Design Thinking Debrief: More Who, Less How

The Gutenberg Bible at the Harry Ransom Center, the University of Texas at Austin.
The Gutenberg Bible at the Harry Ransom Center, the University of Texas at Austin.

I had a fabulous time at the Ellis School’s design thinking unconference over the weekend. As I said when I introduced myself there, I can’t get enough of design thinking. I think I fell hardest in love with it last year, when I read a book called Creative Confidence by Tom and David Kelly, the brothers who helm IDEO. This idea of “human-centered design” seems so obvious, but it isn’t; sometimes people get so caught up in the what of their design that they lose track of who they’re designing it for.

This idea hits so close to home for me because it’s been at the heart of my work in education all along. In graduate school, I took a class on museum education at Project Zero and I investigated two nonprofits’ efforts to bring a rare object into the K-12 classroom. The two projects both centered on a rare book–a first folio edition of Hamlet from the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Harry Ransom Center’s Gutenberg Bible–and a university’s work to digitize elements of that book and bring it to life for K-12 students. In both cases, the people I spoke with at MIT and the University of Texas said the same thing: if they did it again, they’d spend more time focusing on how kids would use these resources than on the resources themselves. I characterized this (perhaps in a cumbersome way) as an imbalance among content, medium, and audience. The content in both cases was solid, to be sure, but the developers may have spent more time concerned with the  practical challenges of bringing the texts online than the kids who might eventually use them. All digital media, I argued, should focus at least as much on the “who” as the “how.”

Design thinking is all about the “who.” I’ve been in some terrific design thinking workshops, from a couple of days spent working on a redesign of spaces at my last school to a days-long design thinking workshop I led in my French 3/4 class last year when we redesigned what school could be for all students. We also had a schoolwide design thinking symposium last spring, where we talked as a community about what it means to think, innovate, and design from a “human-centered” perspective.

Saturday’s workshop at Ellis let us consider big questions about the future of education. In each case, our big-picture ideas had to be all about people: who were the stakeholders? What would their needs be? How would we meet those needs? Our big ideas wouldn’t matter; regardless of how well-thought our solutions might have seemed, none of them would matter if we didn’t consider the real-world impact on the people we abstractly wanted to help.

For more on design thinking, check out this TED talk. I’ve seen it in other design thinking workshops, and I think it helpfully sums up the heart of this important approach to innovation.

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