Design Thinking

 Nov 23, 2015   Digital Essays, iDMAa Conference Journal 2015, Peer-reviewed   No Comments

Digital Essay by Katherine Hepworth, University of Nevada, Reno


Over the last four decades, the term design thinking been used to mean different things in a wide range of fields (Johansson-Skoldberg, Woodilla, and Cetinkaya 123). In this article, “design thinking” is used to refer to a series of processes designers regularly use to address problems. Design thinking has both strategic and tactical purposes. Its strategic purpose is to integrate “what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable” (Brown 4). Its tactical purpose is to produce a solution to an unwieldy problem, usually in the form of a communication, product, or experience (Cassim 192).

Three Models

The stages involved in design thinking have been debated and documented extensively, with two main, widely accepted systems coming to prominence in the last ten years; the design thinking system proposed by design consultancy IDEO, and that proposed by the Hasso Plattner Insititute of Design at Stanford (also known as the D-School). IDEO is credited as the first private consultancy to use design thinking as its entire work process (Johansson-Skoldberg, Woodilla, and Cetinkaya 128).

Figure 1: Iteration or Evolution is the process of repeating earlier stages of design thinking until a desireable result is achieved.

Figure 1: Iteration or Evolution is the process of repeating earlier stages of design thinking until a desirable result is achieved.

IDEO defines design thinking as i five-stages: discovery, interpretation, ideation, experimentation, and evolution (IDEO 14). The D-School’s design thinking model emphasizes design thinking as a tool for innovation. It defines design thinking similarly as IDEO, and also with five explicitly stated stages: empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test. A sixth step, “iterate,” is not listed with the others, but is clearly integral to the D-School design thinking process (see Figure 1) (Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford 11).

A sub-set of this approach is “graphic design thinking’. While the previous two models attempt to encapsulate processes from multiple design disciplines, the strength of graphic design thinking is its narrow focus. Graphic design thinking refers specifically to the processes graphic designers use in their work (Buchanan 12). Its strategic purpose can be defined as effecting “change in the public’s knowledge, attitudes and behavior” (Frascara et al. 3), and its tactical purpose is to produce visually persuasive artifacts and experiences.

Because the tactics of graphic design are so central to its strategic purpose, graphic design thinking places equal emphasis on generative process (strategy) and creating form (tactics) (Frascara et al. 12; Lupton and Phillips 5). Influential graphic designer Ellen Lupton separates graphic design thinking into three explicit stages: defining problems, getting ideas, and creating form (Lupton and Phillips 5). Lupton’s model includes two extra stages: testing and revising. As with the D-School’s model, these stages are central to Lupton’s process, but are not listed explicitly.

Figure 2. Comparison of three design thinking models. Stages in black are explicitly stated, while stages in grey are central to the process, but not stated.

Figure 2: Comparison of three design thinking models. Stages in black are explicitly stated, while stages in grey are central to the process, but not stated.


These three models, IDEO’s design thinking, the D-School’s design thinking, and graphic design thinking, are similar. In the case of several stages in the models, the only difference is terminology. Figure 2 shows the equivalence between the stages between these three models.

My Approach

Each of the above models emphasize the importance of customizing the order and nature of the design thinking stages, in order to fit the needs of specific contexts and users. The stages of my idiosyncratic design thinking approach are described below. They have developed, and continue to develop, based on my experiences as a graphic designer, a design educator, and as a researcher. Like the graphic design thinking model described above, my approach focuses equally on generative process and form creation (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: My approach to graphic design thinking. This is the process I developed over the course of my graphic design practice, and combines some elements of the design thinking and graphic design thinking models discussed previously.

Figure 3: My approach to graphic design thinking. This is the process I developed over the course of my graphic design practice, and combines some elements of the design thinking and graphic design thinking models discussed previously.

1 Empathize

Empathizing involves listening and observing over an extended period of time, then researching the observed phenomena. This fosters understanding of the needs of everyone involved in the project (Patnaik 42).

2 Define

The users and design problems involved in a project are both defined in this stage. This is done through reviewing material collected in the previous stage, conducting collaborative brainstorming with colleagues, and writing needs summaries or design briefs.

3 Ideate

Generating ideas is a cyclical process of researching, visualizing, and communicating. Reviewing peer reviewed research on the defined problem comes first. Visualization involves drawing many small sketches based very loosely around the problems defined in the previous stage. This is followed by explaining the sketches to colleagues and potential users; talking about each sketch develops the idea behind it further (Lupton and Phillips 62).

4 Create

Creation includes generating forms at various stages of completeness, from early prototyping to finished artifact. The quality of the form created in this stage depends on which round of iteration it is a part of (Sanders and Stappers 62).

5 Test

Testing requires giving the created form to users, then watching for and listening to their responses (Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford 10). This is typically done in a “real-world” setting instead of the more common, laboratory-like testing environment.

6 Evaluate

Evaluating involves analyzing the results of the previous test, reflecting on progress to date, and identifying the most promising future directions (Cassim 195–196).

7 Iterate

Iteration involves repeating a number of the previous steps, depending on the needs of the specific project (Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford 11).

8 Refine

Refining occurs at the end of the iteration process, once the final design concept is chosen. In this stage, the final form of an artifact is modified incrementally at a very fine level. It is differentiated the other design thinking stages because of the unique focus on form that is not shared by the common design thinking models.

Pilot Study

This pilot study was started after several semesters of observing a disconnect between my expectations of students and their performance. Anecdotal evidence suggested that many of my colleagues were noticing the same disconnect in their classrooms. This disconnect turned out to be symptomatic of an inter-generational cultural and neurophysiological gap. Current undergraduate students, who are the second wave of the Millennial Generation, and are also the first generation of so-called Digital Natives, have significantly different values (Coomes and DeBard 34) and somewhat different neurophysiological processes (Nikirk 41) than previous generations. The sections that follow detail the process I used to learn about these students, and develop educational materials that meet their needs.

Figure 4: Design thinking process prior to “Guide to Winning” video pre-production.

Figure 4: Design thinking process prior to “Guide to Winning” video pre-production.


Creating Educational Materials Using Design Thinking

Applying my idiosyncratic design thinking approach to creating educational materials resulted in the following fifteen step iteration process. Although these stages often overlapped and sometimes occurred concurrently, they are presented here as discreet, linear stages for the sake of clarity. Figure 4 contains a visual summary of this approach.

1 Empathize

In the first stage of this design thinking, I supplemented my observation and listening to students with researching two areas: psychological and neurophysiological factors related to learning, and students’ cultural context.

1.1 Psychological and Neurophysiological Factors

I first set out to understanding the brain activities central to learning. Psychology and cognition research provides the interested educator with an almost overwhelming amount of information. Here I will provide a summary of the two factors most relevant to educational materials: cognitive load and working memory.

In learning environments, cognitive load is the amount of mental effort required to accomplish a learning goal. The higher the cognitive load required to complete a specific task, the more errors the student will make in the process (Lidwell, Holden, and Butler 148). This is because high cognitive load taxes working (or short-term) memory. When information is received rapidly, much of it is not stored, because working memory can only hold a maximum of seven pieces of information at once (Benson et al. 170).

In addition, the cohort currently in undergraduate school is the first generation to have grown up with online life — smartphones, broadband, social media, Google, and Wikipedia — inextricably intertwined with offline, non-digital life. Known as “digital natives,” these individuals have different information processing capacities than previous generations. They have superior multi-tasking activities than previous generations of the same age, but have much less capacity to sustain attention on one thing, such as reading a long essay. This is due to the extent and pace of their exposure to these innovations, during the time of formative brain development (Nikirk 41).

1.2 Cultural Context

The most frequently documented cultural context of today’s undergraduate cohort is that they make up the “second wave” of the Millennial Generation (Howard-Hamilton, Marbley, and Bonner 6). The millennial generation includes all people born between 1980 and 2000, but the second wave includes to those born in or after the late 1980s (Rainer and Rainer 2). Basic life skills previous generations have taken for granted are difficult and/or unfamiliar to Millennials (see Holland and Holland 16). Often repeated characteristics of this generation include being particularly confident, self-important, sheltered, and grade motivated (Coomes and DeBard 35–39).

Broad social patterns, specific parenting practices and educational trends have contributed to the development of these traits. The majority of these students have been raised to be rewarded for attendance rather than performance, with disregard for societal conventions, to ignore authority figures, and to consider laws and morality as flexible personal preferences (Howard-Hamilton, Marbley, and Bonner 11) and (Twenge 23, 31).

This combination of traits is obviously problematic in the higher education setting, where rewards are only given for performance, and the weight of social convention and moral authority have been traditional motivators of student performance. These issues are compounded by the problem that second wave Millennial students do not appear to understand there is a difference between the knowledge their Professors have, and the advice they could receive from any person on the internet (Howard-Hamilton, Marbley, and Bonner 17).

2 Define

After empathizing with students’ experience of life generally, and higher education specifically, I sought to define the impact that I wanted educational materials to have on their approach to learning.

It is clear that the current cohort face unprecedented challenges in their undergraduate education. Nevertheless, they still need to learn effective communication and study skills in order to thrive at university and beyond (Holland and Holland 17) and (Sherer and Shea 56). Therefore, my goal was to communicate the most important determinants of success at university, with a focus on the knowledge that was implicit in previous generations, but foreign to this generation of students.

3 Ideate

Due to severe time constraints, this ideation stage was brief. My priority was to generate ideas that were fast and easy to implement, so that I could have material to test in classes I would be teaching in the upcoming semester. During this process, I identified two communication strategies that are important for managing cognitive load, and that I made a priority in my ideation: hierarchy and redundancy. Maintaining a constant, moderate cognitive load in students is optimal for learning. By using these three strategies when creating educational materials, the cognitive load of students can be moderated to an extent.

Creating effective visual and textual hierarchies is perhaps the most important communication strategy for applying to educational materials. Hierarchy refers to breaking up text and images into small, easy to digest chunks of information that visually demonstrate their relationship to each other (Johnson 1). Redundancy is the repetition of important pieces of information at key points, for the purpose of maximizing information retention (Lidwell, Holden, and Butler 204–205). In educational materials, redundancy needs to be used strategically, with only the most crucial information repeated multiple times.

Figure 5: Guide to Winning list version 1 (from Step 4 of design thinking process).

Figure 5: Guide to Winning list version 1 (from Step 4 of design thinking process).

4 Create

This first creative process produced multiple versions of the Guide to Winning list. After developing these versions, one was chosen for testing (See Figure 5). The six items on the list were intended to be a short, easy-to-remember guide to behaviors and communication that is acceptable in the courses I teach. The title included the phrase “Guide to Winning” as an irreverent reference to students high motivation to obtain good grades, and more generally, to be successful at life.

5 Test

This first Guide to Winning list was used in two courses I taught in the Spring semester of 2014. Forty-three students saw the list during this semester, as part of their online course materials. This testing was informal and passive. I observed the class responses to the Guide to Winning list when it was introduced at the beginning of the semester and continually compared student performance in these classes with that of students in previous semesters.

6 Evaluate

Evaluating involved reflecting on the test observations within the context of the research done in stages 1 and 2. In this stage, I came to the conclusion that although the content and concept of the Guide to Winning list was appropriate for my students, it was not engaging in its current form.

7 Ideate

This round of ideation focused on ways to help students engage with the content of the Guide to Winning list. I explored two areas of research as part of this stage: aesthetic usability effect, and gamification.

Aesthetic usability effect is a phenomenon whereby people prefer using things that they find attractive. When people appreciate the aesthetics of a product or experience, they invariably judge those things to work better than less-aesthetically pleasing versions (Lidwell, Holden, and Butler 18) and (Norman 17). The emotional gratification of using an aesthetically pleasing resource has a tangible effect on self-efficacy, which Scheel reminds us, is key to success in higher education (Fenci and Scheel 20). I suspected that if the Guide to Winning list were presented in a way that was more aesthetically pleasing to my students, it could engage them more.

The term gamification is used to refer to the application of any game strategy to any non-game situation. Gamification has proved particularly helpful in education, with game strategies providing extra motivation for students to become engaged with course materials (Attali and Arieli-Attali 57) and (Dickey 68). Some of the game-based strategies that assist learning include progressively harder challenges, levels of accomplishment, immediate visual feedback on performance, interaction with others, clear statements of students roles, and an accumulating balance experience points (XP) (Dickey 67–69). I predicted that if I were to “gamify” some elements of my course, they might encourage my students to act in accordance with the suggestions in the Guide to Winning list.

Figure 6: Guide to Winning list version 2 (from Step 8 of design process).

Figure 6: Guide to Winning list version 2 (from Step 8 of design process).

8 Create

The second version of the Guide to Winning list was created in this stage (see Figure 6). The list title was shortened to “Guide to Winning” for the sake of catchiness. I re-arranged the order of the items on the list to emphasize self-responsibility and good manners. Emphasis was achieved by employing the principle of serial position effects, whereby the first and last items on a list are better remembered than the middle items (Lidwell, Holden, and Butler 178). I also added some subtle font and color variations to the list, in an attempt to capitalize on aesthetic usability effect. The final improvement to the Guide to Winning list was adding short, explanatory sentences to each item.

I also added several of the recommendations from the gamification literature to my course materials. I changed the grading to use experience points, added a scoreboard reminiscent of computer games to my online course materials (see Figure 7), and divided the course content up into six distinct, progressively harder sections. These sections further mimicked levels in gaming by being released incrementally. All but the first of these sections were hidden at the start of semester, only being shown to individual students when they had completed all the work in the previous section.

Figure 7: Scoreboard added to course design materials (from Step 8 of design thinking process). Each bar in the graph represents one student's total score. Students see their own bar highlighted.

Figure 7: Scoreboard added to course design materials (from Step 8 of design thinking process). Each bar in the graph represents one student’s total score. Students see their own bar highlighted.

9 Test

The updated Guide to Winning list and assorted gamification strategies were used in Fall 2014 with 40 students across two sections of the same course. As with the previous testing stage, this was passive and informal. The impact of this suite of changes was immediately noticeable in an increase in motivation and friendly competitiveness among students. Although this was promising, it was not the main aim. Therefore, as in the previous round of testing, I observed student behavior constantly throughout the semester, comparing it with behavior of students during the previous semester, and looking for improvements.

10 Evaluate

Evaluation of the second round of testing involved comparing test results from stage 9 with those from stage 5. The most recent test was a major improvement on the previous test, with students demonstrating more awareness of the relationship between their performance and their grades, and using more courteous, professional language in class and in course communication. The range of interventions also had the unexpected result of creating greater camaraderie between students within the classes. Despite the improvement in student performance, I suspected that the Guide to Winning list could be further improved by presenting it audiovisually.

11 Ideate

This ideation stage was brief but extremely productive. In collaboration with colleagues, I generated many ideas for unique audiovisual ways to engage students in the Guide to Winning content.

12 Create

The ideas generated in the previous stage were the starting point for a series of sketches in this creation stage. After discussing the sketches with colleagues, the most promising visual concepts were developed into rough prototypes. The prototypes were grouped related to one of the following three concepts: historical figures juxtaposed with contemporary cultural references, a cardboard classroom with cardboard furniture and students, and chalkboard stop animation.

13 Test

The prototypes were used to test the appeal of each concept. Both students and teachers were asked for feedback on prototypes in a series of informal interviews. Approximately ten interviews were conducted.

14 Evaluate

Feedback from the previous round of testing indicated that the historical figures and cardboard world concepts were unappealing to students. They interpreted historical characters and a cardboard world as too simplistic, and in some cases, even offensive. The chalkboard stop animation concept was received well.

15 Refine

Based on the findings of the evaluation stage, the Guide to Winning video concept was refined in the direction of the third and most popular concept. This involved sketching potential scenes, and thinking up feasible ways to use chalkboard animation, given the time-consuming nature of stop motion shooting, and the strict time and resource constraints on the project. The video concept ultimately ended up as a twist on the traditional teacher-at-desk style of educational videos. The twist involved adding a lot of animation, some comic interludes, and chalkboard stop animation. Once the refinement process was completed, I moved on to video pre-production.

“Guide to Winning” Video Production


The pre-production process started with taking stock of currently available resources. The Reynolds School at the University of Nevada Reno has a large amount of high quality production equipment I was able to use free-of-charge. Initial funding was then secured to cover the cost of props, software, and a videographer. Six months into pre-production, a second round of funding was secured to hire a production assistant. Figure 8 shows the costs (both in-kind and explicit) associated with making this video.

Figure 8: Costs associated with the “Guide to Winning” video production.

Figure 8: Costs associated with the “Guide to Winning”
video production.


The project management involved in this pilot production included hiring, managing, and monitoring payment of staff, gaining shooting approval, and managing workflow for all team members. The team members included , a videographer, production assistant, and me. The pre-production work shared between us included location scouting, storyboarding (see Figure 9), and script writing. While the work was shared, the vast majority was done by myself, due in part to funding constraints, and in part due to poor project management.


Production included animation, chalk board stop animation, studio and on-location shooting, and drone camera work. The animation work was most time intensive, with approximately 100 hours of animation work going into 70 animations. Almost all of this animation work was completed by myself, and took approximately four months.

The remaining production work was completed in three days, and was shared more evenly among the three team members. All of the chalk board stop animation occurred on campus, as well as the bulk of the location shooting. The drone footage in the intro scene was shot in suburban Reno.

Figure 9: A storyboard created in the pre-production process.

Figure 9: A storyboard created in the pre-production process.



Post-production was completed mostly by the videographer. Several stages of editing revisions were included in post-production, and these were completed by the production assistant and me.

Finished video

The finished video is just over three minutes long, and incorporates most of the communication strategies researched in the design thinking process (see Figure 10). Those communication strategies not incorporated in the videoare exercised when all the educational materials are used in combination.


Evaluation & Further Research

The unexpected value of using the design thinking process was the development of a range of interconnected interventions to increase student performance. While I set out with the hope of producing “something” to bridge the gap between my expectations and student performance, I ended up with much more: a re-designed course structure, grading schema, and a short video. These educational materials have been received positively by both students and educators. The video, in particular, has received overwhelming praise.

This project could benefit from further testing to quantify the effectiveness of the developed range of educational materials. The initial positive feedback indicates these materials are effective, and it would be worthwhile to subject them to formal testing to ascertain why. Specifically, the Guide to Winning video would benefit from eye tracking testing and in-depth user interviews. This combination of qualitative and quantitative evaluation could provide greater insight into how and why certain materials become engaging.

In hindsight, the design thinking process could have been enriched by incorporating ethnographic processes into the empathizing stage (see Lupton and Phillips 26), generative techniques across the defining, ideating and creating stages (for example, see Sanders and Stappers 66), and extending the iteration process throughout the video production (using the method advocated by Brunsell and Horejsi p.8).

The gamification elements in the course materials could also be improved in future iterations. For example, badges for students who demonstrate accomplishment of each of the rules in the Guide to Winning list would provide extra immediate visual feedback. Also, weaving the narrative element of gameplay into the course materials could provide an additional engagement device. These are areas of opportunity for future studies.


In order to be effective, educational materials must be engaging; understandable to and meaningful for the students using them. Though there is a gap between student needs and what traditional educational resources provide, educators can fill this gap by creating educational materials themselves using design thinking. However, engaging materials are not created by happenstance. This paper has demonstrated how using design thinking can be effective for designing educational materials that address the disconnect between current undergraduate students’ performance, and educators’ expectations of them. Following the design thinking process, I participated in a cyclical, holistic analysis of all the course materials that contribute to students’ learning experience. This analysis facilitated multiple small improvements to course materials, and development of one major improvement: the Guide to Winning video. No doubt design thinking will prove effective for other educators who seek to increase their students engagement and self-efficacy in learning environments.


Works Cited

Attali, Yigal, and Meirav Arieli-Attali. “Gamification in Assessment: Do Points Affect Test Performance?” Computers & Education 83 (2015): 57–63. ScienceDirect. Web. 9 Feb. 2015.

Benson, Nigel et al. The Psychology Book. New York: DK, 2012. Print.

Brown, Tim. Change by Design. Harper Collins, 2009. Print.

Brunsell, Eric, and Martin Horejsi. “Paper Slide Videos.” The Science Teacher 80.4 (2013): 8. Print.

Buchanan, Richard. “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking.” Design Issues 8.2 (1992): 5–21. JSTOR. Web. 9 Feb. 2015.

Cassim, Fatima. “Hands On, Hearts On, Minds On: Design Thinking within an Education Context.” International Journal of Art & Design Education 32.2 (2013): 190–202. EBSCOhost. Web. 9 Feb. 2015.

Coomes, Michael D., and Robert DeBard. Serving the Millennial Generation: New Directions for Student Services, Number 106. John Wiley & Sons, 2011. Print.

Crichton, Susan. “Leapfrogging Pedagogy: A Design Approach to Making Change in Challenging Contexts.” Electronic Journal of e-Learning 12.1 (2014): 3–13. Print.

Dickey, Michele D. “Engaging By Design: How Engagement Strategies in Popular Computer and Video Games Can Inform Instructional Design.” Educational Technology Research and Development 53.2 (2005): 67–83. Print.

Fenci, Heidi, and Karen Scheel. “Engaging Students.” Journal of College Science Teaching 35.1 (2005): 20–24. Print.

Frascara, Jorge et al. User-Centred Graphic Design: Mass Communication And Social Change. CRC Press, 1997. Print.

Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford. “Process Guide: An Introduction to Design Thinking.” Web. 5 Feb. 2015.

Holland, Janet, and John Holland. “Implications of Shifting Technology in Education.” TechTrends: Linking Research & Practice to Improve Learning 58.3 (2014): 16–25. EBSCOhost. Web. 24 Jan. 2015.

Howard-Hamilton, Mary F., Aretha Faye Marbley, and Fred A. Bonner. Diverse Millennial Students in College: Implications for Faculty and Student Affairs. Sterling, Va: Stylus Pub, 2011. EBSCOhost. Web. 15 Feb. 2015.

IDEO. “Design Thinking for Educators.” 2011. Web. 5 Feb. 2015.

Johansson-Skoldberg, Ulla, Jill Woodilla, and Mehves Cetinkaya. “Design Thinking: Past, Present and Possible Futures.” Creativity and Innovation Management 22.2 (2013): 121–146. ProQuest. Web. 9 Feb. 2015.

Johnson, Jeff. Designing with the Mind in Mind, 2nd Edition. 2nd ed. Morgan Kaufmann, 2013. Safari Books Online. Web. 15 Feb. 2015.

Lidwell, William, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler. Universal Principles of Design: 100 Ways to Enhance Usability, Influence Perception, Increase Appeal, Make Better Design Decisions, and Teach Through Design. London: Rockport, 2003. Print.

Long, Christian. “Teach Your Students to Fail Better with Design Thinking.” Learning & Leading with Technology 39.5 (2012): 16–20. Print.

Lupton, Ellen, and Jennifer Cole Phillips. Graphic Design Thinking. 1 edition. New York : Baltimore: Princeton Architectural Press, 2011. Print.

Moravec, John. “The University of the Future: Marching toward Obsolescence?” Education Futures. N.p., 8 Apr. 2013. Web. 4 Feb. 2015.

Nikirk, Martin. “Teaching Millennial Students.” The Education Digest 77.9 (2012): 41–44. Print.

Norman, Don. “Attractive Things Work Better.” Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things. 1 edition. New York: Basic Books, 2005. 17–28. Print.

Patnaik, Dev. Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy. FT Press, 2009. Print.

Purdy, James P. “What Can Design Thinking Offer Writing Studies?” College Composition and Communication 65.4 (2014): 612–641. Print.

Rainer, Thom S., and Jess Rainer. The Millennials. B&H Publishing Group, 2011. Print.

Sanders, Liz, and Pieter Jan Stappers. Convivial Toolbox: Generative Research for the Front End of Design. Amsterdam; Enfield: BIS Publishers, 2013. Print.

Sherer, Pamela, and Timothy Shea. “Using Online Video to Support Student Learning and Engagement.” College Teaching 59.2 (2011): 56–59. EBSCOhost. Web. 24 Jan. 2015.

Twenge, Jean M. Generation Me – Revised and Updated: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before. Simon and Schuster, 2014. Print.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *