Design Thinking: How, not About

I’ve just come upstairs from the basement workshop, where I’m assembling a pair of inkle looms as gifts for friends.  I first learned about the inkle loom  while trying to assemble a system for card/tablet-weaving, and now I think I want to build a better loom that looks like this, anyway.  Before that, I worked on another automata that’s built from the box frame I built to practice dovetails, which will be a present for my mother.  And on Friday I folded a trio of big origami boxes to wrap a present for a colleague, using giant paper and a pattern I learned during my summer experimentation.  And I’m getting back to these projects, of course, after weeks of experimenting with electricity and building motors for my Thursday teaching program.  I’ve not been able to go to the Monday night knitting circle in a few weeks, but I’m looking forward to getting back into the string-theory work I’ve been doing with knitting a Hermetic scarf (like a Doctor Who scarf, but in the colors of the seven classical planets rather than the Doctor’s colors), and a few other projects, like making lucet cord for decorative purposes, and for finishing out a pair of medieval-style poof pants I made for myself….

Which is to say:

When I was asked to start up a design thinking program six years ago, I thought it was all about theory.  It was all about having empathy for people, and solving problems.  But it’s occurred to me in the intervening six years, that while empathy is an important part of the thinking of Design Thinking, the real work of Design Thinking, the Design portion of the work, comes not from knowing about someone else’s problems, but knowing how to do things which might help those people arrive at a solution to those problems.

The famous Ted Koppel Nightline story about IDEO and “The Deep Dive” begins with visits to a grocery store and interviews with people in the grocery store, and a request to redesign a shopping cart in just five days.

But it’s worth noting that these folks are Designers.  They built the first Apple mouse, and a host of other products. They’re psychologists, biologists, technologists, and interviewers.  They defer judgement, and listen to the ideas of others, and build on the others’ work.  As one fellow says, “Enlightened trial and error succeeds over the planning of the lone genius.”  And of course, “Fail often to succeed sooner.”  And all of the language that they use is great.

But think about the Talents and Skills which are on display here: using a angle grinder and a metal hacksaw.  Using a welding tool, building mock-ups of precisely-cut foam board and sculpt-able styrofoam, building crazy things out of whatever materials happen to be lying around the workshop.  Drawing. Writing (beautiful handwriting, too).  Laughter, easy-going cleverness in groups.

And I think that what I’m trying to say is that I see many schools succeeding at the Thinking part of Design Thinking.  But one of the places that I think my school succeeds where others fail is in the Design portion of Design Thinking.  A kid comes to my school, and he or she has the potential to learn knitting, sewing, embroidery, jewelry-design, costume design, thread-spinning, basic electronics, weaving, basic carpentry, graphic design, drawing, origami, and more.  He or she learns these skills because _I_ have learned them (sometimes painfully), and I’ve come to understand that the success of a Design Thinking program hinges not on the stuff you have in the Design Lab, nor in the books in the library shelves, nor in the projects  you create.  No, it lies in what your teachers know how to do — what skills do they know, and what can they impart to a group of children successfully in the time you give them.

Don’t get so caught up in the abstract thinking portion of Design Thinking, that you forget to teach the students how to Design (and Make) what they have thought into existence.

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