5. Understanding Design Thinking

Design is intelligence made visible

 Alina Wheeler

Design Thinking involves students developing the capacity to view problems and opportunities as challenges that can be solved through the application of their understanding of technology processes. 

Technology processes allow students to create solutions for themselves or others (end user, client or consumer). They involve the purposeful use of resources including materials, data, systems, tools and equipment when creating, designing, producing and using products, services and environments. They may involve identifying, exploring, critiquing, formulating and investigating a problem or opportunity; generating, researching and developing ideas; analysing, creating, designing, planning, producing, representing, constructing and evaluating solutions in a sustainable way, giving appropriate thought to impact. These processes typically require one or more of the following types of thinking: computational, critical, creative, design, futures or systems.

Design Thinking frames Design and Technology studies, complement these other thinking processes, and contributes to the development in students of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS).

Design thinking

Design thinking involves the use of strategies for understanding design needs and opportunities, visualising and generating creative and innovative ideas, planning, and analysing and evaluating those ideas that best meet the criteria for success.

Design thinking underpins learning in Design and Technologies. Design processes require students to identify and investigate a need or opportunity; generate, plan and realise designed solutions; and evaluate products and processes. Consideration of economic, environmental and social impacts that result from designed solutions are core to design thinking, design processes and Design and Technologies.

When developing solutions in Digital Technologies, students explore, analyse and develop ideas based on data, inputs and human interactions. When students design a solution to a problem they consider how users will be presented with data, the degree of interaction with that data and the various types of computational processing. For example, designing a maze; writing precise and accurate sequences of instructions to move a robot through the maze or testing the program and modifying the solution.

Design Thinking (or Solution Based Thinking) is a method for the practical, creative resolution of problems or opportunities that looks for an improved future result. It differs from the scientific method, which starts by defining all of the parameters of a problem in order to define the solution. Rather, the design way of problem solving starts with a solution in order to define enough of the parameters to optimise a path to the goal. The solution, then, is actually the starting point.

The teaching of Design Thinking involves the use of strategies for understanding design problems and opportunities, visualising and generating creative and innovative ideas, and analysing, synthesising and evaluating those ideas that best meet the criteria for success.

The terms analysis and synthesis come from (classical) Greek and mean literally "to loosen up" and "to put together" respectively. In general, analysis is defined as the procedure by which we break down a whole into parts or components. Synthesis is defined as the opposite procedure: to combine separate elements or components in order to form a coherent whole. However, analysis and synthesis, always go hand in hand; they complement one another. Every synthesis is built upon the results of a preceding analysis, and every analysis requires a subsequent synthesis in order to verify and correct its results. (Ritchey, 1991)

The analysis of problems can involve two similar but distinct processes: Decomposition and Deconstruction.


Involves separating a complex problem into parts to allow a problem to be more easily understood; and


Is the systematic dismantling process to identify and analyse the components that make up a product or service and their relationships.

These processes also relate to Systems thinking where parts and components of a system, their interactions and interrelationships are analysed individually to see how they influence the functioning of the whole system, enabling students to understand the system and work with complexity, uncertainty and risk.

The synthesis of problems can then involve the recombination of the elements of a complex problem with some elements changed, added, removed, or recombined in new ways to offer a better solution to the problem. 

Understanding of the problem is they key aspects of design thinking that permits students to come up with new and better solutions to problems. This takes Technologies Education beyond following construction instructions and other craft based approaches. If students are not involved in a design process, it is not Technologies Education.  

Design Thinking Process

Design Thinking processes involve defining (identifying), researching (exploring), ideating (brainstorming), prototyping, choosing, implementing, and learning (Testing and Evaluation), to solve problems related to needs or opportunities that also consider social, cultural and environmental factors.

Define (Identify)

  • Decide what problem or opportunity to be accomplished, your objective;
  • Agree on who it is for (the client); and
  • Determine what will make the project successful.

Research (explore)

  • Review the history of the problem or opportunity; 
  • Collect examples of other attempts to solve the problem or develop the opportunity;
  • Talk to who it is for, and get their ideas for a solution; and


  • Identify what the client needs the solution to accomplish;
  • Generate as many ideas as possible to serve these identified needs;
  • Document or record your brainstorming session;
  • Do not judge or debate ideas; and
  • During brainstorming, have one conversation at a time.


  • Combine, expand, and refine ideas;
  • Create multiple drafts;
  • Seek feedback from a diverse group of people and client;
  • Present a selection of ideas to the client;
  • Reserve judgement and maintain neutrality; and
  • Create and present actual working prototype(s) if possible.


  • Review the objective of the project;
  • Set aside emotion and ownership of ideas;
  • Avoid consensus thinking;
  • Remember: the most practical solution isn't always the best;
  • Select the powerful ideas.


  • Make task descriptions;
  • Plan tasks;
  • Determine resources;
  • Assign tasks;
  • Execute; and
  • Deliver to client.


  • Gather feedback from those who will use your solution;
  • Determine if the solution met the objective.
  • Discuss what could be improved;
  • Measure success; collect data; and
  • Document.

Design Thinking Examples in local primary schools

Attributes of Design Thinking

Wicked problems

Design thinking is a solution-based approach to solving problems, and is especially useful when addressing what design thinkers refer to as Wicked Problems. Wicked problems are wicked in the sense that they are ill-defined or tricky, not wicked in the sense of malicious. For ill-defined problems, both the problem and the solution are unknown at the outset of the problem-solving exercise. This is as opposed to "tame" or "well-defined" problems where the problem is clear, and the solution is available through some technical knowledge.

For wicked problems, the general thrust of the problem may be clear, however considerable time and effort is spent in order to clarify the requirements. A large part of the problem solving activity, then, consists of problem definition and problem shaping.

The A-Ha moment

The "A-Ha Moment" is the moment where there is suddenly a clear forward path. It is the point in a design cycle where synthesis and divergent thinking, analysis and convergent thinking, and the nature of the problem all come together and an appropriate solution is found. Prior to this point, the process seems nebulous, hazy and inexact. At this point, the path forward is so obvious that in retrospect it seems odd that it took so long to recognise it. After this point, the focus becomes more and more clear as the final product is constructed.

The A-Ha Moment is usually described as a gut feeling. As designers move from novice to expert in their field, the exact point where the A-Ha Moment occurs is increasingly recognisable. This happens through the practice of actual doing and the reflection upon their personal design process.

Resistance and fear 

For Design Thinking, there are several factors who can stop the process. These enemies of Design Thinking are fear and resistance. They distract from design thinking by stopping creative processes through unconstructive negativity.


Fear keeps a designer from using their methods and process to achieve goals. Both are internal psychological hesitations that can distract the designer from creating or focusing on solutions by shifting the focus, instead, to doubts of self-worth, anxieties of "will it be good enough," or procrastinations.


Resistance can be encountered through internal psychological disruptions. Resistance stops design thinking by confusing the goal with all sorts of other things that need to be done first. Resistance shifts the focus from solutions and ways to get to those solutions to anything other than realisation.

Methods and Processes

Design methods and design process are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference between the two.

Design methods are all the techniques and ways of thinking when designing a solution. Some of these methods include looking at and understanding other designer's solutions, creating prototypes, mind-mapping, asking the five-whys to get to a crux of the problem, etc.

Design Processes are the way in which the methods come together through a series of actions, events or steps. There are many different design processes but they all have somewhat similar characteristics. The model developed by Koberg and Bagnall (1981) outlined 7 steps that can be completed cyclically or just one after the other (linearly).

The 7 Stages of the Universal Travel Model of the Creative Process:

  1. Accept Situation (or understand the problem);
  2. Analyse (the problem/situation);
  3. Define (restate the problem clearly by defining the goal);
  4. Ideate (to think of the possibilities, come up with options);
  5. Select (compare and decide upon the best option);
  6. Implement (creating a solution); and
  7. Evaluate (assess if the solution works and be improved).

The model developed by the Stanford University d School has five steps:

Stanford d School design process

  1. Empathise
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

These are addressed from three perspectives:

UNDERSTAND: Discovering insights via human engagement;

EXPERIMENT: Advancing your solution via prototyping; and

IDEATE: Generating ideas by reframing your challenge.

Bryan Lawson (1980) took the three fundamental design steps and argues that Analysis, Synthesis and Evaluation should be constantly developed in a three-step simplified triangular process in which:

Analysis is about understanding the “why” and “what” of a project; 

Synthesis is the part of the process where solutions are created and various design elements are pulled together into a working solution. Synthesis covers any area that deals with “how” things are done; and

Evaluation is where judgments are made concerning the analysis and synthesis. Evaluation of the analysis gives direction and prioritises requirements. Evaluation of synthesis exposes whether a proposed or completed solution is doing the job it is intended to do.

When a design process uses a combination of each of these three elements, its chances for success are greatly improved.

There are many other design process models (Dubberly, 2005) but the three fundamental steps of Analysis, Synthesis and Evaluation are fundamental to all approaches.

Daylight Design Thinking approach

  1. Learn from people
  2. Find patterns
  3. Define design principles
  4. Make Tangible
  5. Iterate Relentlessly

IBM Think Academy approach

  1. Understand
  2. Explore
  3. Prototype
  4. Evaluate


Discussion: Design and Technologies Curriculum

Revise curriculum as detailed in the lecture and discuss significant aspects, especially the contexts and type requirements for unit planning.

Discussion: Design Challenge ideas

Explore ideas for design challenges, building to discussion of unit ideas for student Portfolio of Learning assignment, discussing ideas for D&T and Digital Technologies. Particular focus on demonstrating the process in DT and D&T.

Activity: Bridge Building

Using paddlepop sticks, glueguns, and weights, solve the problem of crossing a gap (e.g. 1m between tables) with a freestanding bridge that can support the greatest weight.

Students should work through the design process, including investigation and evaluation, with a focus on iterative improvement, the importance of failure in the design thinking process, and ways in which design challenges can be used in schools. Demonstrate use of Bridge Building simulation software as an example of rapid prototyping.

Bridge Building simulations


Bridge Design contest simulator https://bridgecontest.org/ (software requires download) with PDF Tutorial

Some solutions to the Bridge Building challenge

>5kg (best briidge solution so far)