Design Thinking in Teaching and Learning: Making Ideas Tangible

10 Jan

by Caroline Toscano, Center for Educational Innovation

“…almost everything – from the operation of a company to the organization of a community – can be approached as a design problem.”       – Thomas Fisher, ‘Design in the World of Flows.’ 

Design is oftentimes synonymous with product development. However, design thinking is also a process and emerging field, with applications in increasing interdisciplinary fields, according to Virajita Singh, Assistant Vice Provost of the University of Minnesota’s Office of Equity and Diversity, and a senior research fellow/adjunct professor, University of Minnesota College of Design.What is design thinking“We are moving from an information age to a conceptual age,” she said. “We have all of the information at our fingertips. Now we are taking it and making and creating meaning in response to it.”

As an emerging field, Singh said that Design Thinking uses the tools and methods from design disciplines to create something new (aka the “leap”), or to refine and make better something that exists (aka the “tweak”).

Singh teaches the course Design Thinking for Innovation at the University’s College of Design. Its purposes are to

  • teach design thinking to interdisciplinary graduate students;
  • teach design to students who are not necessary immersed in design; and
  • teach about real-world applied design thinking. She brings a wealth of expertise to the course, with a background in architecture and sustainable design and experience in design for community resilience.

Application PossibilitiesSpecifically, Singh defines the process of design thinking as involving actions such as problem definition, field research, idea generation, storyboarding, frequent prototyping and narrative as ways to engage participants and motivate creative action.

“Design thinking seeks to function well, delight, innovate, and create beauty,” she said. Singh refers to the Design Thinking Model, as used by the D-school at Stanford, mentioning five important steps to design thinking: empathy, definition, ideation, prototyping, and testing.

In her course, Singh applies many design thinking principles, including the following: embracing diversity in all forms; radical collaboration; making things visible; having empathy for the user; having creative confidence; having a bias for action; being open to failing forward, and committing to iterative action.

Empathy is a very significant factor for Singh. “Users are very important in design thinking process…learning about the user and putting yourself in the user’s shoes,” she said.

The ideation stage, or brainstorming is also important, she said. “The more ideas you generate, the more likely they are to be creative because first familiar, then unthought ideas come forth,” she said.

Making things visible is also a very crucial step in the design thinking process, according to Singh. “In an academic context, we’re very good at admiring the problem,” she said. At one point, however, it’s essential to propose something. “Stop talking and start making,” she emphasised.

Singh believes that design thinking is a skill that can be taught. She said that somewhere during elementary school, people are told either they are or aren’t creative. However, she begs to differ. “If you’re human, you’re creative,” she said.

The key assignments in the Design Thinking course are intended to bring out the creative potential of the students. They include tasks such as studying a designer and oneself as a designer, going on a field trip to the Minneapolis Institute Arts, keeping a visual journal and conducting a team project with real-world clients.

In working with other clients, Singh emphasises the both diversity and radical collaboration. “Systemic change involves a lot of people,” she said, as well as people who are otherwise unlikely to work together.

Students have partnered with clients including Hennepin County Library, the City of Woodbury and the U of M Biomedical Library. Some outcome examples of the projects include influencing student careers and contributing to systems change.

Singh offers many applications of design thinking for teaching and learning: organising your course, structuring student team projects, strengthening the aspects of a course/projects, infusing and expanding the creativity of student work, and problem-solving and addressing the grand challenges in our society.


To learn more about Singh’s course – including outcomes, assignments,
and to glimpse specific design principles at work,
see her Design Thinking for Innovation slides.



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