Let’s Talk About Design Thinking (A Designer’s Perspective)

Design thinking seems to be the latest and greatest trend that will change the face of education (or not). However, the notion that design thinking can be simplified into a step-by-step process is absurd (click here to read a brief history of design thinking). As a designer myself–and thus a design thinker–I understand that the way I think when I go about solving an instructional problem is not in fact limited to the ADDIE model, which has similarities to the most oft-cited model that depicts the design thinking process. At the core of my instructional design thinking is knowledge: knowledge of instructional design models, knowledge of instructional design principles, knowledge of learning theories, knowledge of research methods, knowledge of technology integration, knowledge of what good learning design looks likes (and bad). Furthermore, the way I think as an instructional designer is not the way an engineer thinks, or an architect thinks, or a graphic designer thinks. To think like any one of those types of designers would require becoming one. So, here are my thoughts on design thinking:

  1. Design thinking is not a generic way of thinking. Design thinking is a contextual way of thinking.
  2. There are as many ways of design thinking as types of designers.
  3. Design thinking cannot be taught.
  4. Design thinking is the application of expert knowledge. Expert knowledge comes from training (formal education, apprenticeships).
  5. Design thinking is the outcome of expert learning.

Does the generic design thinking process have utility? Certainly, as long as we realize that the outcome of using a generic design thinking model with students is probably not radically different from using any generic problem-solving model. In fact, the scientific method is not that different from the 5-step design thinking process, as illustrated in the table below:

Design Thinking Process Scientific Method
Empathize Ask a Question
Define the problem Do Background Research
Ideate (brainstorm) Construct a Hypothesis
Prototype Design the Study
Test Test the Hypothesis

Empathizing requires asking questions. Defining the problem requires background research. Ideating should stem from the defined problem in the same way that a hypothesis is formed from knowledge gained during background research. Both prototype design and study design require systematic planning. Finally, testing is essential to both processes. You can even compare the Big6 to the Design Thinking Process and see similarities.

Using a design thinking model does not turn students into design thinkers anymore than the scientific method turns students into scientists or the Big6 model turns students into librarians. But, these generic problem solving models do offer a guide for developing critical thinking and problem solving skills IF they are tied to a strong knowledge base (e.g., reading, research, curriculum). Design thinking is just the latest player in the educational trend game.

On a final note, check out award-winning graphic designer Natasha Jen’s excellent critique of design thinking.



Reflection Post: Mindwalk

In watching the film Mindwalk, I took away two main points: 1) systems are living organisms, not machines (models of things), and 2) systems are interconnected.

On Mistaking the Model for the Real Thing

We certainly see mistaking the model for the real thing in the tax policies that affect our economy. The current proposed tax plan in Congress is a good example, with many proponents citing supply side economics as the justification for cutting corporate taxes at such a high and permanent rate. Yet, at a recent Wall Street Journal event for CEOs, few raised their hands when asked if they would reinvest the tax savings in their companies (enabling trickle down). Instead, most stated that they would simply pass it on in dividends. No trickle down there (unless the stockholders are the only ones that count). So, the theory behind supply-side economics is failing to predict the likely outcome of the proposed tax cuts either because the theory itself is false or because those who are citing it are misapplying it. Not only are our legislators mistaking the model for “the real thing,” they may not understand the model in the first place.

Applying the concept of mistaking the model for “the real thing” to library systems, experience shows that much like in Congress, the people who control the funding and make the decisions about libraries often do not seem to understand library systems at all. Thus, they make decisions that negatively impact all the other systems to which the library system is connected. For example, it is a commonly held belief among non-library users (who often happen to be the decision makers) that libraries are repositories of books. A good example of this is illustrated in a recent USA Today article about jobs that won’t exist in 2030. The number one job that the author listed was librarian. He states the following:

“More and more people are clearing out those paperbacks and downloading e-books on their Tablets and Kindles instead. The same goes for borrowing — as books fall out of favor, libraries are not as popular as they once were. That means you’ll have a tough time finding a job if you decide to become a librarian. Many schools and universities are already moving their libraries off the shelves and onto the Internet.”


Clearly, the author’s model of a library system is one of a book repository—a building full of books. He fails to understand the the broader purpose of the library as a public good. Dietmar Wolfram, president of the Association of Library and Information Science Educators (ALISE), responded with a letter to the editor of USA Today outlining the value and purpose of library systems and providing counter-evidence to the article’s bold declarations. For example, Dr. Wolfram states that libraries are places that connect people to information and to each other. In a public library this might be seen in library programming, such as book and hobby clubs. In school and academic libraries this might be seen in homework clubs, study groups, and/or maker spaces. Returning to Mindwalk, this illustrates the other main point of the film—interconnectedness. Library systems serve as an example of interconnectedness in the way that they connect to and serve both macro-systems (schools, business, communities) and micro-systems (people).