Employing ‘Head, Heart, Hands’ design approaches in Higher Education

Mi:Lab Team
Mi:Lab
Published in
4 min readFeb 5, 2021

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‘Head, Heart, Hands’ Design Council Framework

Design ‘Thinking?’

When we talk about Design Thinking in Higher Education or Design Thinking generally, we talk a lot about mindsets, attitudes, beliefs. Even the name ‘Design Thinking’ presupposes a focus on ‘thinking’.

But both design and education are deeply practical, tactile and experiential ways of learning, being and doing. The relegation of the body and our senses is misguided, especially when we consider that our hands are some of the most important parts of our bodies. If we were to scale the body proportionally to our senses, we would actually look something like this:

Homo Homunculus: We use our hands more than any other species!

The ‘Head, Heart, Hands’ Framework

The Design Council’s ‘Head, Heart, Hands’ Framework for design restores the centrality of the body in both Education and Design. The process of changing existing situations into preferred situations is something that requires us to employ a holistic combination of our heads, hearts and hands. Although it may sound all too obvious, it’s an important and necessary reframe in our cognition-obsessed world.

According to the Design Council Framework:

  1. The Head is the site of problem-solving, “the ability to visualise and conceptualise the intangible” and be “critically and purposefully creative.”
  2. The Heart is our “passion and curiosity to design solutions that are right for people and planet.” It involves deep empathy for those who we are designing for.
  3. The Hands are our “technical abilities to enable the end goal to be reached.” It is where we think through doing and learn through interaction with the world and its materials.

In this way, Design Thinking is not only a mindset, philosophy or set of attitudes, it is also a set of behaviours. The designer is both visionary and creative, craftsperson and maker.

The London consultancy, Stripe Partners employ a ‘head, heart, hands’ approach to research and strategy. This means immersing themselves in the lives of their customers whether doing yoga with young mothers or putting up tents together while camping with outdoor enthusiasts. Co-Founder of Stripe Partners, Dr Simon Roberts, has written a book on this topic titled, The Power of Not Thinking: How Our Bodies Learn and Why We Should Trust Them, in which he challenges Enlightenment notions of mind/body dualism and promotes a model of embodied knowledge rooted in our intuitive experiences of being in the world.

The Origins of ‘Head, Heart, Hands’

Whilst the ‘Head, Heart, Hands’ framework was popularised by the Design Council, it originates in Education. The model comes from Transformational Learning, a theory of “deep, constructive, and meaningful learning that goes beyond simple knowledge acquisition and supports critical ways in which learners consciously make meaning of their lives” (Simsek, 2012:201).

The ‘Head, Heart, Hands’ Model was originally introduced by educationalist and environmentalist professor, David Orr. Orr created this holistic framework to encourage transformational learning and to enlighten others to the concept of ecoliteracy. Ecoliteracy is the ability to understand the natural systems and processes that exist in the world. The embodied nature of this model has been rendered to design with many shared principles, motivations and processes.

‘Head, Heart, Hands’ Design Approaches in Higher Education

In Higher Education, the ‘Head, Heart, Hands’ embodied design approach is a blueprint for 21st century pedagogy. Design approaches that combine our heads, hearts and hands help insure the correct problems are being solved using empathy and creativity and blend practice and theory.

Traditionally, in Higher Education, an emphasis has been placed on the power of our heads and the knowledge we have ascertained. The power of our heart and hands are often overlooked and neglected. But our hands put our creativity into use. The inattention given to using our hands may be triggered by a lack of creative confidence and a cultural devaluation of practical skills. We are separated at any early age into brainiacs and makers. For many in Higher Education, the construction of psychological barriers and doubt surrounding our creative abilities impede us from freely using our hands and expressing ourselves through our bodies. What we really need is a vision of learning that celebrates all three.

In Higher Education, ‘Head, heart, hands’ design approaches offer a model for reimagining education that prioritises practical wisdom and embodied knowledge. Let’s restore both thinking and doing to design and education.

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