Design thinking and education

Design thinking is getting a lot of attention in lots of areas – urban planning, services, technology, risk management and many more. Thinking like a designer can help everyone and you don’t need an expensive laptop, iPad or a beard.


The way that designers think can bring much to many disciplines. Tim Brown at TED talks about how designers think big. Brown argues that designers and the way that they work should not just concentrate on an end product and making it look good but the entire process and what that product can do to the world. This links to lots of work in the social sciences, such as:

  • Actor network theory – ANT analyses the relationships that material and non material things have. For example what does the inclusion of technology in the classroom have on other actors in the environment?
  • Social and cultural reproduction – Why do we follow in the footsteps of previous generations? Why are we products of our environment?

These are just two examples of links between how the way designers and social scientists think can be of use to everyone. A designer looks at the end user and all of the influences around a user and their motivations to design something of use.

An interesting course on FutureLearn called ‘Designing the Future’ goes into examples and gives a framework to help design experiences and products with wider implications in mind. In the context of education this can be extremely useful. Analysing the structures and environment of learners, aiming to ‘think just like them’ makes for better learning experiences. Here are some of the concepts covered by RMIT University in the FuturLearn course:

  • Strategic design – to design strategically Dan Hill says is to look at three elements. The artefact, the context and dark matter all have influences and interplay with each other. The artefact is the product that you are designing but the context cannot be ignored. Dark matter looks at things that cannot be seen but have an influence. These could be cultural norms or regulations that must be adhered to. All of these influence what happens in the real world so must be considered in the design.
  • Service designYoko Akama uses communities to co-create solutions. Using an approach which could be described as ethnographic, Yoko works with communities to understand and interpret shared knowledge that exists in communities. Exercises such as network mapping and the building of personas allows for service designers to think like their users. An important point here is the designer creates the environment and skills for communities to share and create.
  • Transdisciplinary design – Leah Heiss designs smart jewellery for health and wellbeing. Leah talks about cross discipline working and how learning the basics of the way other disciplines work and communicate is vital to working together – important for learning designers who design across many subject areas and disciplines. Leah says learn enough to have ideas. This links to empathy which describes really getting under the skin of the user to understand their needs, motivations and agency in their environment. In Leah’s case it is understanding the health and wellbeing need but also the social implications of using such devices and how they can be turned into something the owner loves as well as needs.

All three of these build up to the large emerging area of transition design. The School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University are working with many cross discipline partners to integrate transition design into research and curricula.

Understanding what your learner or end user wants and needs is a difficult job and goes beyond asking a few questions or observing. Creating useful environments  for good insights in the research stage is difficult, a good book with lots of techniques on this is Universal Methods of Design.

In education we need to think much more like designers and give users what they need.  We can also take ideas from two excellent books from the mid twentieth century, John Dewey’s Democracy of Education and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Opressed to understand the environments of learners and their experiences in the real world.

In 2015 Brian Eno delivered the annual John Peel lecture for BBC Radio 6 music.  Eno says that art is everything that we don’t have to do. We have to eat, drink and breathe but we make art out of what we make to eat, what choose to wear and how we choose to live. The same can be said of design. Thinking like a designer can make a new transport system in a major city to an e-mail giving instructions on how to complete a task.

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