Skip to main content

The term “design thinking” is often attached to maker spaces and STEM labs. However, design thinking is bigger than STEM. It begins with the premise of tapping into student curiosity and allowing them to create, test and re-create until they eventually ship what they made to a real audience (sometimes global but often local).

Design thinking isn’t a subject or a topic or a class. It’s more of a way of solving problems that encourages risk-taking and creativity. In other words, design thinking is a flexible process for getting the most out of creative work. It is used in the arts, in engineering, in the corporate world, and in social and civic spaces. You can use it in every subject with every age group. It works when creating digital content or when building things with duct tape and cardboard.

For over a decade, I’ve used design thinking. As a teacher, I used it for everything from coding projects to service projects to documentaries to engineering challenges. As a startup co-founder, we used the design thinking cycle for product development. As an author, it’s a framework I use for publishing.

I’m not alone. In countless industries, people are embracing design thinking as a process to spark innovation and boost creativity.

Design Thinking Is Used (Just About) Everywhere

Design thinking is used at universities, within social and civic organizations, by artists and designers, by engineers, and in product development in the business world. Here’s a sample of where you might see design thinking:

Let’s take a look at the growth of the term “design thinking” using Google’s Ngram Viewer:


The term has skyrocketed in recent years. But notice, too, how this isn’t simply a sudden trend. Design thinking began as a concept in the 1940s and ’50s and steadily grew, really taking off in the mid 1970s.

While design thinking first grew in popularity as a means to design products, innovators in every industry are using it to tackle major problems in every sector. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review titled, “Design Thinking Comes of Age,” takes a look at the growth and how this design mindset has grown exponentially over the past few decades.

David Kelley, the founder of the design firm IDEO and author of Creative Confidence, puts the benefits of design thinking into a simple statement:

“We moved from thinking of ourselves as designers to thinking of ourselves as design thinkers,” he continues. “What we, as design thinkers, have, is this creative confidence that, when given a difficult problem, we have a methodology that enables us to come up with a solution that nobody has before.”

Design thinking provides a methodology for creating innovative solutions to a vast array of difficult problems. It is no surprise that many universities are developing innovative research labs to study design thinking. The following are some examples:

    • Stanford
    • Agency By Design (Harvard’s Project Zero)
    • Rhode Island School of Design
    • University of Cincinnati
    • 32 of the world’s best design schools

Many Amazing Models Exist

It’s hard to pin down when design thinking began. There’s an excellent article by Jo Szczepanska that traces it back to design science with Buckminster Fuller in the early 1960s and cooperative design in Scandinavia.

Others place the origins of design thinking later, with The Sciences of the Artificial and still others point to Design Thinking, which focused more on urban planning and architecture or with Robert McKim’s work in Experiences in Visual Thinking

Like all great ideas, it has been an evolution, influenced by thousands of people.

Notice how design thinking began as a cross-discipline approach from the start. This is because creativity can’t be bound by a single subject or topic or industry. Innovation is everywhere.

My work with design thinking has been influenced by people like Tom and David Kelley, Tim Brown, John Maeda, Peter Rowe (as well as organizations like Stanford and IDEO). However, I first learned about the framework while working in an innercity non-profit in college. We used it to focus on cultural humility and empathy because it emphasized “designing with” rather than “designing for.” 

There are a number of different interpretations of the phases in Design Thinking.

Here are the phases of Design Thinking as described in IDEO’s “Design Thinking for Educators” toolkit (an awesome resource):

Design Thinking for Educators by IDEO

Here are the phases of Design Thinking as shared by Stanford (and they again have fantastic resources). If you haven’t checked out Tim Brown’s Change By Designyou should check it out.

Design Thinking Phases for Stanford

And there are other models, frameworks, and descriptions of the design thinking phases from various organizations and universities:


The Need for a Student-Friendly Framework

I began using the design thinking process when I taught social studies and digital journalism (an exploratory class). We used it to plan service learning projects, to film documentaries, to engage in blogging, and to paint murals. Later, when I taught a STEM class, we used design thinking to go through the engineering projects. Eventually, when I embraced 20% Time and Genius Hour, I reached out to AJ Juliani (an expert and pioneer in Genius Hour) and we realized that we had been independently developing our own design thinking frameworks.

Subscribe to YouTube Channel

AJ and I agreed that the greatest struggle we had experienced when using design thinking and sharing the process with other educators was its implications for K-12 students. How could we modify the process to make it fit the needs of our students?

What did we do about this problem? We began to try and solve it using the design thinking process.

We looked at the terminology used, the sample exercises and activities available, and how teachers and students responded to the different phases. We talked with teachers using design thinking in their classrooms and met with those that wanted a framework for creative work. In other words, we used design thinking to modify our design thinking approach. Pretty meta, I guess. 

We discovered a few key areas missing from many of the conversations around design thinking:

  1. The need to tap into student inquiry. Although this was implied in the design thinking process, we wanted to specifically focus time and energy on activating student curiosity. 
  2. A dedicated time to do research and engage in media literacy. Again, many of the design thinking processes mention developing a deeper understanding. However, we knew that not every student had the same amount of background knowledge. And, while the understanding needed to focus on empathy, it also might need to involve a deeper dive into research to understand the background information on ideas, systems, content, etc. For me, this was an equity issue. As a teacher in a Title One School, I wanted to honor every students’ prior knowledge while also giving them the opportunity to build additional knowledge. Also, this was an opportunity for students to learn media literacy. 
  3. We wanted flexibility on the starting point. Sometimes it begins with empathy but we actually found that awareness needed to precede empathy. In other words,  sometimes you start with a problem or a natural phenomenon or a social issue and then you begin to build empathy. Moreover, we needed to embed empathy into other areas of the design thinking process as a reminder that it’s not something you start with and then walk away.
  4. Launching and marketing to a specific audience. The word “marketing” gets a bad reputation (and rightfully so) but we want students to know that if they are taking the time to create something, they should be bold about sharing it with the world. 

We also knew that we wanted to create a framework that would be accessible to students and memorable as they engaged in the process.

Slowly, we moved toward the ideation phase, where we played around with different concepts before eventually narrowing it down and building upon a single idea. Eventually, we tested this new framework with classrooms ranging from early elementary all the way up to high school. We highlighted what worked and kept on revising until finally, we launched the framework to the world.

The end result of this launch was LAUNCH, a flexible design thinking framework tailored specifically to K-12 classrooms. You can take a deeper look at it in our book Launch

Subscribe to YouTube Channel

It can help to think of it this way: Making is the mindset. Design thinking is the thinking process. The LAUNCH Cycle is the framework.

Launch Into Design Thinking

Want to get started with design thinking? Check out this page with free articles, videos, and resources. Also, check out the toolkit below.

Get the FREE Design Thinking Toolkit

Get this free toolkit along with members-only access to my latest blog posts and resource

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit
John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.