10 Things You Should Know About Design and Design Thinking

design-thinkingThere are many myths passed on from the greater culture that define how we think about Design. Some people think that to design, one must be an artist. Or that design comes as a flash of light into the minds of certain privileged people.

It makes sense that we wouldn’t know much about design. The design process is not part of a standard curriculum in school.

Design thinking certainly isn’t taught in most instructional design programs, if any. And it’s the black box of the ADDIE model.

I’ve been studying, analyzing and examining the design process over the past few years. Here are ten things I’d like to share with you about design and design thinking.

1. Design is a process

Design is an approach to problem-solving that applies the cognitive activities of design thinking. These are the processes designers leverage to ideate and create solutions.

Paula Sirar, design thinking advocate defines it like this, “Design Thinking is a creative process of thinking backwards from people, that leads to design of a service, a product or [something] else, based on the conclusions of the knowledge gathered in the process.”

2. Design is messy

During the design process, there is no straight path from point A to point B. Instead, think of squiggly scribbles leading to a final destination after many detours.

Roger Martin, author and Dean of the Rotman School of Management, says that design thinking involves “integrative thinking: the ability to exploit opposing ideas or constraints to create entirely new solutions.” That process can be messy.

3. Design requires empathy

Design involves putting yourself in the shoes of the user, whether it is a customer or a learner. It means seeing the world through their eyes. Effective designs shift the thinking from technology or objects to people. It’s based on what humans need to improve their situation— to make things better and easier.

4. Design solutions are based on context

Effective designs involve thinking about the context in which they will be used. Good design observes people in context. It requires thinking, “How will people use this object?” or “In what environment will people use this course?”

5. Design requires prototypes

Good design practice moves quickly into prototyping in order to have peers and users test it out. In industrial design this might be a prototype of a device. In eLearning, it could be a portion of a game or several interactions.

Through observation and discussion, designers glean feedback to refine their ideas and iterate. Tim Brown, of IDEO, says that design goes from “thinking about what to build, to building in order to think.”

6. Design begs for collaboration

Great design can’t be done in a vacuum. Design thinking is enhanced through collaboration, particularly with teams from varied backgrounds and disciplines. It makes sense that working in diverse teams will produce a wider range of ideas, providing more innovative solutions to choose from or integrate.

7. Design starts with an open slate of possibilities

If we want to push innovation and fresh thinking, we must start with a “What if?” mindset. This approach allows us to imagine solutions in an unhindered way. Then we can deal with challenges, constraints and obstacles later.

8. Design takes time

It’s difficult to be creative on demand. Some solutions take time to simmer and brew. Considering that design involves iterative prototypes, you need to allow time for solutions to unfold.

9. Design impacts business

Design thinking impacts the bottom line. It transforms the approach to business and product or service development from one of calculating numbers to a human-centered approach. Which one do you think is more likely to meet the needs of customers, users and learners?

10. Design can change society (and the world of learning)

Design may be more powerful that you think. Consider that every object in your home and office has been designed. How many of them were powerful enough to change the way the world works? Think of every social program that changes lives and every business or service that delights its customers. These were designed through hard thinking, feedback and iteration.

In the world of learning, we can think about what we would like to change … about new approaches for helping people get the information and skills they want. Then we can use design thinking to make a difference.

How could design thinking impact the solutions you’re developing? Share your story below.

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  1. Karen Moloney says

    Great post Connie! I’m loving number 8 – in this fast paced world where we have rapid design models and rapid authoring tools, there is an expectation from clients that this stuff can all be done very quickly. Granted, once the creative is taken care of there are ways to speed up production, but being creative is not something that can be rushed. That’s why wehen you get good creative instructional designers together on a project you can achieve some amazing things. I think we all need to slow down a bit and think about the quality of solutions being provided, after all, what’s the point of creating an elearning program really quickly if it’s not going to be engaging or effective?

  2. Connie Malamed says

    Hi Karen,
    I totally agree with your comment. I’ve noticed that when I let ideas simmer awhile instead of implementing immediately, they develop into the most effective solutions. Let’s spread the word. Creative solutions take a little time!

  3. Deb says

    Thank you for the great insight! This post is very timely and absolutely relevant to the project I’m currently working on. The project team has embraced many of these ideas and because of it, we have been able to affect change to the current processes used in our group. Your post has articulated what we’ve been doing! Thank you!

  4. Michael Rothschild says

    Hi Connie –

    Good post! I totally support the 10 points you listed. They do a great job of describing the process of design.

    However, I think design thinking is something very different. Design thinking is more a way of looking at the world than it is things one does. When you embrace design thinking (or in my case, can’t escape from it!)you see the world as a vast collection of inter-related things and processes, and you are irresistibly drawn to figuring out how to make them work better. With design thinking your perspective constantly shifts from a high-level big picture to low-level details and back again- always looking at how each component affects those around it.

    Of the points you listed, #10 is the one nearest and dearest to my heart. And it’s design thinking that gives instructional design the power to change the world.

  5. Peggy Page says

    Great post, Connie! Too many instructional designers suffer from, ironically, an inability to think like designers. I would add an 11th element (from Garr Reynolds): Design embraces the constraints. Good design has context; it’s the right design given the circumstances. No use complaining about not having the right amount of time, money, stakeholder support – whatever – to create the “perfect” design. Those limits are part of the design itself, and need to be baked right into it. That’s the challenge and the thrill of thinking like a designer.

  6. Deb Creghan says

    Connie – Love this post.. #8 especially struck me… in a world where everyone wants things done yesterday we are often pressured to be creative without letting things simmer long enough… *sigh*… thanks! Deb

  7. Shaun says

    Hey Connie,

    Great post, I love your approach to design thinking. From a learning perspective I think one of the most important aspects of any training that is developed is the design, particularly if it is online.

    If you can create something that captures someone’s interest and makes them want to interact with it, then I think you have done your job. Not easy to do and many miss the mark because they don’t approach it the right way, point 3 is a good example of how to do it right!


  8. Connie Malamed says

    Hi Shaun,
    I agree with you that it’s not easy, but it is important. I think we need to stretch and become experience designers and design thinking will help this. Thanks for your comment.


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