Design Thinking in Education Series

Episode 3 – Designing your Life

In this episode, talk about the challenges for teachers in design thinking and how you can use design thinking to design your life. In this article, build on that by providing more insight into what kind of problems are suited to be tackled with design thinking and how to frame a design challenge. To end you will find TED talk by Bill Burnet on how to apply design thinking to design your life.

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Wicked problems

In design thinking, designers work on a specific kind of problem often called a wicked problem. What is a wicked problem and how do you know if you have encountered a wicked problem? Bill Burnet and Dave Evans (2018) describe the wickedness of a wicked problem not necessarily in terms of good or bad, but in its resistance to solutions. In tackling a problem or finding a new opportunity there is often a specific kind of insecurity that lends itself well for the design thinking process. These problems are defined by the lack of obvious solutions. New options need to be created and tested to discover if these options will fix the issue at hand.

Questions you can ask yourself to check if the problem suits design thinking are:

  • Is it a human problem? Design thinking is a human-centered approach, it works when the problem is human. For instance, figuring out why a bridge collapsed is a technical problem, but thinking of ways to redirect traffic is (at least partly) a human problem.
  • Is the problem actionable? Picking an actionable problem sometimes means reframing the problem by making it smaller, zooming in a specific group of users, or tackling a part of the problem.
  • Is the solution open ended? During the design thinking process different options are created and tested before they are implemented. Therefor stakeholders need to have an open mind in what the outcome of the problem will be.

Defining a challenge

When giving students a design challenge there are a few things to consider to make sure that they have a successful project.

Is this a design challenge?

As discussed above the challenges that lend themself for design thinking are wicked problems. Check if your partners are not yet fixed to a specific solution and that there is enough room for the students to get creative and base their solutions on the findings in the empathy phase.

Is there something at stake?

What happens if this problem is not fixed? When thinking about this with the partners who bring in the challenge it can help to exaggerate the effects of this problem to show the importance of finding a fitting solution. If people are not really experiencing a problem, then they will see the need for a change or solution.

Is it clear who you are designing for?

Since design thinking is a human-centred approach, the students need to be able to contact the people experiencing the problem they are trying to tackle. If you are talking to partner organisations, encourage them to already start thinking about how the students can observe, interview, or hold a focus group with the target audience.

Who are other stakeholders that are involved?

The target audience is usually connected to a whole network of other stakeholders who also influence the problem and might influence the solutions. Think about the stakeholders and discuss what roles they have in the situation and how they can be involved in the design process. Options are to involve them in the ideation process or have them give feedback on the prototypes.

What makes the project a success for the partners?

When contacting societal partners to contribute to your class create clear expectations by asking what would make the project a success for them. Align expectations on what students will and will be able to achieve in the brief period of the class. This can be challenging for you as a teacher and for the partners because in the beginning of the process you have no idea yet of what the students will produce. The advice here is to be open and give the students an opportunity to learn.

A useful resource for framing your design challenge can be found here.

Life design

Design thinking originated from product design but today this approach is being used in all kinds of fields. Inspired by the Standford class Design your life, Bram and his team are teaching students to design their life. In this course students learn to use the design thinking process to build confidence and test out the many career opportunities they have ahead of them. In this video Bill Burnett, the initiator of the Design your life class explains the power of design thinking for life design.

This method is not just for students. When watching this video, what areas of your work and life could you use some redesigning?

Share your experiences

Are you experimenting with design thinking and do you want to share your story? Do you want to start experimenting and need help getting started? 

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