Design thinking

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Design thinking is a concept used in many contexts and it is rather ill-defined. Most often it is used to describe a kind of design methodology. Dorst (1997) [1] [2], distinguishes two paradigms of current design methodology: design seen as a rational problem solving process and design considered as a reflective practice.

According to Callahan (2019)[3], “Researchers have conducted studies inside and outside the design fields to improve understanding and control of the design process. Within the design fields, these researcher seek to understand the nonverbal processes of designers and how these processes are linked to design theory and practice. Outside the fields, the desire to understand the design process is driven by a need to harness its innovative power. The term “design thinking” links these two approaches to the investigation of design.”

Design thinking usually implies a user-centered approach that includes prototyping. There are similarities between design thinking initiatives in larger organizations and the "maker" movement (e.g. Smith, Iversen and Hjorth, 2015 [4]). “The process of creating, ideating, and reflecting on the process in digital fabrication environments has a close resemblance to design thinking (e.g. Nelson and Stolterman [5]; Cross (2006) [6], Cross [7]). In processes of digital fabrication and design thinking,the student practitioner engages with ill-defined or ‘‘wicked’’ problems [8], and explorations of trial and error, to make their own choices based on insights or past experience.” (p. 21)

Design thinking is not the same as design science. Within design science one can find various types of design thinking, but design thinking also exists in other areas, e.g. management and, more recently, education.

Sometimes, design thinking is presented as an answer to current complicated problems. Brown (2008) [9] concludes: “No matter where we look, we see problems that can be solved only through innovation [..] These problems all have people at their heart. They require a human-centered, creative, iterative,and practical approach to finding the best ideas and ultimate solutions. Design thinking is just such an approach to innovation.”

Design thinking in business

Design thinking probably originated in product design, but then spread to other areas, e.g. business: “Design thinking, first used to make physical objects, is increasingly being applied to complex, in-tangible issues, such as how a customer experiences a service. Regardless of the context, design thinkers tend to use physical models, also known as design artifacts, to explore, define, and communicate. Those models—primarily diagrams and sketches—supplement and in some cases replace the spread-sheets, specifications, and other documents that have come to define the traditional organizational environment. They add a fluid dimension to the exploration of complexity, allowing for nonlinear thought when tackling nonlinear problems.” (Harvard Busisness Review) [10]. Another example of more interest to educational technology is also described by Kolko [10]: “The MIT Media Lab formalizes this in its motto, “Demo or die,” which recognizes that only the act of prototyping can transform an idea into something truly valuable—on their own, ideas are a dime a dozen.”.

Prototyping is only one aspect of design thinking in business organizations, the other, related, refers to more flexible ways of thinking.

Design thinking can be linked to innovation. According to management scholars Carlgren, Rauth, & Elmquist, M. (2016)[11]. “The innovation potential in design has been highlighted by several scholars (Bruce & Bessant, 2002; Von Stamm, 2003, 2004; Perks, Cooper, & Jones, 2005; Borja de Mozota, 2010).”. The authors also point out that “In the managerial discourse, DT typically does not refer to classic design disciplines such as engineering design, industrial design or communication design; rather it is presented as a general human‐centred approach to problem solving, creativity and innovation (e.g., Brown, 2008, p. 92). [9][..] Roger Martin (2006) [12] argues that companies should become more like design shops, with the main emphasis on the cognitive processes of designers, which in his view could also help managers. Martin describes these processes as ‘integrative thinking’, which is a way of thinking that ‘combines the generation of new ideas’ (abductive logic) ‘with their analysis and evaluation of how they apply’ (deductive, inductive logic) (Dunne & Martin, 2006, p. 518). [13]

According to Carlgren et al. [11]“Despite the ambiguity in these main works (e.g., discipline vs. approach vs. way of thinking), several renowned universities such as Rotman School of Management and Stanford University have introduced DT programmes [..] The at Stanford University (2010), which has been partly credited for the spread of DT, has proposed a stepwise, iterative process framework which is often depicted as a sequence of activities that can be interpreted as linear: empathize (data collection based on, for example, ethnographic studies), define (data synthesis to gain a refined problem understanding), ideate (suggest ideas for solving the problem), prototype (develop tangible and experienceable representations of the ideas) and test (with potential users).”

Carlgren, Rauth, & Elmquist, M. (2016)[11] conclude their 2015 literature review with a critical summary:

  • Many representations of design thinking in the literature are vague and ambiguous
  • They either focus on design thinking as an abductive way to problem solving or some "typical process"

As result of their empirical study of five organizations that claim to use design thinking, the authors [11] found five themes that define design thinking and that can be associated with sets of principles (mindsets), practices and techniques. We summarize the table on page 50:

  • User focus: empathy building, deep user understanding and user involvement.
  • Problem Framing: widen, challenge and reframe it.
  • Visualization: making ideas tangible by means of low‐resolution representations or mock‐ups of ideas or solutions.
  • Experimentation: testing and trying things out in an iterative way,
  • Diversity: encompassing collaboration in diverse teams, and the integration of diverse outside perspectives

Types of design thinking

Johansson-Sköldberg et al. (2013). [14] distinguish five types of design thinking. Quotes below are from the online version of their article.

1. Design and designerly thinking as the creation of artefacts (Simon, 1969) [15] “Simon understood ‘design’ to encompass all conscious activities to create artefacts, and thereby differentiated it from natural science, social science and humanities – but not from engineering. [..] His point of departure was that design [research] is about creation, while other sciences deal with what already exists.”

2. Design and designerly thinking as a reflexive practice (Schön, 1983).[16] “In contrast to Simon, Schön constructed a picture of the designer through a practice‐based focus on the relation between creation and reflection‐upon‐the‐creation that allows for constantly improved competence and re‐creation.”

3. Design and designerly thinking as a problem‐solving activity (Buchanan, 1992 based on Rittel and Webber, 1973). [8], [17] “Buchanan introduced the concept of placements to describe the process of contextualization. Placements are ‘tools’ for intuitively or deliberately shaping a design situation, identifying the views of all participants, the issues of concern, and the intervention that becomes a working hypothesis for exploration and development, thereby letting the problem formulation and solution go hand in hand rather than as sequential steps.”

4. Design and designerly thinking as a way of reasoning/making sense of things (Lawson, 2006 [1980]; Cross, 2006, 2011)[6], [7]. [18] “Cross works from ethnographic research to reveal what designers do during the activity of designing, while Lawson draws on the psychology of creative design processes to turn his research knowledge into forms designers can use.”

5. Design and designerly thinking as creation of meaning (Krippendorff, 2006).[19] “Krippendorff's ‘science for design’, [is a] ‘a systematic collection of accounts of successful design practices, design methods, and their lessons, however abstract, codified or theorized, whose continuous rearticulation and evaluation within the design community amounts to a self‐reflective reproduction of the design profession’ (2006: 209).”

Design thinking ingredients and processes

The practical design thinking literature includes dozens of models, most of which share similar key ingredients that is part of general user-centered design philosophy: observation, brainstorming, rapid iterative prototyping, etc.

For von Thienen et al. (2017) [20], design thinking work culture builds upon three pillars (“3 Ps”): process, place and people (HPI School of Design Thinking, 2015). On the Hasso Plattner School website [21] these are defines as follows for an educational context:

  • People: Innovations and answers to complex questions are best generated in a heterogeneous team of five to six people. We form multidisciplinary teams to allow ideas that extend far beyond the scope of the individual member’s own discipline. Instead of competition, we foster a we-culture where the teams develops innovative ideas together. In our academic programs each team is accompanied by a coach who is trained in the Design Thinking methodology
  • Place: A team needs optimal spatial conditions so that it can develop its creative process. These include flexible, movable furniture, adequate space for whiteboards and presentation surfaces as well as materials for prototyping design ideas. These variable rooms can be adapted to the needs of each project. At the HPI D-School Design Thinking teams work standing up in spaces designed for up to six people. Participants are thus able to easily interact with other teams working in parallel.
  • Process: The Design Thinking innovation process leads teams through iterative loops which take the participants through six phases. The process requires an open culture of failure. Because in Design Thinking we like to think in the realm of the impossible. The user is the main focus of the emphatic approach and its development. During the process the team activates the entire thought apparatus of those involved, both the analytical and the creative-intuitive areas.

Stanford's's K12 Wiki defines a design thinking process model for educating kids. It it includes five more or less linear steps that are repeated.

  1. Empathy: observe users enables design thinkers to uncover deep and meaningful needs (both overt & latent) of (an)others.
  2. Define: become aware of peoples’ needs and develop insights. “How might we....” reflects on user + need + insight
  3. Ideate: brainstorm a myriad of ideas and suspend judgment.
  4. Prototype: convey an idea quickly through a sketch, model, or a cardboard box.
  5. Test: learn what works and what doesn’t, and then iterate, i.e., going back to the prototype and modifying it based on feedback.

Teaching materials for this process model are available on their Virtual Crash Course in Design Thinking web site (retr. April 2019).

The The Interaction Design Foundation published the following illustration.

Design Thinking is an iterative and non-linear process. This simply means that the design team continuously use their results to review, question and improve their initial assumptions, understandings and results. Results from the final stage of the initial work process inform our understanding of the problem, help us determine the parameters of the problem, enable us to redefine the problem, and, perhaps most importantly, provide us with new insights so we can see any alternative solutions that might not have been available with our previous level of understanding. Source: Copyright: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Design thinkers

Tim Brown (2008) [9], in this most cited management article, defines the following design thinker's personality profile:

  • Empathy: image the world from others' multiple perspectives
  • Integrative thinking: see all aspects, including contradictory ones
  • Optimism: at least one potential solution is better than none
  • Experimentalism: pose new questions and proceed in different directions
  • Collaboration: the best thinkers have experience in more than one domain.

Razzouk & Shute (2012) [22], based on a literature review, defined design thinking (DT) competence map. At the top level, the map identifies demonstrate DT skills, use DT terminology and Employ DT behavior. DT skills are divided into locate and use resources, iterate diagrams and innovative design which are then further divided into sub and sub-sub dimensions, totalling 26 items.

Design thinking in education

Design thinking in education has three related aspects: Use design thinking for systemic innovations, use design thinking as an educational approach and teach design thinking. Burdick and Willis (2011) [23] identify opportunities for design thinking to be integrated into digital learning and digital scholarship initiatives. They argue that design methods and cognition are relevant for addressing global-scaled challenges and notice that “‘new media educators’—has been advocating for a similar set of skills to address changes in technology, pedagogy, research and scholarly communication within higher education.”

Design thinking for innovation

Educational reform is a complicated, "wicked" problem and therefore a design thinking approach can be used as change management strategy.

Design thinking as pedagogic design model

von Thienen, Royalty and Meinel (2017) [20] introduce design thinking as an approach to enhance creative problem-solving and collaboration skills. “It is a problem-based learning paradigm that builds on three pillars: A creative problem solving process, creative work-spaces and collaboration in multi-perspective teams.”

Teaching design thinking

Design thinking can be taught in many ways. E.g. one could use "making" as a subject area and medium.

Smith, Iversen and Hjorth (2015) [4] link Digital design and fabrication in education to design thinking: They “emphasize a designerly approach to digital fabrication as a hybrid learning environment that combines digital fabrication, design thinking and collaborative ideation and innovation to solve (complex) societal challenges. This definition stresses the entire creative process from early ideation, sketching, and mock-up creation to the initial presentation of a prototype, in which digital fabrication becomes a vehicle and resource for addressing personal or complex societal issues.”.

In their observational study of course activities and Danish schools, the authors identifies five challenges (p. 22-24) [4]:

  • Students find it hard to conceptualize a digital fabrication process
  • Students are challenged in navigating the messy process of digital fabrication
  • Students lack experience of collaborative creation and negotiation
  • Students have limited engagement with diverse materials for digital fabrication
  • Students lack an understanding of argumentation surrounding digital fabrication

In order to overcome these, the authors used Löwgren and Stolterman's [24] four tools for developing design judgment that should develop design competency: Sense of quality directed at the process, use of developed language, reflective thinking and retrospective thinking and embedded these in a typical design cycle that included (1) design brief, (2) field studies, (3) ideation, (4) fabrication, and (5) reflection. Their model emphasizes: “the model emphasizes field studies for generating insights based on empirical data as an important activity for producing relevant input to ideation and fabrication. These later phases cover activities that are often referred to as mock-up, prototyping, implementation and testing. Likewise, the latter activity of reflection covers reflection, feedback, and argumentation in relation to the students’ projects, and own and other’s learning proces” (p.24).

Smith, Iversen and Hjorth (2015) [4] conclude their study by: “The five challenges described from our observational studies revealed that students generally lack an understanding of the explorative and sometimes loosely defined processes of digital fabrication in education. Findings from our research through design experiment generally reveal that when incorporating elements of design thinking into digital fabrication, the students progressed towards a better understanding of the design process and outcome.”



Cited with footnotes

  1. Dorst, K. (1997). Describing design: a comparison of paradigms. Technische Universiteit Delft. [1]
  2. Buchanan, R. (2006). Wicked Problems in Design Thinking. Design Issues, 8(2), 5.
  3. Callahan, K. C. (2019). Design Thinking in Curricula. In The International Encyclopedia of Art and Design Education (pp. 1–6). Hoboken, NJ, USA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Smith, R. C., Iversen, O. S., & Hjorth, M. (2015). Design thinking for digital fabrication in education. International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction, 5, 20–28.
  5. Nelson, H. G., & Stolterman, E. (2012). The design way: Intentional change in an unpredictable world—foundations and fundamentals of design competence, MIT Press.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Cross, N. (2006) Designerly Ways of Knowing. Springer Verlag, London.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Cross, N. (2011) Design Thinking. Berg, Oxford.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Buchanan, R. (2006). Wicked Problems in Design Thinking. Design Issues, 8(2), 5.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Brown, T. (2008) Design Thinking. Harvard Business Review, 86, 84–92.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Kolko, Jon (2015), Design thinking comes of Age, Harvard Business Review, September 2015.,
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 Carlgren, L., Rauth, I., & Elmquist, M. (2016). Framing Design Thinking: The Concept in Idea and Enactment. Creativity and Innovation Management, 25(1), 38–57.
  12. Dunne, D. and Martin, R. (2006) Design Thinking and How It Will Change Management Education: An Interview and Discussion. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 5, 512–23.
  13. Dunne, D. and Martin, R. (2006) Design Thinking and How It Will Change Management Education: An Interview and Discussion. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 5, 512–23.
  14. Johansson-Sköldberg, U., Woodilla, J., & Çetinkaya, M. (2013). Design Thinking: Past, Present and Possible Futures. Creativity and Innovation Management, 22(2), 121–146.
  15. Simon, H. (1969) The Sciences of the Artificial, 1st edn. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
  16. Schön, D. A., & Wiggins, G. (1992). Kinds of Seeing in Designing. Creativity and Innovation Management, 1(2), 68–74.
  17. Rittel, H. and Webber, M. (1973) Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences, 5, 155–169.
  18. Lawson, B. (2006 [1980]) How Designers Think: The Design Process Demyistfied, 4th edn. Architectual Press, Oxford.
  19. Krippendorff, K. (2006) The Semantic Turn: A New Foundation for Design. Taylor and Francis, Boca Raton, FL.
  20. 20.0 20.1 von Thienen, J., Royalty, A., & Meinel, C. (2017). Design Thinking in Higher Education: How students become dedicated creative problem solvers. In C. Zhou (Ed.), Handbook of research on creative problem-solving skill development in higher education (pp. 306–328). IGI Global.
  21. Mindset - Design Thinking. (n.d.). Retrieved April 23, 2019, from
  22. Razzouk, R., & Shute, V. (2012). What Is Design Thinking and Why Is It Important? Review of Educational Research, 82(3), 330–348.
  23. Burdick, A., & Willis, H. (2011). Digital learning, digital scholarship and design thinking. Design Studies, 32(6), 546–556.
  24. J. Löwgren, E. Stolterman (2004). Thoughtful Interaction Design, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA


Items retrieved from From Doing to Thinking: The Role of Reflection and Self-Regulated Learning in Developing the Design Thinking Mindset

  • Andersen, A., Implementation of engineering product design using international student teamwork—to comply with future needs. European Journal of Engineering Education, 2001. 26(2): p. 179-186.
  • Bailey, R. and Z. Szabo, Assessing engineering design process knowledge. International Journal of Engineering Education, 2007. 22(3): p. 508.
  • Baker, Fredrick W. (2019, forthcoming). Concretizing design thinking, Review of Education. (ref. to retrieve, university of west florida
  • Estell, J.K. and J. Hurtig. Using rubrics for the assessment of senior design projects. in Proceedings of the 2006 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition: Excellence in Education. 2006.
  • Hicks, B.J., S.J. Culley, R.D. Allen, and G. Mullineux, A framework for the requirements of capturing, storing and reusing information and knowledge in engineering design. International journal of information management, 2002. 22(4): p. 263-280.
  • Kudrowitz, B.M. and D. Wallace, Assessing the quality of ideas from prolific, early-stage product ideation. Journal of Engineering Design, 20 13. 24(2): p. 120-139.
  • Wiggins, G.P. and J. McTighe, Understanding by Design. 2005, Alexandria, VA: ASCD Publications.
  • Beckman, S.L. and M. Barry, Innovation as a learning process: Embedding design thinking. California management review, 2007. 50(1): p. 25-56.
  • Brown, T. and J. Wyatt, Design thinking for social innovation. Development Outreach, 2010. 12(1): p. 29-43.
  • Dunne, D. and R. Martin, Design thinking and how it will change management education: An interview and discussion. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 2006. 5(4): p. 512-523.
  • Dym, C.L., A.M. Agogino, O. Eris, D.D. Frey, and L.J. Leifer, Engineering design thinking, teaching, and learning. Journal of engineering education, 2005. 94(1): p. 103-120.
  • Koh, J.H.L., C.S. Chai, B. Wong, and H.-Y. Hong, Design thinking and education, in Design Thinking for Education. 2015, Springer. p. 1-15.
  • Owen, C., Design thinking: Notes on its nature and use. Design Research Quarterly, 2007. 2(1): p. 16-27.
  • Razzouk, R. and V. Shute, What is design thinking and why is it important? Review of Educational Research, 2012. 82(3): p. 330-348.
  • Scheer, A., C. Noweski, and C. Meinel, Transforming constructivist learning into action: Design thinking in education. Design and Technology Education: An International Journal, 2012. 17(3).
  • Seidel, V.P. and S.K. Fixson, Adopting design thinking in novice multidisciplinary teams: The application and limits of design methods and reflexive practices. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 2013. 30: p. 19-33.
  • Thienen, J. P. A. von, Meinel, C., & Nicolai, C. (2014). How design thinking tools help to solve wicked problems. In H. Plattner, C. Meinel & L. Leifer (Eds.), Design thinking research. Building innovation eco-systems (pp. 97-102). Cham: Springer.