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What All Students Need to Know About Design Thinking

We’re not even halfway through the year and already a number of global buzzwords are emerging including everything from “fintech” to “planetary health,” according to a roundup from NPR. One of the most talked about trends in the world of academia, meanwhile? Design thinking. What is it and how can it help you succeed? Here’s a closer look.

Sep 6, 2023
  • Student Tips
What All Students Need to Know About Design Thinking

We’re not even halfway through the year and already a number of global buzzwords are emerging including everything from “fintech” to “planetary health,” according to a roundup from NPR. One of the most talked about trends in the world of academia, meanwhile? Design thinking. What is it and how can it help you succeed? Here’s a closer look.

The 411 on Design Thinking

Described by Fast Company as a “proven and repeatable problem-solving protocol that any business or profession can employ to achieve extraordinary results,” design thinking somewhat defies precise explanation.

As leading design thinking expert and executive portfolio director at IDEO Chicago Neil Stevenson told The Atlantic, “Design thinking isn’t one thing,” he told me in a phone interview, “but a bundle of mindsets and philosophies all wrapped up in one term, which obviously has the potential to lead to ambiguity and misunderstanding.”

If we can’t explicitly define design thinking, we can break down the process of design thinking into its key elements, according to Fast Company, including the follow: defining the problem; creating and considering many options; refining -- and refining again -- selected directions; and picking a winner and executing.

Businessman with cardboard box on his head saying think outside the box concept for brainstorming, creativity, innovation, strategy or individuality

But even the elements of design thinking are up for the debate. As far back as 1969, Herbert Simon’s Sciences of the Artificial identified a seven-stage process, including defining; researching; ideating; making a prototype; choosing; implementing and learning.

While these processes differ in their specifics, their interaction comprises design thinking: a step-by-step formula for aimed at facilitating practical and creative problem-solving.

Proposes The Atlantic, “At its best, design thinking incorporates proven-effective teaching techniques such as self-directed inquiry and collaborative problem-solving, and dovetails nicely with social-emotional learning curricula that emphasize interpersonal skills such as collaboration and empathy. And the end result of a design-thinking project is often a tangible product, such as a model city, a robot, or a better mousetrap. It’s no surprise, then, that many educators are eager to adopt design thinking as a way to plan their own teaching and as a strategy for helping their students learn through solving real-world problems.”

The Benefits of Design Thinking

Design thinking enthusiasts tout its many advantages, including the following:

brainstorming brainstorm strategy workshop business note notes sticky - stock image

1. It supports a wide range of new ideas and solutions.

Albert Einstein once said, "No problem can be solved by the same kind of thinking that created it.” And while we often talk about the value of “outside the box,” thinking, the reality is that this can be easier said than done. Design thinking is one way to push outside the box and into fresh and exciting territory.

Says The Atlantic, “Historically, creativity has been portrayed as a mysterious, elusive force—a gift from the gods or the muses. Creativity can’t be summoned, the thinking goes, let alone taught to the mentally inflexible, unimaginative, muse-less masses. Design thinking upends that perception and assumes that anyone can be a creative problem-solver.”

Sad business partners, working on new website layout

2. It emphasizes empathy.

Delivering valuable products and services begins with understanding what consumers want. Design thinking offers unique insights into what’s often otherwise opaque. Proposes Forbes, “Design thinking helps us cut through the opacity that surrounds our customers’ (or users’) needs and behaviors, their connections with existing ecosystems, and their interactions with one another. In essence, empathy becomes a compass that guides us along the innovation path as we set out to discover hidden, but detectable, elements of the user experience.”

The Atlantic uses a scene from the film Apollo 13 as an illustration of the value of empathy. After the astronauts become stranded, NASA engineers are tasked with devising a rescue plan using only the materials currently available to the adrift astronauts. In the end, “The engineers find a solution through design thinking: by understanding the needs and resources of the astronauts, organizing the resources available on the lunar module, then working together to develop and prototype many ideas. The ultimate solution may not have been pretty, but it was creative and it was effective. Their design saved the lives of the Apollo 13 astronauts.”

Designer drawing a light bulb, concept for brainstorming and inspiration

3. It accounts for execution.

Another of-the-moment buzzword? Disruptive technology, defined by TechTarget as a technology which “displaces an established technology and shakes up the industry or a ground-breaking product that creates a completely new industry.” We are living in a world which is ripe for disruption, and yet success relies on one thing above all else: the ability to implement and execute.

In sharing his experiences with taking his company from a simple idea to a $170 million acquisition deal, Mint founder Aaron Patzer said, “Ideas are really nothing, it’s all in the execution of that idea. Either you have a fantastic idea and you’re one of the only people in the world who can do it, or you have a fantastic idea and you have to be the best executor on that idea.”

The takeaway? Design thinking works because it prioritizes seeing ideas through.

While we often conceptualize design thinking within the context of the business world, it’s also useful in academic settings. Says IDEO partner Michael Hendrix, “Once you start to embrace design not only as a skill set but as a thought process, you can apply it more broadly than you thought."

This not only applies to how students learn, but also to how universities serve students. Says Inside Higher Ed, “What can design thinking offer to higher education? In a word, change. Not just change for the sake of creating change or trying the latest fad, but thoughtful change for the higher education institution that wants to position itself to better withstand the challenges presented by both old and new competitors. Change not just for technology’s sake, but change based on better understanding students and putting into a place a mechanism for institution-wide innovation.”

Joanna Hughes


Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.