What we need to teach our students: The ability to reason

At the d.school (the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford), if a class goes well over the quarter, by the end the students and teachers feel like a community, a group that has changed each other’s lives forever, if just a little bit.

A session in a d.school workshop // Photo: Patrick Beaudouin

We d.school teachers are really experience designers, scaffolders, performers, energy catalysts, coaches, DJs, and learners ourselves — crafting class journeys. Our aim is to instill a designer’s spirit in all of our students, regardless of their discipline, by introducing a toolkit of designerly techniques, creating immersive experiences in and out of the classroom, and building each student’s creative practice.

During the last session of a recent class, we discussed what we did and how we did it — what the class was really all about. Toward the end of the conversation, after students discussed the things they would take away from the experience — experimentation, engaging with and understanding people, multi-disciplinary teamwork, looking at the world differently every day, and friendship — one student summed it up simply and beautifully:

“What we really did here is learn how to learn again.”

That certainly brought me joy (could a student say anything better to a teacher?), and I felt fortunate to teach something that can truly change how students think and take on work.

It’s gratifying to see the palpable change in our students during a d.school course. Recently I have been thinking about what this change is — what are we really teaching? Beyond the methods, tools, and approach, what are we trying to instill in our students? What makes someone creative, innovative, and prepared to take on complex problems of the world?

I believe what our d.school students gain — and what we should work to instill in all students — is the ability to reason.

While the concept of ‘reason’ is sometimes used interchangeably with ‘logic’, in fact the difference between the two is at the crux of what makes a design approach powerful. Robert Irwin[1] defines reasoning as working through our subjective selves, rather than an objective construct. He makes the distinction between a process of reason and a process of logic, by comparing artists and scientists:

“Scientists tend to operate through a logical process in the material world. In science it seems necessary that your facts be concrete, repeatable, and predictable . . . And, as long as you have that kind of measure, then what you’re getting can be held to be factual.”
 The artist’s enterprise, “reasoning appears to be more confused, more haphazard, partly because of the scale of what it tries to deal with. The logical, in a sense, seems more successful because it cuts the scale down. In fact, that’s what makes it logical: it takes a very concise cut in the world and simply defines or refines by deduction the properties of that cut, but it never deals with the overall complexities of the situation. The artist, however, as a reasoning being, deals with the overall complexity of which all the logical subsystems are merely segments, and he deals with them through the intuitive side of his human potential.”

This ability to “reason” — to apply subjective intuition — is crucial for effective work in today’s world. But it is often undernourished, if not unwittingly dismissed, in favor of analytical rigor. To instill the ability to reason, we must value the subjective, and nurture our capacity to find meaning, not just fact. Reasoning requires us to develop our intuition and to trust it.

In fact we need both logic and reason. But in our schools and in business, we emphasize the former — by a longshot. So if you say we need to innovate, I say we must learn to reason.


We use the word reframing to describe taking in new information and synthesizing it to create a unique perspective of the challenge, thus opening up a novel set of possible solutions. It is a principal undertaking of a designer. She must take account of the larger complexity of a problem space — one that includes human emotions and motivations, and the time, space, and people surrounding the issue at hand. Then she must use both logic and — more importantly — reason, to distill a vision from the complexity. In other words, the primary task of a designer — and, in fact, of people in an increasing number of professions — is to discover the meaningful question.

Exploring the question is much messier than generating answers. Exploring questions requires floating in an ambiguous space for uncomfortable spans of time, with strong purpose, but lacking specific targets. It requires considering the larger complexity of the situation, working to produce a clear vision out of the complexity, but resisting the inclination to simply cut down the scale of the problem to an analytical exercise. Exploring the question, not answers, is at the heart of creativity, and cannot be done in a deductive, analytical manner. One must play with the ambiguous, explore the irrational, and develop conviction without proof.


At Stanford, students are well practiced in the analytical; the d.school’s impact is that we cultivate the ability to reason, and facilitate the practice of using intuition. A student must hone her ability to hold logic in balance with intuition to discover the meaningful question and craft solutions.

The capabilities of reason include empathy (understanding another person’s beliefs, motivations and way of thinking), synthesis (the ability to make connections between seemingly disparate parts), sensemaking (the ability to turn those connections into a coherent vision), and creation (imagining new possibilities). These abilities are uniquely human, essential to innovation, and exist in all of us — yet are often disregarded and uncultivated.

To help our students develop their ability to reason we often structure their work around an articulated process and teach particular tools and approaches for them to use to advance their projects. These methods scaffold the behaviors that we think help innovators be instinctive explorers — engaging with and understanding real people, experimenting and prototyping, and questioning the question as well as crafting solutions. We leverage the methods designers (and others) have used for decades for creative work — and invent new tools as well. We push students to try approaches most do not regularly employ; this enables them to take on challenges with a mindset beyond the analytical. Our students leave with new outlook and (the beginning of) a creative practice they can continue to develop in their lives and work.

Process is not a formula or a recipe. It doesn’t eliminate the complexity and messiness of taking on difficult challenges. Instead, being intentional about one’s process provides a basic structure to embrace the ambiguity. It allows the substantive behaviors of design — empathy, imagination, curiosity, synthesis, exploration, and collaboration — to flourish.

Design process is personally honed, not statically authoritative. There is not one divine process; instead, we ask our students to develop their instinct to create and navigate their own approach. This in itself is an important aspect of using and trusting one’s intuition.

Fundamentally we are teaching the art of reasoning. The true value of our institute, and what we currently call design thinking, is to stimulate this human potential. The expansiveness of that potential is why what we do matters and has value across disciplines, industries and cultures. We are not simply teaching design; rather we aspire to revive and enrich the ability in all of us to make connections, to explore, to imagine, and to create — to reason.

[1] Robert Irwin is an American artist born in 1928; his conversations with Lawrence Welscher are captured in the biography, seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.

Thanks to Charlotte Burgess-Auburn, Justin Ferrell, and Sarah Stein-Greenberg for reading drafts of this article and suggesting many improvements.