Whether you’re an educator, administrator, or youth mentor, you’ve likely encountered the term “Design Thinking” as a human-centered approach to problem solving that begins with developing empathy for those facing a particular challenge. It serves as a framework that helps to define problems, empathize with others, develop prototypes of possible solutions, and refine those prototypes through multiple iterations until they have generated a viable solution to the challenge at hand.


While a growing number of businesses are using design thinking to better understand and meet consumer needs, educators also realize the potential of using design thinking in the classroom as a way to engage students and develop deep thinkers while they solve authentic challenges. While there is a specific process that design thinking follows, perhaps its greatest impact on students is not in learning the methodology itself, but rather establishing a mindset that promotes an understanding of others.


The field of education has seen a surge of interest in design thinking, both nationally and internationally. You can see its growth mapped on the Design Thinking in Schools map and follow national design thinking social media efforts, such as the Twitter community #DTK12chat. Read on to learn more about each step in the design thinking process, as explained by the at the Institute of Design at Stanford. You’ll also follow along with Tracy Evans, an educator who used a design thinking framework to help her students redesign the physical environment of their classroom.


Step 1: Empathize

Empathy is the foundation of design thinking. To empathize, we:


  Observe others and their behavior in the context of their lives.

  Engage and interact with others.

  Immerse ourselves in what another person experiences.


Watching what people do and how they interact with their environment gives you clues about what they think and feel. It also helps you to learn about what they need, insights that can lead to innovative solutions.


Engaging with people directly reveals a tremendous amount about the way they think and the values they hold. A deep engagement can surprise both parties with unanticipated insights that are revealed. Innovative solutions are build on a solid understanding of these kinds of beliefs and values.


In addition to speaking with and observing others, you need to have personal experience in the design space yourself. Find experiences to immerse yourself to better understand the situation that others are in, and for which you are designing a solution.


In the Classroom: Using Design Thinking to Design a Better Learning Space


Last September, the day before students returned, Ms. Evans looked around her classroom and panicked. Bulletin boards were bare, and there was no furniture. Ms. Evans had decided to take a risk: instead of decorating a classroom for her students, she used a design thinking framework to help students design their own learning space together. In re-thinking their learning space, Ms. Evans’ students were about to find a real-world solution to a real-world problem.

The first step was to create empathy. Students explored where and how they work best and what might be done in this space if it could be remade in any way that they needed. Ms. Evans’ students observed one another, engaged in questioning one another, and immersed themselves in the experience to better understand how each student learns in their own unique way.


Step 2: Define

The define mode is when you unpack and synthesize your empathy findings into compelling needs and insights, and scope a specific and meaningful challenge. Two goals of the define mode are to:


  • Develop a deep understanding of others in the design space.
  • Based on that understanding, come up with an actionable problem statement.

Your problem statement, or your point of view, should be a guiding statement that focuses on specific users, and insights and needs that were uncovered during the empathize mode. The define mode is critical to the design process because it explicitly expresses the problem you are striving to address through your efforts.


In the Classroom: Using Design Thinking to Design a Better Learning Space


After gaining insight into where and how they work best, Ms. Evans’ students worked collectively to define the problem they were trying to solve. After much discussion, they came up with an actionable statement that focused their efforts:

“How can we design a classroom that gives every student a space where they can learn the best?”


Step 3: Ideate

Ideate is the mode during the design process in which you focus on idea generation. Mentally it represents a process of “going wide” in terms of concepts and outcomes. The goal of ideation is to explore a wide solution space - both a large quantity of ideas and a diversity among those ideas.


The goals of the ideation phase include:


  • Step beyond obvious solutions and increase the innovation potential.
  • Uncover unexpected areas of exploration.
  • Create fluency (volume) and flexibility (variety) in your innovation options.

Regardless of how you choose to ideate, the fundamental principle of ideation is to be aware of when you are generating ideas and when you are evaluating ideas - and mix the two only intentionally.


In the Classroom: Using Design Thinking to Design a Better Learning Space


With a problem statement defined, Ms. Evans’ students took to brainstorming. To begin, she reminded students that every idea is a good idea. Her students brainstormed and shook loose hundreds of ideas on sticky notes and chart paper. Ms. Evans helped them group their ideas into similar concepts by moving the sticky notes around.

A silent gallery walk of all the ideas allowed the students to pick out the best ones.


Step 4: Prototype

Prototyping is getting ideas and explorations out of your head and into the physical world. A prototype can be anything that takes a physical form- from a wall of post-it notes, to a role-playing activity, a space, an object, or even a storyboard. Prototypes should be rough and rapid, to allow yourself to learn quickly and investigate a lot of different possibilities.


There are many reasons why prototyping is used, including:


  • Empathy gaining: Prototyping is a tool to deepen your understanding of the design space and others, even at a pre-solution phase of your project.
  • Exploration: Build to think. Develop multiple solution options.
  • Testing: Create prototypes (and develop the context) to test and refine solutions with others.
  • Inspiration: Inspire others by showing your vision.

At the prototype stage, aim to learn as much as you can. Prototyping is a powerful tool that can eliminate ambiguity, assist in ideation, and allow you to test a number of ideas with others.


In the Classroom: Using Design Thinking to Design a Better Learning Space


After brainstorming, Ms. Evans’ students sketched. Initial sketches led to project-based learning where students measured the classroom and created a scale model on paper. They discovered that the limited amount of space meant planning how to make it work best.

Each sketch was reviewed and revised with input from other students.


Step 5: Test

Testing is the chance to refine your solution and make it better. Goals of the testing mode include:


  • Refine prototypes and solutions. Testing informs the next iterations of prototypes. Sometimes this means going back to the drawing board.
  • To learn more about others. Testing is another opportunity to build empathy through observation and engagement - it often yields unexpected insights.
  • To test and refine your point of view. Sometimes testing reveals that not only is the solution not quite right, but also that you’ve failed to frame the problem correctly.

The testing phase often leads back to the prototype, or even ideate or define modes. When in doubt, fall back on your observations and experiences in the empathy mode.


In the Classroom: Using Design Thinking to Design a Better Learning Space


Volunteers helped construct and move furniture, but Ms. Evans’ students were in charge of furniture placement, right down to arrangement of the bulletin boards. Rethinking their space on a limited budget meant that students had to get really creative. They looked around the school for unused furniture, asked for donations, and wrote letters to the administration asking for funds.


After the build, students reflected in their journal about how this space might work for them and what goals they set for themselves.

As the school year progresses, Ms. Evans and her students occasionally revisit their learning space and examine how well it’s working. Some elements are taken out, while others are added. The space constantly flexes to meet the needs of students.


Ready to take the next step? Return to the September Community Roadmap: Design Thinking and complete this month's mission.



Bootcamp Bootleg: A Guide for Design Thinking by the at the Institute of Design at Stanford University. The work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Accessed online: