Design Thinking

Lesson Content

Inquire: Applying Ideas and Making Solutions


A big difference in curriculum between high school and college comes in emphasizing the application of concepts and evaluating ideas. In college courses, students are often taught ideas and then asked to evaluate them. These ideas are often issues that professors encourage students to think about and identify ways to fix, but this can be difficult. These prompts require complex thought processes. In this lesson, students will learn about design thinking, in which a person finds an issue, observes it, and creates an efficient product that could resolve that issue. Also, students will examine ways in which their design thinking skills can be improved.


Big Question

What is design thinking, and how is it applied?

Read: Examine Design Thinking


A key difference between high school curricula and college curricula is that college courses typically ask students to work on applying the concepts they learn. Instead of focusing on memorization and learning how to learn, college-level courses teach concepts to students and ask them to evaluate in a variety of ways. Often, students will be asked to think critically about a subject and determine its validity and accuracy. Other times, the student will need to use creative thinking skills to find new ways of seeing an issue. Critical thinking, creative thinking, and even strategic thinking are all essential skills that college students must possess in order to better accomplish goals and assignments. While one could use each individually, college students often find that they use a culmination of these skills at the same time when tackling academic challenges. A good example of combining these skills is design thinking, where students take a topic, reinvent it, and create a real product.

What is Design Thinking?

DecorativeDesign thinking could be defined as using mental processes to create and design an idea and execute the idea into a functional artifact. In essence, people use design thinking when they want to design a way to create something, like a new invention, an itinerary for an event, or an online platform that serves a specific purpose. Design thinking takes a culmination of critical thinking skills, creative thinking skills, and strategic thinking skills. Critical thinking skills are helpful for determining useful and accurate ideas. Creative thinking skills are useful for coming up with ideas that go against the norm, but are still efficiently useful. Strategic thinking skills are useful for designing plans or executing the ideas that have already been created. It’s good to create an idea or solution, but it isn’t useful until the idea has been executed. How will you make your idea a reality? Is your idea really as good and efficient as you thought now that you have begun to make it real? Is it even realistic? This is essentially what design thinking is all about.

Steps to Design Thinking

When attempting design thinking, it is important to understand how complex the mental processes can be. It requires a lot of thinking and bouncing ideas off of others. However, there is a general flow of steps that one can follow in order to make design thinking happen more easily. These steps are outlined below:

  1. Understand. It is essential that, before beginning the process of designing an idea, you understand what it is you are designing for. What is the issue that needs to be resolved? Has the topic been researched enough to know how it works and how it can best be handled? Having a full awareness of what you are trying to do is a crucial part of the design thinking process. If you’re unsure or unaware of some of the most integral parts of the issue, you’ll have a hard time making a truly efficient design and product.
  2. Observe. Conducting primary research and reading the words of others is a great place to start. However, if you can expect yourself to be capable of solving an issue, you need to witness and observe the issue firsthand. Go out and see the issue in action. Creating observations and thoughts can serve as a great stepping stone for coming up with efficient ideas and designs later. This is where the creative thinking process can begin, and one can start to come up with creative solutions while observing the issue in action. Also, while observing the issue, be sure to put yourself in the shoes of those who deal with the issue. What struggles do they have? How does this affect their daily lives? How can the issues be resolved? It’s one thing to identify an issue from an academic research perspective; it is an entirely different, and possibly more important, thing to understand the issue in terms of those who actually deal with it on a daily basis. After all, it is incredibly likely that your design and product is specifically used to improve the lives of those who deal with the issue anyway.
  3. Brainstorm. After getting a more complete understanding of the issue, begin brainstorming ideas for your design. With everything you have witnessed, what are the most efficient ways of dealing with or resolving the issue? In this phase, keep in mind that no idea is too wild or farfetched. This isn’t the stage where ideas are executed. This is the stage to consider potential solutions to the idea and get your brain involved in the process, no matter how big or small the ideas may be. Come up with as many ideas as possible: the more, the merrier. Be creative, critical, and strategic!Decorative
  4. Create your design. In this step, you will begin creating your design by taking the best, most realistic, and most efficient parts of the ideas brainstormed, and piece them together to make one cohesive design. This does not mean taking the best of all of the ideas and jumbling them together, as this would be a messy design that lacks organization. Rather, find an outlet or platform on which to create the design, take the most creative and efficient ways to execute the design, and use the best strategy for executing the design in the most functional way (whether for you or a team).
  5. Test it. Lastly, you will want to test your design. Never assume that the designed solution works just because it is complete. This is where you must determine whether you were right and whether you created a useful product. If so, great! If not, that is okay. Simply try again, and use different ideas next time. Determine what went wrong, and find ways to resolve those issues.

Reflect: Using Design Thinking


If you could use design thinking to improve something in one of your environments, which environment would you choose?

Expand: How to Be a Better Design Thinker


Design thinking is a complex process and takes a lot of thought. However, some, if not most, of the world’s greatest ideas and inventions were created out of the design thinking process. Inventors have to identify a challenge, understand it, and design a solution that is best-fitting under the circumstances (whatever those circumstances may be). This process can be daunting, and it is certainly not a skill people excel at right away. It requires practice. But, how can someone efficiently practice or improve design thinking?

Improving Design Thinking Skills

There are many ways to improve design thinking skills. As complex as the process may be, it can take the most simple strategy or tip to boost design capabilities. Some strategies for developing design thinking skills are as follows:

  • Understand that design thinking is a process. Often, the process of design thinking can take a while, as it is extremely difficult to find an issue, fully understand it, come up with an idea, create a design, and test it out. Often, this process requires a lot of time, effort, and thought. Be patient when using design thinking skills, as this often helps to produce the best results.
  • Realize that hardly anything is ever truly out of reach. If you struggle with design thinking because you believe an idea is something you could never achieve, think again. Use creative thinking skills to find a new way to achieve the goal. It is possible that the idea is out of reach, but often, it just takes thinking outside the box to find a way to make it happen.
  • Use design thinking when not prompted. It is absolutely possible to practice design thinking every day. You may find something in your life that doesn’t work properly, like a teacher’s classroom projector or a car’s steering wheel that isn’t the right size for your hands. There are imperfections everywhere. Find one and think about ways to improve it. Acting on it is up to you, but this is great practice for times when design thinking and creating are necessary.Decorative
  • Get ideas and critiques from other people. One is not expected to do and know everything on their own. If you face a challenge in design thinking and can not come up with any ideas, ask for help. Learning is done by being instructed or lectured by others. You should never have to accomplish something all on your own, and you might be surprised at how helpful and enlightening the ideas and opinions of others can be in the design thinking process.

Check Your Knowledge

Use the quiz below to check your understanding of this lesson’s content. You can take this quiz as many times as you like. Once you are finished taking the quiz, click on the “View questions” button to review the correct answers.

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Additional Resources and Readings

11 Tips to Improve Design Thinking

An article providing more tips on improving design thinking

Why Design Thinking Should Be at the Core of Your Business Strategy Development

An article discussing the uses of design thinking in business settings

Design Thinking: Connecting Students to the Larger World

An article discussing how design thinking is used in the classroom

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License and Citations

Content License

Lesson Content:

Authored and curated by Kody Long for The TEL Library. CC BY NC SA 4.0

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