Design Thinking in Education

What do successful companies and individuals have in common? Usually the company or individuals are creative, collaborative, critical in their thinking and communicative. Take Apple as an example, they have out-performed many other S&P 500 companies over the last two decades. What have they got that the other companies don’t? I would say above all that they are design focused and particularly understand their customer’s needs. As Simon Sinek would say they know their ‘why’ and their customers buy into their products at a deeper level than just a brand. It’s a ‘lifestyle!’

Due to the remarkable success of these design-led companies, like Apple, design has evolved beyond making just products. Organisations now want to learn how to think like designers and apply design principles to the workplace itself. Design Thinking is at the core of the movement and is changing the way many organisations / institutions are working and operating.

You can design the way you lead, manage, create and innovate. Design Thinking can be applied to systems, procedures, protocols customer/user experiences and even education. The purpose of design, ultimately, in my view is to improve the quality of life for people and what better way can you make this happen but through the education of our children. What more can we do than teach our children the ‘why’ of their own learning?

What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is a methodology used by designers to solve complex problems, and find the best solution for a particular person or group of people.  A design mindset is solution focused and action oriented towards creating this preferred future. What more could you want in a student? Design Thinking draws upon logic, imagination, intuition, and systemic reasoning, to explore possibilities of what could be and to create the desired solution for a particular person or group in mind. Does this not describe individualised learning and the direction we want education to go in the 21st century?

One of the early innovators in Design Thinking was David Kelley, the founder of the design consultancy IDEO. Along with his brother Tom Kelley he has written a book called “Creative Confidence”, a book I would highly recommend to read if you are interested in this topic.

Design Thinking gained even more impetus with the publication of the book “Change by Design”, written by Tim Brow. He started to explore how Design Thinking can be used by business to create not just products, but services as well and even made the tentative link of using Design Thinking in education. From this I can see how Design Thinking can improve the curriculum, learning spaces, school processes and tools and even school systems.

“Design thinking can be described as a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.”
– Tim Brown CEO, IDEO

A Framework for Design Thinking

Over the last year, I have been researching Design Thinking at length and have come across many different frameworks. All of them are structured, basically in a cycle which involves observation of the problem, framing potential opportunities, generating creative ideas and then testing and refining a solution. As we know a cycle is the best possible model in this situation, however it does not work for education, as we have to move on from a particular subject or project due to time and curriculum constraints.

Also in each of the different frameworks they use slightly different terminology and graphics to describe this process, so for me, working in education, I wanted the most basic and simple process possible. I went along to a workshop with Doctor Maureen Carroll, Founder of Lime Design and the Director of Stanford University’s REDlab (Research in Education & Design) in March 2017, and her model below appealed to me as one of the most easiest to follow, however the terminology used was still not quite what I was looking for.


Therefore, after much searching and consideration, I decided upon this adapted framework.


The Understand, Create and Deliver (UCD) framework uses language that younger children can understand, while Empathy, Define, Ideate, Prototype & Test helps the teachers and parents understand where the children are in the process of designing.


Understanding is the first step of our framework and in this step we are trying to make sure that our students gain some understanding of the problem or issue at hand. Traditionally the teacher of the class would generate a problem and the students would be given help in understanding why it is important. In some cases, particularly in older grades it may be possible for the students to identify their own problems. This usually occurs from personal observation and seeing a problem at first hand. This is the ideal as the students already have intrinsic motivation for their own learning and the passion to come up with a solution.

The next step of Understanding is the human factor and that a problem can have a serious impact on the life of another person. Having empathy for another person or group is the key to success in designing a good solution. Without this most basic of human feelings, a solution will always be hard to find, as any solution must be human-centred. Also when dealing with other people the process must be collaborative and communicative, as without both nothing much is going to be learnt or resolved.

One of the best ways to understand a person’s point of view is to use an empathy map. This technique can come in various versions, but the simplest I have seen is shown below. (Carroll, 2017)

Empathy Map.png

With the problem identified we then need to define it, and this can be done using a point of view (POV) statement. This clearly defines the problem and the reason why it is important to solve it.

It is important to use a user name as this keeps the experience personal and we must use a verb, the doing word, which helps us be motivated in helping that person. Also to keep it human-centred we must provide a surprising insight, as this is the reason for us to help solve the problem. This is the extrinsic motivation for the student if they need it.


The Create section is an opportunity for your imagination and creativity to run riot. This is where we create solutions to the problem. No solution is too fanciful, too difficult as we ask for solutions without limits. We do not need to worry about cost, if it is even possible; all we are concerned about is creating ideas, and lots of them.

This is done in a brainstorming exercise where the rules are simple:

  • Think outside the box
  • Quantity not quality
  • Active listening
  • Build on other people’s ideas
  • Differ judgement

This process is facilitated by the power of the post-it note and we use a simple saying – Say it, Write it, Stick it!


Students enjoy the Deliver section of the process the most as they have to prototype one of their possible solutions. This means they have to choose one, solution, then build/make/experience it, with the materials you provide. These prototypes should be life-size and interactive. This is critical thinking at its best, and the reasons given by the students for their choices are inspirational. They truly can show you an alternative to a problem, which may have been staring you in the face for some time. They must also provide reasoning to their experience as this will provide us with valuable feedback on the chosen solution.

Cardboard is king in prototyping and you should have an ample supply of different sizes and thicknesses – I have found that Makedo kits are valuable tools for this creation process.

Once a prototype has been made it must be tested by the individual who required the solution, as without their input, you will never know if your solution has been successful. Again this human-centred approach leads to better results as people see the ‘why’ of the product instead of just a gadget or gimmick.

I believe Design Thinking will play an ever more important part in education and I would like to see many of our traditional topics taught through this approach. It is most certainly something I will be working with my teachers to implement more of in the future.

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