Making Design Thinking Actionable (Part 1)

Design Thinking is necessarily vague…..applicable to products and procedures alike…vegetable peelers to your experience at the book store (Barnes and Noble was among the first to redesign store layout to the index of topics that we are used to today).  I get it.  But teachers tend to not like vague.  I need to have some way of anticipating where my students’ work is going to lead.  It’s the same frustrated feeling many of us have experienced after leaving a training seminar of one kind or another.  We tend to cheer enthusiastically “YES!”  then dejectedly wonder “but how?”.

Fortunately, I just finished Tim Hurson’s book “Think Better”.  It’s awesome. It lays out specific, actionable, exercises for design thinking which Hurson calls “productive thinking” (told you designers can’t agree on a definition).   Just to be different, I want to consider using Hurson’s methods in my classroom, but call it “Innovative Thought (I.T.)”.  Productive thinking sounds pretty corporate to me.  Understandably so since Hurson’s book is aimed at businesses and found in the afore-mentioned business section at Barnes and Noble.  Innovative Thought ties nicely with my school’s mission to incorporate innovation into 21st century teaching and learning as well.  So I want to get my thoughts on this book down, completely selfishly, to try to frame how Hurson’s process might look in a classroom.

Lets’ first agree that thinking is hard.  My students remind me of this every day.  Getting the answer (presumably from me, but also from and the like) is far easier than generating an original response.  I can’t say I blame them.  The outcomes look the same…the answer.  But design thinking is different because there is no answer….yet.  Design thinking is for the world’s wickedest problems.  If that’s a little dramatic for you, consider the hurdles/challenges you face every day at work.  Is there an answer that your boss checks you against, or are you expected to generate something plausible/workable/logical on your own accord?  Exactly.

As Hurson proposes, innovative thought is a series of iterations of divergent (creative) and convergent (analytical) thinking.  I like it; and consider it validated by Roger Martin’s work in general and this graph in particular.


Roger Martin – via Mutually Human blog


Design Thinking is hard work because of what it’s not…Reproductive thinking.  Six Sigma and TQM are business world examples of fine tuning or micro managing the details of a process to improve quality.  Is this a good thing for business?  Sure.  Is it an example of innovation?  No.  As Hurson says, this is an “illusion of innovation.”  The product or process improves, but nothing is done to ask the question “can we do this in an entirely new way?

Example:  DVD/VCR combo


Designed so that you can purchase and use any type video media available.


Netflix stream video so that you don’t need to buy physical media in the first place or go to brick and mortar store to rent one.

To start an innovative process you first need a problem…an issue…or as Hurson says an “itch” to tackle.  To do this with students, I imagine having them tap into their everyday experiences.  What annoys them?  List it…as many as possible.  This is divergent thinking and we should consciously try to free ourselves from any inhibitions and us our imaginations.  It can be hard to resist our analytical mind’s urge to mark an idea as “dumb” or “…will never work”.  Ignore it.  We will use convergent thinking to refine the list later.  I asked some seniors at our school what annoyed them and got these responses:

“I wish I had better access to a printer, like in the hallway on the way to class”

“I wish we had a better place to put our back backs during lunch”  (these pile up everywhere!)

“I wish freshmen would get out of the hallways”  (I presume this means the halls are too crowded?  Lockers should not be centralized?)

With a list generated, it’s time pick one that feels right.  Which “itches” are the team drawn too?  I like the third one about crowded hallways.  I want to know more about what is the root of this….the real problem.  This intuition is critical to the creative process (as suggested by Martin).  With an issue identified that pulls you toward it….piques your interest…you’re in business.  The ball is rolling.

Updates to the DT Library

One of my original goals of this blog was to be a sort of clearinghouse of information on the topic of Design Thinking in education.  To that ends I’ve finally updated the Links/Library page with a portion of the articles and links from my desktop.  As I revisit these, hopefully it will spark some new posts and commentary.  Enjoy and share!

Props to Project H design/build Students!

I’ve been following the @projectHdesign feed on twitter and wanted to pass along the awesome work they are doing.  I truly believe this is one form (of many) that design thinking can take in K12 education.  In case you haven’t noticed I’m a fan of the TED and TEDx conferences (or lectures, or events, or engagements…WTH would you call it?!!).  Anyway, Emily Pilloton gave a fantastically engaging talk a year ago about her project – Project H. This thing is the manifestation of exactly what I want this blog to explore.  Project H is part shop class, part STEM, part social innovation, and lots of empathy and creativity.  In a nutshell – it’s design thinking.  In a piece written by the NY Times, Emily said they teach “design thinking, leadership skills, shop skills and citizenship” and students in the class said “Oh my God, this class is crazy awesome.”   Hallelujah!!

Please check out their website as they describe their inspirations and intended outcomes better than I.  BUT, basically, Emily teaches HS students from and an extremely rural area of N.C. all about design, modern construction techniques, some engineering and some architecture ALL within the concept of improving the local community.  Yes, these students get their hands dirty.  They build stuff.   Real stuff, like public chicken coups (told you it was rural!!!).  Their latest effort – their Pièce de résistance – is a farmer’s market building that will bring the community together in a meaningful way.  All this by high school students – barely with a driver’s license.  So inspiring!  Their project is apparently being filmed for a future documentary.

Truthfully, my short narrative cannot adequately describe the context and extent of their work.  So if you have a minute to be inspired please follow this short recipe:

1) Watch Emily’s TED talk or read this piece in the NY Times for an overview of the concept

2) Visit to get a sense of the scope of their work

3) Visit the Studio H student blog for pics of the new ‘market’ project

4) Applaud and spread the word!