Design Thinking

Design Thinking

Table of Contents

Design Thinking is part of the broader project-based learning educational model. It uses a creative, systematic approach to teach problem-solving. Students progress through the stages of Discovery, Ideation, Experimentation, and Evolution in search of innovative solutions to vexing problems. The learning process integrates many activities: observation, collaboration, fast-learning, visualization of ideas, and rapid prototyping.[ii] The integration of research, development, and evaluative activities, makes it particularly useful for all courses, particularly for those with complicated, multi-faceted, and trans-disciplinary topics.

Design Thinking can be applied to nearly any course where innovation and creative problem solving is required. Design Thinking fits within the real-world of complicated problems because it promotes the search for many possible options, not a single right answer. Design Thinking is used widely in various entrepreneurial-minded organizations (e.g., Apple, Google, Nike, etc.) and has been integrated into innovative pedagogies and design practices for years. Good design, after all, can be found in elegant solutions within every discipline.

What makes Design Thinking different?

Traditional courses progress the student learning from conceptual understanding towards demonstrations of skill and capacity in a linear, topically focused manner. Setting this scaffolding is set in place, fixes the problems, and the solutions are typically within a known range. But many course problems are research questions that defy simple explanations or right/wrong answers. For these courses, need a more dexterous approach. 

In Design Thinking, they are discovering knowledge through exploration. Students help define the problems, identify and develop potential solutions, and determine ways to assess the work. Instructors serve as facilitators and advisors to this learning. Embedded throughout the process is capacity-building through linked-learning experiences, collaborative exercises, and creative problem-solving[iii]. Learning often involves hands-on experiences focused on real-world challenges. By centering course activities around a problem and generating creative solutions, these courses support the development of essential competencies such as critical thinking, reflective learning, adaptability, effective collaboration, and systems thinking.

The Design Thinking Multi-Stage Model

There are many practical variants as to how this multi-stage model can be integrated into course activities[iv], but it broadly falls under five categories:

  • Discovery (Empathy, Research, and Problem Definition)
  • Ideation (Interpret, Create, and Make)
  • Experimentation (Prototype, Test and Evaluate)
  • Evolution (Re-Think, Re-Make, Repeat)
  • Deployment (Socialize, Pilot, and Integrate)
Design Thinking represented by arrows pointing right - Discovery (Empathy, Research, Problem Definition), Ideation (Interpret, Create), Experimentation (Prototype, Test, Evaluate), and Evolution (Rethinking, Redesign, Repeat)

The first stages are directed towards understanding and defining potential problems for solutions by asking, “What Is It?” The requisite foundation for all other design thinking stages is the ability to generate informed and empathetic work during this stage. How? Through literature reviews and consultations with experts along with the combined observations and engagements with people and physical environments relevant to the topic. Information gathered and documented during this stage can be aligned with course objectives and assessments. Students will gain a deeper understanding of the issues throughout the process.

Upon completing the information gathering, teams organize, interpret, and make sense of the data to define a problem scope. Doing so requires both analysis (i.e., breaking down complex concepts) and synthesis (i.e., creatively piecing information together to form whole ideas). A good problem statement should be human-centered, broad enough for creative freedom, but narrow enough to be manageable. As a general rule, consider using the Stanford d. school “Why-How Ladder” (a variation of the Sakichi Toyoda “5 Whys” technique) to refine the problem statement and to suggest how to move forwards with design problem-solving.

Unlike the traditional project-based learning method, instructors do not define the problem in design thinking. They can, and should, define a scope, but defining the actual problem is part of the student responsibility. 

At this stage, students interpret their research into a range of creative ideas and potential solutions. This step starts the “What If?” phase of the work. Instructors should encourage enthusiasm and collaborative participation by incorporating active-learning methods, visualization techniques of “systems-thinking,” and other image-oriented methods to document brainstorming.

Expert guidance is required to maintain enthusiasm in the ideation process by guiding proposals and bringing focus to the expectations. Instructors suggest practices to enhance the solutions and temper expectations (e.g., “your solution won’t solve world hunger as you proposed, but it can make a difference in one stage of food production—let’s use that to refocus the design effort.” Eventually a more narrow range of possible solutions is identified, and the work of making/designing begins.

In this stage, ideas become manifest. Students are deciding how and what to produce is of central importance. Iteration is essential. Align activities with course objectives and professional practice models. As ideation moves into prototyping, the expectation is that student groups produce several scaled-down versions or features of the final solution. Doing so allows students to understand better the constraints and benefits inherent to the solutions they’ve designed. The introduction of new tools and skills can occur during this stage, along with emphasizing collaborative efforts. 

Experimentation is only complete when identifying problems by breaking the project down through evaluation.

This process looks for failures and revelations that emerge through testing; profound learning opportunities arise when solutions don’t meet their objectives. 

Learning how to define and evaluate the relative value and efficacy of the prototypes follows is an essential skill. Students often return to the Discovery stage to identify the proper standards for evaluating success (Who does it work for? Does it work in the way you intended? How would you know?). At this stage, instructors can show how practical conditions affect evaluation (industry standards, code requirements, etc.) and how exigent forces would affect the solution (e.g., broader economic, sociological, and cultural conditions).

This stage isn’t the end of the process; ultimately, testing is a generative process for redesign as it reveals opportunities for improvement. By trying to determine how and why specific solutions are rejected, improved, or accepted, students develop clarity of how real users would behave, think, and feel when interacting with the solution. At this stage, alterations and refinements are expected to be more mature and technically developed. Collaborations may be extended into communities to expand testing and assessment.

The multi-stage process implies a linear direction of progress, but designing and learning are inherently more unpredictable, so the model is flexible. Information learned from testing helps refine the problem definition and the overall design. There is a perpetual loop of feedback. Ultimately, solutions are evolved and improved through reiteration and repetition, as fewer factors are considered for each iteration.

The challenge of design thinking is often knowing when this evolutionary process of redesigning is “done.” Solving a problem, particularly a vexing one, is unlikely within the constraints of school. Academic calendars and restrictions are quite different from practice, so there are often situations in which a “good enough for now” scenario is the goal.

Ideally, of course, the process can spark an interest in students to continue a life-long engagement in these research projects. This process is ultimately about joining on-going conversations and searching for new knowledge through design solutions. It isn’t about resolution. The passion of the search is what is essential to teach and learn.

Specific projects may have the opportunity to develop into real-world solutions. This stage of deployment focuses on ways that solutions become tangible, actionable, and ready for use. In the socializing phase, the ideas develop to the degree that buy-in occurs and teams built around the solution. This phase relies on the ability to tell compelling stories about the solution. Because these stories have naturally developed through a rigorous Design Thinking process, it is relatively easy to build a narrative around a solution based on the process.

In the piloting phase, the solution is introduced to a predetermined group to gain real-world feedback and reviews. Depending on the solution’s stage and scope, this may occur at a smaller scale during prototyping. In this phase, the focus is on identifying barriers to implementation of use and integration. Depending on the solution, these barriers to production and method may be profound. This work takes in-depth expertise and cross-disciplinary collaborations to understand markets, supply-chains, production, delivery models, and how the solution will enhance or disrupt existing models.

What is the Difference between Project-Based Learning (PBL), Understanding by Design (UbD), and Design Thinking (DT)?

Project-based learning (PBL) is a broader category of educational activities in which curricular activities are all centered around sustained engagement with a problem or project. Using PBL, a potentially important study narrowed down into a series of discrete activities using student-directed learning. A PBL approach can closely align with curricular checkpoints by defining a path of inquiry and production through essential guiding questions and required deliverables.

The Understanding by Design (UbD) model, is similar to PBL in its use of creative problem solving as the central learning activity. It differs mostly in the way of evaluating success. In UbD, educators help define the problem and develop a process of design-learning with the final result. In some courses, particularly those with complex topics, there may not be a readily available answer. The problem itself may not be easily defined, which complicates the PBL and UbD model.

Design Thinking is intentionally more open-ended than these other options. Students help to define the problem based on a generative topic that opens an area of research. Students are encouraged to align what they produce with their broader research questions. Assessment is related to prototyping and rebuilding intended to promote creative risk-taking.

Design Thinking Training

Design Thinking has a specialized approach to course design, activities, and evaluations. Learning how to develop and implement Design Thinking principles into courses is one of the central topics in CELT’s Innovation by Design: Project-Based Learning Program. This year-long training program covers a broad range of topics from course design, activities, and evaluation.

Departments or colleges interested in developing a custom ½ day or full-day retreat training session can coordinate with the Faculty Fellow for High-Impact Practices, Rob Whitehead, or contact

People meeting at a table - some with laptop or smart device

Project-Based Learning

Students discover, develop, test, and present their work through various stages of activity—they learn by doing.

People meeting at a table - some with laptop or smart device

Innovation by Design: Project-Based Learning Program

assist instructors in their development or implementation of a PBL course, module, or project.

Design Thinking Resources for Educators


  • Kelley, T. (2016). The Art Of Innovation. London: Profile Books.
  • O’Donnell Wicklund Pigozzi Peterson, Architects Inc, VS Furniture, & Bruce Mau Design. (2010). The third teacher : 79 ways you can use design to transform teaching & learning / OWP/P Architects, VS Furniture, Bruce Mau Design. New York: Abrams.
  • Weinschenk, S. (2015). 100 MORE Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People (1st ed.). New Riders.

Manuals / Toolkits

  • (2015). The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design (Community Engagement Manual). Retrieved from
  • Riverdale Country School & (2019). Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit (2nd Edition). Retrieved from




[i] Tim Brown, “Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation,” Harper Business, 2009.

[ii] Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design ( at Stanford, “Design Thinking Mix Tapes,” 2018.

[iii] IDEO, “Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit” (2nd Edition), IDEO + Riverdale Country School, 2019.

[iv] Herbert Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial (3rd Ed.), 1996