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Constantly we use terms like mental model or an approach when we talk about learning design thinking, mainly because at Echos we believe that the use of design thinking just as a set of tools is superficial and creates this feeling of one more tool available nowadays. Approach challenges with design thinking go far beyond a step-by-step process.

In this context, we would like to share a very assertive article written by Carissa Carter, Director of Teaching and Learning at the Stanford school, which shows why a design discipline does not happen by the book as Americans use to say. Becoming a designer requires a set of skills and once again the practice urgently needed to develop to solve problems of the future.

Let’s stop talking about THE design process 

But, before we think about design, let’s talk about cooking

When you first learn to cook something, you might follow a recipe. You are told what ingredients to use in what quantities and instructed on how to combine them. As you get better, you begin to swap out ingredients, you stop measuring, and you pre-heat the oven without looking up a specified temperature. When you’re really good, you invent recipes based on what you have on hand, a new ingredient that’s piqued your interest, the needs of those you’ll be sharing the meal with, the vegetables that are in season, et cetera.

The order and process of a recipe help new cooks get started, but it’s only with practice, inventiveness, experimentation, and constraints that you might begin to call yourself a chef.

I see design (thinking) in the same way. It’s a beautifully accessible subject. Unfortunately, the accessibility of design is often confused with shallow ease and many (most?) organisations that set out to incorporate it into their company culture struggle with adoption because of this fundamental misunderstanding of the rigour behind the subject.

We saw over 1000 students at the d.school last year and I feel a huge responsibility to get design education right. As many of our students will graduate into organisations that hope to have designerly ways of working, and many companies look to the d.school to inform their own methodologies, I’ll offer some thinking from my perspective:

Our pedagogy has evolved from the days of five hexagons.

The problem with the hexagons is that they’ve created THE design process, and that sounds grand and all-encompassing, but in reality, they are just a first recipe, a suggestion for how to get started. Behind the hexagons are a starting set of tools to experiment within each of those modes as well as a set of mindsets and behaviours to embody and try on while doing them. While it is sometimes useful to give students a recipe experience with their first encounter with design, I see our most exceptional instructors creating the tools and experience arcs they need specific to the projects and learning goals of the moment.

From process to ability

At the d.school we endeavour to enable our students in eight core design abilities so that they might develop their own creative confidence and also inspire others, take risks, and persevere through tough projects throughout their lives. We want our students to be their own unique chefs. We don’t want to churn out individuals that only know how to follow a recipe. Remember when Michael drove the car into the lake?

Through hands-on projects in our experiential learning style courses students gain practice in these eight abilities via a wide range of tools, methods, projects, mindsets, behaviours, artefacts etc.:

Navigate Ambiguity

This is the ability to recognise and stew in the discomfort of not knowing, and then come up with tactics to emerge out of it when needed.

Design is loaded with uncertainty. There are important skills to learn such as being present in the moment, re-framing problems, and finding patterns in information. Ambiguity can arise within a project, a process, within oneself etc. It’s as important to put students in ambiguous situations as it is to give them tactics to emerge from them.

Learn from Others (People and Contexts)

This ability includes the skills of empathising with different people, testing new ideas with them and observing and noticing in different places and contexts.

Recognising the opportunity to, and then learning from others is something that happens throughout a design project, both with end users as well as other stakeholders and team members. There is a sensitivity to others that develops with this ability.

Synthesize Information

This is the ability to make sense of information and find insight and opportunity within.

Data comes from multiple places and has many different forms, both qualitative and quantitative. This ability requires skills in making frameworks, maps and abductive thinking. This ability is hard for new students as it takes time and is co-dependent with navigating ambiguity.

Rapidly Experiment

This ability is about being able to quickly generate ideas, whether written, drawn, or built.

Brainstorming is a tool within this ability. It’s about letting the doing lead your thinking, and leading with your hands. In order to rapidly experiment you need to be able to relax your mind into a mode of acceptance and generation and eliminate the natural tendency to block ideas that don’t seem on point or feasible. This ability naturally pairs with Learn from Others. In many instances, you are experimenting both by generating a flood of new concepts at low resolution but also by trying some of those concepts in context with potential users.

Move Between Concrete and Abstract

This ability contains skills around understanding stakeholders as well as zooming and expanding on product features.

Everything is connected. When students are building out a new concept, whether a product, service, experience, etc., they need to be able to nest the concept within the larger ecosystem that relates to it. We have Ray and Charles Eames to thank for helping us set the scene for this ability, but it also includes abstracting out for meaning, goals, and principles, as well as zooming in to define details and features.

Build and Craft Intentionally

This ability is about thoughtful construction and showing work at the most appropriate level of resolution for the audience and feedback desired.

Details matter when you’re bringing an idea to life, no matter if the medium is cardboard, pixels or text. Furthermore, there are many sub-disciplines of design, each with their own set of tools and techniques. UX designers have a set of tools specific to creating human-centered digital interfaces. Architects have an arsenal of techniques to bring new structures into the world. Every other discipline: immunology, macroeconomics, K12 education, etc. has its own methods as well. This ability requires a sensitivity to the tools needed to create beautiful work in the domain that you are working in.

Communicate Deliberately

This is the ability to form, capture, and communicate stories, ideas, concepts, reflections, and learnings to the appropriate audiences.

Communication happens in a variety of contexts. This includes reflecting on your performance to a project team or crafting a video to show your product to a potential investor. As we practice experiential learning at the d.school, communication and the storytelling within, are paramount.

Design your Design Work

This meta ability is about recognising a project as a design problem and then deciding on the people, tools, techniques, and processes to use to tackle it.

This ability develops with practice. We see it emerge in our more experienced students. It requires using intuition, mashing up tools and developing new techniques for the challenge at hand.

There is no THE

Though we live in the age of urgency, mastery takes time, patience, and practice. So, while I think it often makes sense to introduce first-timers to design by following a process, remember that it’s not THE process. It simply gives them a small taste of the abilities designers flex. Design as a discipline is evolving and becoming a sophisticated catalyst for positive impact on projects big and small, but the road to results is far from formulaic.

FAQ / P.S. / */Addendum

Ok — my post is over, but since this is all still a work in progress I feel the need to blurt out a bit more and address some of the thoughtful feedback that I’ve already received. I’ve been sitting on this piece for a few months and it’s taking up space in my brain. I think that by sharing it I’ll be able to dive in further and flesh out each ability and give examples, share tools and activities, etc.

  1. Are the Eight Abilities just another process? … Why don’t you number them? … Can you make fun doodles for each of them?
  2. The 8 Abilities are not a process and I’m not numbering them because I don’t want to suggest an order or hierarchy. I love fun doodles. Natalie Whearley made some gorgeous art for them for our summer Teaching and Learning Summit. Check them out:
  3. Why reinvent everything?
  4. I’m not. I’m proposing a shift in how we think about design pedagogy because I think the current model has the field a bit stuck and I think small shifts in thinking can sometimes unlock ideas and new applications. Tiny poke. I think many of our d.school instructors and others are beyond process already.
  5. How do I apply this? Can you give me some examples?
  6. We’re experimenting with the 8 abilities in a number of ways in our d.school curriculum this year, and I’m excited to share how these unfold. I know I’m lacking in the examples/application arena right now but I wanted to share this thinking before things are polished so other folks can build on it too. I’m particularly interested in hearing if this resonates and how you see it manifest in your course/work / etc. If you have examples, please reach out.
  7. What’s wrong with the process?
  8. Absolutely nothing as long as it’s not your everything.

Thank you to the following folks for your constructive feedback on various versions of this content and writing:

Thomas Both, Charlotte Burgess-Auburn, Emily Callaghan, Leticia Britos Cavagnaro, Doug Dietz, Maria Doherty, Scott Doorley, Ashish Goel, Stacey Gray, Craig Griffiths, Mark Grundberg, Evelyn Huang, LaToya Jordan, Perry Klebahn, Emi Kolawole, Tom Maiorana, Bill Pacheco, Bernie Roth, Sarah Stein Greenberg, Natalie Whearley, Scott Witthoft


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