Design Thinking in Higher Ed

Have you heard about the attention design thinking is getting in higher ed recently? Peter Miller’s 2015 Chronicle Review article “Is Design Thinking the Future of the Liberal Arts?” might have piqued your interest (or flown under your radar), but I think it’s a question worth considering.

Design thinking is a recursive, iterative way of thinking about complex problems distilled from the work of engineers, architects, and graphic and industrial designers. Typically the design thinking process includes phases for understanding a problem, empathizing with those affected, (re)defining the problem, ideating possible interventions or solutions, rapidly prototyping the best ideas, and testing prototypes with members of the intended audience. Design consultancy IDEO and the at Stanford are the most recognized proponents and users of design thinking, though their process starts at empathy rather than understand.

From my perspective as a rhetorician, the design thinking process, which is really just a series of stages and mindsets for creating something for others, aligns nicely with the rhetorical process of purposefully designing a communication approach by carefully assessing the needs of a given audience, including your relationship to them as a speaker or writer, in a given contextual situation in order to craft an appropriate message to meet their needs. I also do a good bit of service learning in my upper level professional writing courses, so the design thinking process makes sense to me in helping students focus on defining problems when they are really obsessed with solving them.

My university is moving forward with a design thinking initiative that is being received by my colleagues in the arts and humanities with skepticism. There are political dimensions to this reception that I won’t go into here, but this skepticism isn’t isolated to my institution. Design thinking practices have a reputation as being solely tied to business and entrepreneurship, for better or worse, which sets off warning bells for anyone in disciplines being cannibalized by professional schools already. Ironically, if you read into the scholarly literature on design, “true” designers hate “design thinking” and see it as a business school bastardization of their sacred process, which they call “designerly thinking.”

Design thinking is just another tool for critical and creative thinking.

But in my view, design thinking is just another process tool, like critical thinking and other creative thinking processes, and one that is inherently humanistic – the entire process is grounded in understanding the human condition in specific contexts and working for and with people affected by complex, messy problems improve their situations. Those of us in the arts and humanities are already using and teaching strategies and ways of being that align with design thinking, and I personally see nothing wrong with occasionally couching what we do in terms of design thinking, which might resonate more with students and their future employers. But I also recognize where my colleagues are coming from and see the challenges associated with connecting to a “fad” way of thinking in disciplines that are in many ways timeless.

Peter Miller ask the question, is design thinking the future of the liberal arts? His answer is not yet and his argument is compelling and worth a read. IDEO also has a free toolkit for educators you might look at for some more information.

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