive allows you to learn much more than coloring between the lines. If you have the guts to start early and be bold, you will be rewarded with big learning.
  • Cultivate the Beginner’s Mind. Seeing things with fresh eyes is crucial to solve complex problems. If you are too deep into the matter, you lose your beginner’s mind and the fresh perspective that is quintessential to designers.

Learning to learn

This is not as easy as it sounds. It requires skills. You must master:

  • making stuff
  • seeing (no not what you think you see, see what you actually see)
  • thinking outside the box
  • connecting dots
  • understanding stuff in new ways

Learning in itself is a skill you must learn. And learning to learn like a designer is no different. But that is what Design Thinking is all about.

We don’t know things, we have hypotheses. And we must validate those hypotheses. That requires learning, unlearning and relearning. If you think you know, you’re in trouble when it comes to solving complex problems. Research is aimed at knowing, Design Thinking at learning. Learning is far more valuable than knowledge when it comes to solving complex problems, simply because you cannot know complexity, you can only learn.


Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, don’t forget to hit the clap button. I will dive deeper into the topics of Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn.

Design Leadership Notebook

Notes on the imminent leading role of design.

Dennis Hambeukers

Written by

Design Thinker Thinking About Design — Strategic Design Consultant @zuiderlicht. https://www.zuiderlicht.nl/

Design Leadership Notebook

Notes on the imminent leading role of design.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade