‘Design thinking’ is changing the way we approach problems

Tim Johnson in University Affairs on “Why researchers in various disciplines are using the principles of design to solve problems big and small” : “A product of the same trends and philosophies that gave us smartphones, laptop computers and internet search engines, design thinking is changing the way some academics approach teaching and research, the way architects design classrooms and how leaders seek to solve the world’s most persistent problems.

Cameron Norman is a long-time supporter of design thinking (or DT) and an adjunct lecturer at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. He notes that designers, especially product designers, are typically experts in conceptualizing problems and solving them– ideal skills for tackling a wide range of issues, from building a better kitchen table to mapping out the plans on a large building. “The field of design is the discipline of innovation,” he says. “[Design thinking] is about taking these methods, tools and ideas, and applying them in other areas.”

Design thinking centres on the free flow of ideas – far-out concepts aren’t summarily dismissed – and an unusually enthusiastic embrace of failure. “Design thinkers try to figure out what the key problem is – they look around and try to understand what’s going on, and come up with some wild ideas, thinking big and bold, on how to solve it,” Dr. Norman says. “They assume they’re not going to get it right the first time.”

If you were looking to build a better mousetrap, you’d prototype a model, test it for weaknesses, then either trash it and start again, or identify the problems and seek to correct them. DT does the same thing, but in an increasingly broad array of areas, from social policy to healthcare to business.

Deborah Shackleton, dean of design and dynamic media at Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver, was an early adopter of DT. “Design thinking is a mindset. You can use it as a tool or a technique. It’s very adaptable,” she says.

In 2005, ECUAD revamped much of its curriculum in design and dynamic media, looking to shift the focus from more traditional methods of research, like literature reviews, to something called “generative research.” “It’s the idea that you would invite the participants – for whom the design is intended – to be part of the creation process,” Dr. Shackleton says. She adds that various tools, like “co-creation kits” (which include a range of activities to engage people on a variety of cognitive and emotional levels) and ethnographic and cultural probes (activities which help participants demonstrate details about their private lives to their design partners), prove very useful in this area.

Collaboration among various fields is an important part of the design thinking process. At the University of Alberta, Aidan Rowe, an associate professor in design studies, is using design thinking to help the City of Edmonton improve services for people who are homeless. “Design is a truly interdisciplinary discipline,” says Dr. Rowe. “We always need someone to design with and for. We don’t design for ourselves.”….

Design thinkers often speak of “human-centered design” and “social innovation,” concepts that flow from DT’s assertion that no single person has the answer to a complex problem. Instead, it focuses on collective goals and places a premium on sustainability, community, culture and the empowerment of people, says Greg Van Alstyne, director of research and co-founder of the Strategic Innovation Lab, or sLab, at OCAD University. “It means you go about your problem-solving in a more holistic way. We can say ‘human-centered,’ but it’s actually ‘life-centered,’” Mr. Van Alstyne explains. “Our brand of design thinking is amenable to working within social systems and improving the lot of communities.”


Design thinking is also transforming university campuses in a tangible way. One example is at the University of Calgary’s Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, which is undergoing a $40-million renovation. “The whole space is designed to help students connect, communicate, collaborate and create knowledge,” says Lynn Taylor, vice-provost, teaching and learning. “Traditional learning was focused on the facts and concepts and procedures of a discipline, and we’re moving toward the goal of having students think far more deeply about their learning.”

To create this new space within a two-floor, 4,000-square-metre building that formerly served as an art museum, the university turned to Diamond Schmitt Architects, who have designed similar spaces at a number of other Canadian campuses. The new space, scheduled to open in February, prioritizes flexibility, with movable walls and collapsible furniture, and the seamless integration of technology.

Lead architect Don Schmitt observes that in a traditional campus building, which usually contains a long corridor and individual classrooms, conversation tends to gravitate to the only true public space: the hallway. “There’s a sense that more learning probably happens outside the classroom or between the classrooms, than happens inside the classroom,” he says.

Gone is the old-model lecture hall, with fixed podium and chairs. They’ve been replaced by a much more malleable space, which in a single day can act as a dance studio, movie theatre, lecture space, or just a big area for students to get together. “It’s about individual learning happening informally, quiet study, gregarious social activity, group study, group projects, flexible studio environments, changeable, ‘hack-able’ spaces and lots of flexibility to use different places in different ways,” Mr. Schmitt explains….(More)”