I currently practice Design Thinking (DT) in a variety of contexts, but primarily within the University of Maryland (UMD) and the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), where I teach. Though I learned to love DT eventually, I initially loathed it. Let me explain.
My first formal introduction to DT happened in the Master's in Social Design program at MICA during a two-week crash course (ok, a module) that gave me enough awareness of the process to be impressed, but not enough to comprehend how to use it. Shortly after, I attended a student-run conference at Harvard called HarvardxDesign. I was quickly turned off by the incessant mentions of DT as a formula to spur innovation, which I heard in nearly every session I attended. Each presenter inevitably included their own definition of Design Thinking and then, inevitably, a “How can your company be like Apple?” sub-topic. What no one talked about was that Design Thinking – whatever your feelings about the process – is messy and looping. DT doesn't guarantee innovation, but can provide a context for innovation to happen. (I was basically that person who'd never heard Lady Gaga's music but disliked her because one time she wore a meat suit.)
That spring, immersed in my thesis work related to urban farming and food access in Baltimore, I shelved DT into the back corners of my mind. I was exposed to so many methods, tools and frameworks that year that DT seemed like one more diagram to memorize. I ended up graduating with the same level of anxiety as every one else in my program (perhaps more, if we're being honest), but also received a prestigious Robert W. Deutsch Social Design Fellowship to continue my work in the field. There was plenty of work to be done, but I didn't know where to start. Miraculously, at that same time I was presented with the opportunity to teach a graduate level class in the MA/MBA in Design Leadership program, a combined program between MICA and Johns Hopkins Carey School of Business. I use the word miraculous because focusing on the class at hand — a brand-new, never-taught before class called the Competitive Advantage — gave me a release valve on figuring out how to approach my fellowship work.
I had very few constraints in designing the class curriculum aside from a compressed timeline (three days; yes, you heard correctly), so I decided to co-create the class with the students. Using my own experience as a guide, I sensed that the students needed a feeling of greater control over the projects they worked on and the environment they worked in. I invited them to tell me what they wanted to cover, create and develop in the class, and gave them a forum in which to talk to each other about the class's challenges and opportunities. I determined that the students needed a way to synthesize the tools they'd been learning on the design side of the program, so that they could learn to use them on real-world projects without feeling lost and anxious. Leading them through exercises designed to help them increase self-awareness and team management skills, I witnessed them becoming increasingly comfortable with the free-form, relaxed class environment. I encouraged them to ask for and give each other constructive feedback, to involve each other in different stages of the process, to facilitate their own mini-workshops, and most importantly, to embrace rapid prototyping and an iterative process. It turns out that I was not only guiding them through the Design Thinking process, I was also modeling it. That class helped me understand, finally, the value of DT and its role in the classroom. DT provided the context for me to innovate as a teacher, because I could prototype and get feedback in the classroom — while I was teaching it. It also paved the way for a psychological shift in the way students approached their work in the class, and, perhaps, in the program overall. Where the students initially entered the class in a passive mindset, waiting for me to tell them how to be design leaders, they exited with a better sense of themselves and how to apply the tools they'd learned to their projects.
I can see now that had I been forced to apply DT during my thesis work, I'd have had a more productive and rewarding thesis experience. That's not a critique of my program — there really is a lot to cover in one year, and DT is not the only framework of merit in the realm of social change — but a realization that DT can be an extraordinarily useful guiding process in real-world projects. And with a couple more years of teaching under my belt, I can affirm that facilitating this process in a student-centered learning environment yields great returns.