What is design thinking?

In recent years, I have developed a keen interest in design thinking in education. As a framework, I believe that it adds tremendous value to teaching and learning. Among many other benefits, it is particularly associated with the development of empathy, agency, creativity, collaboration, grit and problem-solving. These are skills and dispositions that are highly valued by educators and employers alike, more so than ever before. Design thinking offers a powerful addition to our teaching toolkit to enhance classroom experiences and promote deeper learning.

I still have a lot to learn, but I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on my experiences so far. This blog post aims to help others while consolidating my own learning. In particular, it summarises my learning from Design Thinking in the Classroom (by David Lee), Launch (by John Spencer and A. J. Juliani) and two online courses: The Design Thinking Master Course (with John Spencer) and Designing for Learner Agency (with Jennifer Wathall and Marcis Lui). If this blog post interests you and you’d like to learn more, I can recommend all of these.

Below, I offer a general overview of design thinking. Look out for my next blog post because I’ll put it into classroom context and share how design thinking is currently enhancing our Year Three conflict resolution unit (in the meantime, follow me on Instagram and Twitter for regular updates on this).

What is design thinking?

Design thinking offers a human-centred framework for problem-solving, design and innovation. It is used in a wide range of fields and is increasingly being adopted by teachers and school leaders. Design thinking encourages us to think as designers and empowers us to exercise agency. As well as being a process, Lee encourages us to think of design thinking as a mindset. It is a way of thinking that promotes creativity, shines a positive light on problems and creates change.

“Design thinking isn’t a subject or a topic or a class. It’s more a way of solving problems that encourages risk-taking and creativity… Design thinking is a flexible process for getting the most out of the creative process.”

John Spencer

There are many versions of the design thinking framework. While the exact terminology might vary, the design principles are the same. The graphic above comes from Wathall and Lui and was adapted from d.school, Stanford University.

This design thinking framework consists of five phases: Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. I have unpacked these below. Also notice how the entire process is divided into two sections: Exploration and Creation. Put simply, Lui explains how exploration is about “doing the right thing” (identifying the correct problem) and creation is about “doing it right” (solving the problem in the correct way). Also, notice the shape of each phase. The sides of the trapeziums (or trapezoids, depending on where you’re from) move outwards and inwards to represent divergent thinking and convergent thinking respectively. For example, the Empathise phase requires divergent thinking, the gathering or creation of many different ideas. The Define phase, on the other hand, requires convergent thinking. This is where ideas are narrowed and focused.

As mentioned previously, design thinking is strongly human-centred. Throughout the entire process, the end users are key. Design thinking is about solving a problem for the users or improving their lives in some way. As Lee states, the end users are “the most important factors in the design process”. They work in partnership with the designers throughout.

Below is a brief description of each phase. Please note that they are not necessarily step-by-step or linear. Designers should jump back and forth between the phases as per their needs.


The Exploration section begins with empathy. Designers must try to understand the perspectives, feelings, wants, needs and experiences of the end users in order to gain key insights about the problem and design opportunities. Effective designers avoid making assumptions or judgements. Rather, they research, question and explore the problem in depth, looking for patterns and common threads. Empathising with the users and gathering insights are integral components of design thinking.

“Design thinkers understand that insights that might solve the problem can be spotted by someone who has the problem.”

David Lee

The Empathise phase can look quite different for various projects and contexts, but Lee categorises the strategies into interviews, observations, immersive experiences and research. For example, some school leaders have famously spent the day as students, following the timetable for lessons, recess, lunch, etc. This is an example of an immersive experience, helping leaders to understand school systems and routines from the perspective of students.

In the Empathise phase, designers are intentional about gathering many insights from the users about their problems and experiences. However, these can become overwhelming. Wathall and Lui suggest prioritising these as shown in green below. This helps to focus, in preparation for the next phase: Define.


The Define phase ensures that designers are focused and working towards solving the correct problem. This might sound obvious, but designers of all ages too often spend time, energy and money creating fantastic solutions to the wrong problems. When we define, we create explicit problem statements to guide the rest of the process. I look forward to sharing details of our current design project because it highlights the importance of this phase. Look out for this blog post in the next couple of weeks.

To define effectively, we must synthesise the work from the Empathise phase. The key findings can be organised into an actionable problem statement (also known as an opportunity statement). Lee suggests the following structure:

(User) might need a way to (user’s needs) that/because/but (user-based insights)

From here, designers can develop HMW questions (how might we…). The wording here is significant for two reasons. First, ‘might’ implies that there are many potential solutions to a problem. It encourages designers to keep thinking beyond their initial ideas. Secondly, the ‘we’ reminds designers to work in partnership with their end user(s) throughout the process. As Lee puts it, there is rarely a lone genius in the design process.

“To create the right solutions, one must define the right questions.”

Jennifer Wathall and Marcus Lui

With a clear understanding of the problem, designers can move into the Creation section of the process, starting with ideation.


Ideation requires imagination, creativity and divergent thinking (notice the outwards shape of this trapezium). At this stage in the process, the emphasis is on quantity over quality. The more ideas that we have as designers, the more likely we are to develop an effective solution later. That’s why it’s important to work through the frustration of being stuck and to keep thinking of new ideas. Furthermore, collaboration plays a key role here. Students (and all designers) are encouraged to work together to bring new, diverse ideas and bounce suggestions around. There should be no expectation in this phase to suggest only good, realistic ideas because this adds unnecessary pressure and, most importantly, limits our creative thinking. Again, it’s about quantity. Besides, it’s surprising how often the wild, crazy and even “bad” ideas can lead to the best solutions!

There are many fun strategies for ideation that are used in many sectors as well as classrooms. Perhaps I could outline some of my favourites in a different blog post. Let me know if this would be useful!

The next phase, Prototype, requires some convergent thinking. It’s time to narrow focus by analysing the ideas and choosing one – one that has the most potential – to move forward with. This could be one idea or a combination of several. The graphic below shows what this might look like. But, again, the process is not supposed to be linear. It might be necessary to jump back to this phase later.

Prototype and Test

A prototype is an experimental model that the end user(s) can experience and interact with. The aim is to efficiently and cheaply communicate how an idea addresses the problem statement and quickly elicit valuable feedback.

It is fully expected that prototypes will highlight problems and uncover new insights. The need to refine and solve problems is inevitable and, therefore, designers must avoid getting too attached to the prototypes (this can be hard for students). It is essential to remain open to feedback and willing to make the necessary tweaks along the way. It might also be necessary to scrap an idea completely. This is all part of the process!

The loop between prototyping and testing is likely to go on for some time. As an idea edges closer towards the final version, prototypes can become more sophisticated but, initially, they should be as simple as possible. Especially in the classroom, paper, pens, cardboard and tape will suffice more often than not!

Next steps: launch

The LAUNCH Cycle, by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani, is another version of the design thinking process (they have packaged the principles into a more child-friendly format). To be honest, I haven’t used this one with students but there is one additional element here that I really like: an explicit emphasis on launching to a real audience.

“Launching our work into the real world and in front of an actual audience is what makes creative work so scary, but also so rewarding.”

John Spencer and A.J. Juliani

As mentioned previously, design thinking offers opportunities to exercise agency and create change. In schools, we must maintain the dignity and authenticity of design projects by allowing their hard work to actually lead to something real and meaningful.

I hope that this blog post offers a useful introduction to design thinking. If you’d like to learn more, I strongly recommend the resources that are linked in the second paragraph. I’m still learning too, so feel free to suggest more in the comments section below. To see design thinking implemented in the classroom, look out for my next blog post. Better still, subscribe to my blog via email to make sure that you don’t miss it!

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