Do you practice design thinking? Do you teach it?
What is design thinking?
This is a big question that many design experts have already written about. You can find a general overview in this blog post: What is Design Thinking and Why Is It So Popular? Here we talk about introductory design thinking for business in higher education.
Why do it?
Design thinking is now used widely in education to understand problems, collaborate, and creatively develop solutions (Razzouk and Shute, 2012). Design thinking can be applied as an active and multidisciplinary learning approach (Welsh & Dehler, 2013), and the reflective and collaborative learning skills it supports are in demand. Through design thinking we can innovate and wrestle with complex and messy problems: think climate change.
More than ever, we need business students to develop attributes such as empathy, openness, and curiosity (Dunne and Martin, 2006). A design thinking mindset can help graduates on their journey into an uncertain future (Koh, 2015). If anything, the pandemic has taught us to embrace ambiguity and stay human-centred.
How might we introduce design thinking as both a practice and a subject? Typically, design thinking is practised by small groups in dedicated physical spaces like a studio. We wanted to introduce and practice design thinking in large online spaces for a diverse first-year undergraduate business subject. A self-paced interactive model was designed and developed with basic design thinking concepts. On Zoom, students were guided through an abbreviated process (as in the diagram above) to design a chair.
Afterward, we interviewed students and teachers about their design thinking experiences. We then analysed how students were developing design thinking skills, processes and mindsets by comparing their responses to the levels outlined in the design-led education innovation matrix (Wright & Wrigley, 2019). We also found students’ virtual whiteboards diverse and interesting.
What worked and what didn’t?
Most students found design thinking to be an engaging collaborative learning activity. This was encouraging, given that students felt isolated and sometimes unmotivated during their remote studies. Most learned novice design thinking skills, mindset, and process knowledge despite having limited or no prior experience. We identified key online design thinking enablers and inhibitors, as well as suggestions for mitigating some of the challenges. See the table below.
TABLE: Design thinking online insights
|Clear and logical structure||Content that is not detailed||Augment design thinking resources|
|Thoughtful scheduling||Rapid transition between activities||Allow more time online|
|Learning by doing|
|Fun factor||Too little time for abstract complex thinking||Schedule time to explore and reflect|
|Hands-on activity||Unfamiliarity with creative learning||Orient design thinking as pedagogy|
|Creative content and change of style of learning||Perception of lack of rigour||Integrate design thinking into business problems|
|Meeting new people||Communication difficulties||Establish group norms|
|Increased social interaction and sharing ideas||Groups that are not diverse||Plan and form larger, more heterogeneous groups|
|Externalising ideas on the digital whiteboard||Drawing with a mouse or trackpad||Keep technology simple|
|Ease of adding web content to designs||Digital whiteboard limitations||Encourage student choice in how designs are represented|
|Preference for online tools over pen and paper for some students||Managing and switching between multiple tasks and software at short intervals||Experiment with integrated design thinking software|
|Easy access and sharing of artefacts, independent of location||Web conferencing software hindered communication from teachers to groups||Consider asynchronous group work where technology is a barrier|
|Adapting design thinking in workshops to suit the cohort||Large number of small groups to facilitate and monitor||Factor in more time and attempt fewer tasks|
|Teacher empathy and encouragement||Cognitive difficulty of managing technology and design thinking||Up-skill in design thinking and recruit students as design partners or leaders|
To sum up …
Teaching design thinking online is challenging. Design thinking activities need fewer, less frequent steps in large online student groups. It means balancing sophisticated design facilitation skills with the affordances and limitations of software. Trying to replicate the in-person experience won’t work. All design thinkers need an open and curious mind and focus on the human, rather than the technical. Above all, universities need to acknowledge and support design thinking as a pedagogical practice.
Read more about this case study in our research paper Introducing design thinking online to large business education courses for twenty-first century learning (Vallis & Redmond, 2021).