Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

10 March 2015

Design Thinking?

Clark @ 6:14 AM

There’s been quite a bit of flurry about Design Thinking of late (including the most recent #lrnchat), and I’m trying to get my around what’s unique about it.  The wikipedia entry linked above helps clarify the intent, but is there any there there?

It helps to understand that I’ve been steeped in design approaches since at least the 80’s. Herb Simon’s Sciences of the Artificial argued, essentially, that design is the quintessential human activity. And my grad school experience was in a research lab focused on interface design.  Process was critical, and when I was subsequently teaching interface design, I was tracking new initiatives like situated design and participatory design, anthropological efforts designed to get closer to the ‘customer’.

In addition to being somewhat obsessive about learning how people learn, and as a confirmed geek continually exploring new technology, I also got interested in design processes beyond interface design. As my passion was designing learning technology solutions to meet real needs, I explored other design approaches to look for universals.  Along the way I looked at industrial, graphic, architectural, software, and other design disciplines.  I also read the psychological research on our cognitive limitations and design approaches.  (I made a small bit of my career on bringing the advances in HCI, which was more advanced in process, to ed tech.)

The reason I mention this is that the elements of Design Thinking: being open minded, diverging before converging, using teams, empathy for the customer, etc, all strike me as just good design. It’s not obvious to me whether it gets into the nuances (e.g. the steps in the Wikipedia article don’t allow me to see whether they do things like ensure that everyone takes time to brainstorm on their own before coming together; an important step to prevent groupthink), but at the granularity I’ve seen, it seems to be quite good.  You mean everyone isn’t already both aware of and using this?  Apparently not.

So in that respect, Design Thinking is a win.  If adding a label to a systematized compendium of good practices will raise awareness, I’m all for it.  And I’m willing to have my consciousness raised that there’s more to it, because as a proponent of design, I’m glad to see that folks are taking steps to help design get better and will be thrilled if it adds something new.



  1. I keep reading the descriptions, and it sounds like complete double-talk to me. But, like you, I’ve been doing it since dirt. Sounds like “Think about design when you’re designing.”

    Comment by Dick Carlson — 10 March 2015 @ 8:50 AM

  2. I’m with you, Clark. I know we are seeing a lot of repackaging of older ideas out there, but Design Thinking seems to be one that never truly got any attention in the L&D space until relatively recently. (Although it appears quite popular in K-12). One of the essential elements is in the name: Design, as a fundamental human activity; and, Thinking, something we should probably do a lot more of when it comes to the people and the solutions. It also aligned so nicely with anti-ADDIE methods like Rapid Prototying and I remain mystified as to why it hasn’t become more mainstream.

    Comment by Mark Sheppard — 10 March 2015 @ 1:11 PM

  3. I will add that my friend and esteemed colleague (seriously, world class) pointed me to this article of hers: http://myweb.fsu.edu/vshute/pdf/designthinking.pdf. I haven’t read it yet, but just on her bonafides I recommend it.

    Comment by Clark — 10 March 2015 @ 3:00 PM

  4. Thanks, Clark. I enjoyed this. And agree w/ you.

    Comment by Russ Powell — 12 March 2015 @ 12:26 PM

  5. I enjoyed reading this and found your embedded links useful. In Chapter 1 of Herb Simon’s Sciences of the Artificial, he discusses simulations as a source for new knowledge. He asks the important question: “How can a simulation ever tell us anything that we do not already know?” (Simon, 1996). He dives deep into that area of inquiry; however, I focused in one thing that caught my attention. One of the reasons that simulations are a great source of knowledge is that “it may be very difficult to discover what they imply”. This statement alone represents how we can benefit from simulations.

    This concept applies to the efficient simulations of today. Every real or imaginary variables can be programmed into a simulation. Even a simple simulation created for eLearning can promote interaction and produce engaging output. One of the things I admire about Simon is his dedication and aptitude to break concepts down to the core.
    Simon, H. (1996). Understanding the Natural and the Artificial Worlds. In The sciences of the artificial (3rd ed.). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

    Comment by Miguel R. — 15 March 2015 @ 8:55 PM

  6. Miguel, I have to echo your sentiments, if not merely for the fact that I wrote a book specifically on designing elearning simulations (engaginglearning.com :).

    Comment by Clark — 16 March 2015 @ 8:13 AM

  7. Design Thinking is one of my wife’s major scholarly areas, as an Instructional Design Ph.D. who spent many years on an Engineering faculty. And it’s also become one of mine–though ironically, from my work on it in my OTHER professional domain, as a senior Army leader. And to me, that gets at what Design Thinking really is, as Clark did as well.

    Design Thinking is the center of the Venn diagram of all design-related disciplines.

    It’s the common set of competencies that make for good design in any environment. And the reason it’s the flavor of the month is because, over the last decade or so–thanks to an Internet that doesn’t care what profession you’re in when you do a search–a lot of people who thought THEIR field was the only one who did Design have discovered there are these whole other circles in that diagram that have techniques, tools, and theories to offer that could also apply in THEIRS, with maybe just a little adaptation. And they’ve pulled those circles closer in to the center, creating more overlap.

    Drawing on my wife’s work, I would say that Design Thinking as a domain of its own (as opposed to everyone who was practicing a version of it already IN their own domain) probably traces to Universal Design–the idea that if you designed physical spaces for accessibility (by the handicapped), you would end up with physical spaces that were better designed FOR ALL (see http://www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/index.htm). David Rose, in turn, brought this into OUR domain with Universal Design FOR LEARNING (see http://www.udlcenter.org/), which basically made the same point regarding LEARNING spaces. From there, we’ve seen research symposia like that hosted by AECT a couple years back, where design experts from multiple fields convened to discuss how THEIR fields’ design knowledge could be applied to education (see http://aect.site-ym.com/?page=DesignEdTech). And we’re only getting started.

    Comment by Jim Ellsworth — 16 March 2015 @ 9:24 AM

  8. Great feedback, folks. Jim, I also like “Understanding by Design” as a design approach. Was talking to someone who was asked: what’s the relationship between design thinking and agile, and my response (and his) was “you could use agile to implement design thinking; one’s a process, and one’s a tool to use people to implement a process”. What I like about design thinking is that it might be a way to not prematurely converge on a ‘course’ as a solution ;).

    Comment by Clark — 17 March 2015 @ 6:34 AM

  9. Clark, Absolutely. My wife uses Wiggins & McTighe as one of her texts; it’s without a doubt a key resource for Design Thinking in our field, and is valuable (among other reasons) for coming at the issue, in effect, from the other side compared to UDL: while UbD may RESULT IN education that is more accessible for all, its starting point IS design, rather than accessibility.

    While we’re on the subject of avoiding premature convergence on a solution, it’s also worth mentioning Ryan Watkins’ “Performance by Design” (see http://www.amazon.com/Performance-Design-Systematic-Development-Technologies-ebook/dp/B004GNFHKU/), which expressly tackles this problem. And to take this a step further–to the consideration of professional ethics as a set of measurable design constraints rather than the exclusive province of abstract philosophy (or, at the opposite extreme, legalisms & compliance)–I suggest my wife’s OWN book, “Ethics by Design” (see http://www.amazon.com/Ethics-Design-Performance-Responsible-Accountability/dp/1599962012/).

    Comment by Jim Ellsworth — 17 March 2015 @ 8:03 AM

  10. […] development process at Learnnovators in a loosely structured way around this approach, a recentarticle by Clark Quinn prompted us to embark on a quest to find answers to the following […]

    Pingback by THE INCREDIBLE POWER OF DESIGN THINKING IN LEARNING DESIGN | E-Learning Blog — 29 May 2016 @ 10:30 PM

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