Design Thinking: Creating Places That Foster Students’ Creative Confidence

Colleges campuses are undergoing rapid change as institutions explore new learning models to engage an increasingly diverse student population. This evolving change is inspiring new approaches to planning learning spaces and campus facilities.

Through Design Thinking, the traditional program-driven planning process is evolving into a more holistic process that enables campus leadership to look at academic buildings with fresh eyes—as more than curriculum-specific classrooms but instead as places where students, faculties, and communities can shape learning environments for their changing educational needs.

Design thinking is a “human-centered and collaborative approach to problem-solving, using a designed mindset to solve complex problem,” as defined by Tim Brown, British Industrial Designer and President of IDEO.

Essentially, the process drills down to how people use spaces, how they shape spaces, and how spaces shape them.

Corporate Backdrop

In many ways, changes in the classroom mirror changes in the corporate workplace, where companies are reconfiguring spaces to better engage employees and improve productivity. Since campuses prepare students for the workplace, the comparisons are relevant.

Today’s most successful companies are focused on optimizing operational performance, improving outcomes and profit, and doing more with less. Key factors promoting workplace change are business drivers that support speed and innovation and recruitment and retention; financial drivers that reduce expenses and accommodate business growth; and facility/technology drivers that support networked places and a variety of flexible activity settings that anticipate change.

Educational Backdrop

As with the corporate world, higher education institutions are similarly focused on optimizing resources, improving outcomes and student performance, expanding offerings, and doing more with less. Learning models are shifting from lecture-based to self-directed, interactive models, supporting evidence that student retention rates improve through participatory learning. Key drivers are experiential learning, active learning, team-based learning, collaborative learning, and distance e-learning—all supported through integrated technology.

Flexible, adaptable learning spaces reflect this shift to interactive learning methods, often taking learning outside of the classroom and into maker spaces where student can gain hands-on experience building projects, or into project team rooms, commons spaces, outdoor spaces, and other gathering spaces where students can meet formally or informally. Similarly, the classroom is becoming a flexible, multi-model platform that easily can scale up or down to accommodate a variety of active, passive, or distance learning methods.

To create learning environments that reflect these changes requires deep-diving into the user experiences, truly understanding how students and faculty use learning spaces, where learning occurs—and how they can transform space over time.

Design Thinking Methodology

Design thinking provides a framework for bringing together story-based, ethnographic research with evidence-based design and a rigorous decision-making process to create meaningful, functional, and efficient solutions based on student experiences.

The following five steps allow designers and campus leaders to go beyond design. They allow educational leadership to envision a future campus that can generate innovation and adapt to change—and drive change.

Building Empathy — This first step involves encouraging the process of unlearning—of suspending assumptions for the sake of inspiration and insight. This begins with empathy. The goal is to ensure designers and decision-makers fully understand those who will be using their facilities. This step involves implementing ethnographic research to observe participants in their real-life environment to learn from them and with them. Drilling down deeper than interviews and focus groups, this step forms teams of researchers/participants who accompany each other in the classroom and around campus to gain insight into student/faculty activity and build empathy through the voice of the user group.

Defining Challenges and Opportunities — The second step requires synthesizing insights from step one to develop an actionable problem statement, a summary of the challenge. The process allows user groups to share what they have learned through their own ethnographic research and then develop narratives that reflect the ideal scenarios for students and faculty. While writing out their narrative is valuable, a more effective way of story-telling is having participants act out a scene depicting the ideal student learning experience. This process of synthesizing and story-telling leads to the creation of the challenge summary.

Ideating Solutions — In ideation, the team explores multiple solutions that liberate designers and clients from old learning models, going beyond “what is” to “what if” and “what will be.” Utilizing attributes derived from the ethnographic research, this step asks questions that are outside of the obvious: “What would the classroom look like if we had no lectures? If students led their own learning and professors facilitated? If learning could happen anywhere?” During this process, the participants develop several “extreme schemes,” in which each scheme focuses on one of these attributes—and then together develop a hybrid scheme that blends the best of all.

Building a Prototype — Any idea that results from ideation needs to be tested. Prototyping offers the ability to investigate a variety of possibilities quickly and effectively. Designers move ideas and explorations into a physical form through virtual reality, physical and digital architectural models, or full-scale mock-ups. Prototypes elicit deeper empathy by allowing designers to learn how their ideas could manifest with critical feedback from the decision-makers and user groups.

Iterating Prototypes — Testing is a key step in co-creating with the user. In this iterative mode, designers place their prototypes into the appropriate context of the users’ campus life. If empathy is listening to people, testing the prototype is listening to the product. Here, prototypes and solutions can be refined through full-scale mock-ups.

Looking Forward

The imperative to improve educational outcomes is greater than ever before as college costs continue to rise and the workplace demands more job-specific skill sets from graduates. Using design thinking methodology for learning spaces creates a holistic understanding that places students and faculty as active participants in the design process—which ultimately impacts their learning experience and preparation for the workforce.

Empowering students and faculty requires a shift in how learning occurs. It requires that colleges become comfortable with the ambiguity prevalent throughout the design thinking process, as empathy-driven ideas are formulated, tested, and reworked. However, in doing so, valuable and sometimes unexpected solutions can emerge that best address the situation—and inspire design innovative that engages the student and campus experiences.

Amin Mojtahedi and Richard Smith recently presented a four-hour interactive workshop, “Design Thinking for Creating Places That Foster Students’ Creative Confidence,” at SCUP 2018 Annual Conference.