Professional Development, Recent + Research-Based

Design Thinking: All Talk & No Action?

I recently read an article circulating about the design thinking world with a compelling angle on design thinking (DT) itself. The author, Meg Miller, states that often times, DT’s inherent exclusion can actually further exacerbate the problem for which a final product is being designed. The example Miller raises in the article is peace- and relationship-building amongst populations that are threatened and severely affected by race-related violence in St Louis, MO. This article in particular was written following the police shooting of Michael Ferguson in August 2014.

Miller interviews Antionette Carroll, who runs a non-profit for diversity awareness, and she’s made some interesting yet controversial observations on the design thinking world, which she sums up into 3 overarching principles:

  1. Design thinking has an exclusion problem (the designers are often not directly affected by the problem, and therefore, the solution)
  2. Act fast, then keep iterating (she recommends immediate action plans of diverse peoples– her favorite is the 24-hour workshop model which not only generates ideas but also allows people to get to work on problems immediately)
  3. Approaches not solutions (assuming simplistic solutions ignores deeply embedded problems which exist in many communities, like St Louis– affordable housing, police violence, etc.)

These principles would actually be the founding philosophies for her newest non-profit, Creative Reaction Lab, which works to “expos[e] the invisible mechanisms of inequality, many of which were by design themselves.”

The interview makes me critically wonder about design thinking overall. Last semester, I took a class on Adult Education and Andragogy, and we had a final unit that was rooted in design-thinking. Our final project was to use design thinking to overhaul distance learning with adult learners. The class itself was a distance class, and the design thinking unit left a great deal to be desired. My classmates struggled to ideate and come up with solutions that weren’t already readily implemented into distance learning classes. I left the project with lots of questions:

  • Was this an example of poorly facilitated design thinking, or was it a case of design thinking’s limitations?
  • Can design thinking be effectively facilitated in a distance environment?
  • What degree is personal connection necessary in the design process, and is it essential to have this type of human connection in each of the 6 steps?

Admittedly, I began the project a bit skeptical with design thinking to begin with, though I’m so open to having my mind changed. As an educator, I see the process as valuable. It employs empathy, creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, refining and changing, and many other excellent tools. I guess my beef is that I see design thinking as a clever and attractive tool, but I frequently wonder about the longevity of the final product, if there ever is one. Of course, this is coming from me having seen design thinking in the “before” stages– quite common when these are being facilitated at conferences or workshops. There’s just not time for a final product to be realistically (nor reasonably) implemented in the span of 3 days.

So, does it work!?

I have to agree with Carroll to some degree. I find that in my facilitation workshops of design thinking, we spend a lot of time hypothesizing, using post-its, and making prototypes out of cardboard and tape… and I have to wonder if this is an effective use of my time or if I can really implement these skills. This makes me wonder about me as a teacher, too! How many times have I asked students to create something just for practice versus create an authentic final product that solves a problem for a real audience? Rarely, as much as I think of myself as a creative and effective educator.

Overall, I’m not sure I have answers… and I’m enjoying the process of thinking about design thinking from positive and critical perspectives, and I’m inspired by the fact that it makes me wonder about my own teaching. What would it look like if I employed Carroll’s 3 principles to my own classroom? What if, for example, I had an entire “think-tank” type of class where students ideated for several hours until they could reasonably come up with a solution? Might this make laboratory science more compelling and “real”? Further– with inquiry, problem- and project-based learning taking the stage, it seems to me a matter of time before design thinking may weave its way into progressive education; indeed, in some circles it already has.

[Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash]