Originally published in the Winter 2021 Issue of Kansas Child Magazine.
Innovation teams in corporate settings frequently attempt to conjure up the energy and unrestrained creativity of childhood. Using problem-solving frameworks such as Design Thinking, these teams attempt to tap into the vast imagination and optimism of their youth. But Design Thinking isn’t just a discipline for businesses. It’s a useful practice for solving all sorts of problems, and it’s a highly valuable tool to instill empathy, confidence, and creativity in kids.
What is Design Thinking?
The practice of Design Thinking has emerged in the past 20 years as a popular tool for practicing creativity and producing change. It’s a framework and collection of practices intended to produce creative solutions to challenging problems. Design Thinking is used in academia, business, education, and social change.
Although there are many ways of doing Design Thinking, the best-known model comes from the Stanford school. This five-step framework – Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test – lays out the steps to produce rapid, effective innovation. In a typical scenario, a Design Thinking team convenes to tackle a challenge. They will work through the steps in the model, although rarely in a linear fashion. Most typically, Design Thinking processes flow back and forth as events and learning dictate revisiting earlier stages.
The work of each stage is as follows:
Empathize – Developing a feel for and emotional connection with the people most directly impacted by the problem to be solved.
Define – Clarifying and expressing exactly what problem the team will tackle. This can be different, slightly or radically, from the original challenge, depending on learnings from the first phase.
Ideate – This is the fun part. Teams generate ideas. Bold, wild, crazy, impossible, and abundant ideas.
Prototype – The team produces rough, simple versions of their ideas to gain a better understanding of ideas and of the people using them.
Test – The goal of prototyping is to test as quickly and often as possible. In the last two stages, the team flows back and forth between the two as testing leads to changes in the prototype until an acceptable outcome is produced.
Designing With, not For
While Design Thinking has been widely embraced and is practiced in a variety of settings, it does have limitations and drawbacks. One of the principal pitfalls of Design Thinking is that it places the Design Team in a position of privilege. They are positioned as the experts, designing a solution for people who need their help. In some applications, especially in the realm of social innovation, this privileged position is problematic. It can exacerbate historical and existing inequities.
To address this problem, the practice of Equity Centered Design (ECD) has emerged as an important offshoot from Design Thinking. ECD is grounded in the conviction that the people closest to the problem are the experts. Accordingly, one of the fundamental principles of ECD is “Design with, not for.” Designing with means that community members are members of the design team, not merely subjects of study. They have a direct say in the direction and shape of the solution.
Design Thinking and Kids
Teaching the Design Thinking process to kids at an early age can be a rewarding and empowering experience. Children make ideal Design Thinkers. Their imaginations are vast and uninhibited. That’s why many Design Thinking sessions attempt to conjure that spirit of uninhibited creativity in their adult participants with toys and craft supplies.
Teaching kids Design Thinking and having them practice it gives them a problem solving framework that they can apply throughout their lives. It encourages them to explore and tackle the problems they encounter. It helps them practice empathy for others. It fosters and rewards creativity. And it instills in them confidence in their ability to shape the world they live in.
It can, however, also reinforce privilege. That’s why teaching the mindset of “Designing With, not For” is so important. Positioning designers and users together as co-equal creators is fundamental to producing sustainable, equitable outcomes. Design Thinking is a lifelong skill. Kids who learn and practice it have the chance to become empathetic, creative problem-solvers. And that’s a skill set that will serve them well in school, in work, and throughout their lives.