Icons 1423861192 tools design thinking Design Thinking

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It may surprise you, but design thinking can begin anywhere. It can begin by hearing a melody, eating a peanut butter sandwich, picking up a penny, walking down the street, or saying hello to a friend. Design thinking is the beginning of a journey into the unknown. Traveling where others have not traveled before requires fortitude and courage in investigating and collecting what has not been investigated nor possibly collected. Design thinking is the spark that starts something going! Design thinking seeks to create. Design thinking seeks to make positive change. Design thinking seeks to innovate. Start thinking design!

Design thinking is focused, yet at the same time open to diverse approaches. Design thinking involves quickly turning over ideas and investigating ideas for long periods of time. It is innovative in that it comes up with new ideas that may or may not have existed before. Design thinking assigns value to information through analysis and reflection. Assigning value demands critical thinking. Critical thinking is thinking that begins to build value in selecting what is important and what is not as important by looking at patterns of information and content of information. Design also requires ethical imagination. Ethical imagination is the ability to think about the welfare of others in creating products, systems and environments. *Just like short twitch and long twitch muscles, design thinking requires an agile mind! *

Activity 1 – Big and Little

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Design thinking offers many avenues for beginning a design. Here are just a few:
Always look.
Look closely.
Look even closer.
*Magnify your thinking! *
Take a series of up close photos that only reveal part of a larger whole. Test them out on people. Who can guess what the object is from only seeing a small part? Collect a series of photos from magazines and play the game…“what is it?” Keep your mind and your friends guessing. Exercise your scales of looking!

Activity 2 – Point of View

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Designers design things, places and processes for people to use. An important part of design thinking is to understand the ‘point of view’ of the people you are creating for. To understand the ‘point of view’ of diverse people, you can observe (watch, listen), research, interview (ask questions) and converse (discuss) to better absorb their point of view into your understanding of their needs and desires. You can also…walk a mile in their shoes. For instance, try to behave like a 4-year old in day care. What do you need? What do you want? What must you do? Try thinking like a 4-year old at the grocery store. The world looks different from two feet off the ground! How do you see, feel, touch, the world? Listen to stories…talk to people, read books. Look in a library and on the web. Listen and think from inside someone else. Next, think about an elderly person in a wheel chair. Have your class borrow a wheel chair for a week. Take turns spending half days in the wheel chair. Remember, once you take on the role of another, you must pursue their paths to the best of your ability! Compare time for each of these two different age groups.

Activity 3 – Reveal the Essence

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Looking deeply can reveal the essence of anything. The essence of something is the most important quality or characteristic that defines it. The essence of something is considered to be its truth. Take a ball. It is round. It can bounce. It can roll. It can be caught. It can be thrown. It can be held in a hand. It can be hit with a racket. All of these attributes tell us more about what a ball is and how we can use it. Take any object. Explain its essential qualities and communicate its look, shape, feel and function. Now try to explain something like a smile, or hope. The essence of these actions or emotions, while very important to us, are more difficult to communicate. Designers work hard to understand and express the essence of their work and process.

Activity 4 – Rearrange

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Nature, our oldest and most experienced teacher, rearranges constantly. It rearranges the heavens and the air and the water and the earth. Design thinking rearranges things, turns them over and over, and flips them inside out to come up with new ideas, too. For instance, the bottom of something could become the top. Something at the beginning could be moved to the end. This could become that! Take a look at where you are sitting. How about rearranging your world? How would you rearrange your room? Take a picture of your room (or make a sketch). Move things around. Rearrange the furniture. Add new things. See the world in a new way!

Activity 5 – NOT!!

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Sometimes it is easiest to start thinking about what is wrong with something. What doesn’t work? What annoys? What breaks? What costs too much money? What isn’t beautiful? Since design activates change, and change changes our experience and us, what can be improved? Take a look around your house. See those things that are the most valuable first by being irreplaceable. Then look at all of the things that could be replaced. Attempt to describe them in ‘not language’. Which of these could be improved? Take a piece of paper and make three columns. Make a list of 10 things you think could be improved. List what they do not do well. In the third column, come up with an idea that would improve them. Is it their look, their function, their cost, or their process? Be a change-maker!

Activity 6 – Drops in a Puddle

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Design thinking seeks and organizes information and knowledge about the past, the present, and the future. It looks at details and specific moments at the same time it looks at the bigger picture. For instance, when you hold a pencil…do you see a school? A tree that produced wood? Poems that great poets wrote? Letters between lovers? Musical scores that musicians created? Lists that astronauts checked before heading off to the moon? When you look at a beach, do you see the sand dunes or the particle of sand in your hand? Design thinking is like water drops in a puddle. Each thought cascades into a larger connected whole. Think of something that you would like to design. Draw several water drops falling into a puddle. Label them with small ideas. Label the large puddle the BIG idea.


  • Design thinking starts from the same place every time.
  • Design thinking is optimistic and looks to improve the human condition.
  • Designers develop the ability to see the world from different perspectives.
  • Nature rearranges things to innovate and so do designers.
  • Design thinking is collaborative and learns from diverse approaches.
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