Course Remix: Design Thinking Leads to Aha Moments

    by Rachele Kanigel
    September 18, 2014
    Design thinking helps students focus on needs and generate creative solutions to problems. Photo by Scot Tucker.

    When I walked into my media entrepreneurship class at San Francisco State University last week, I felt a little like a kindergarten teacher. Construction paper? Check. Toilet paper rolls? Check. Colored markers, scissors, glue sticks? Check, check, check. Pipe cleaners? Oh no! They were at home, in a shopping bag along with the pieces of colored felt I’d bought the night before at a craft store.

    I scrambled to find multi-hued Post-its, paperclips, masking tape and other office supplies that could, in a pinch, double as craft materials.

    Design thinking is a fun and engaging way to get students to think creatively.
    A classroom is transformed into a workshop where students can prototype products. Photo by Scot Tucker

    A classroom is transformed into a workshop where students can prototype products. Photo by Scot Tucker.


    But an hour into the class session, my students didn’t seem to mind the dearth of bona fide art supplies. They were all intent on their work, busily cutting, sketching, measuring and stapling.

    After all, they had just 10 minutes to create a prototype for a new product.

    And though their prototypes were primitive – a toilet paper roll doll, a hastily sketched computer, a smartphone constructed of paper — I could detect the glimmers of pride and excitement that shone through as they presented their product ideas.


    This is the magic of design thinking.

    A human-centered approach to innovation

    Design thinking is a problem-solving method that grew out of the fields of urban planning, design and architecture and is now all the rage in Silicon Valley. Entrepreneurship programs and startup accelerators like Citrix in Raleigh, NC; Amplify in Los Angeles; and Matter and Y Combinator in San Francisco are building their curricula around the people-focused, prototype-driven approach that’s at the heart of design thinking.

    In a post for his blog Entrepreneurship Matters, Boston University management instructor Paul McManus goes so far as to say that “design thinking transformed Airbnb from a failing startup to a billion dollar business.”

    Tim Brown, president and CEO of IDEO, a global design and innovation consulting firm, is something of a design thinking evangelist. He writes about the process on his blog, Design Thinking, and offers a good definition on the company’s website: “Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

    San Francisco State University photojournalism student Sara Gobets crafts her prototype. Photo by Scot Tucker

    San Francisco State University photojournalism student Sara Gobets crafts her prototype. Photo by Scot Tucker.

    The d. school at Stanford has popularized design thinking by creating an easy-to-follow, scripted template that allows trainers and educators – even people who have never participated in a design thinking workshop themselves — to teach the technique to colleagues and students. This Virtual Crash Course, complete with an instructional video, worksheets (available in German, Japanese, Spanish, French or Basque) and step-by-step instructions, leads you through the design thinking process:

    • Empathize
    • Define
    • Ideate
    • Prototype
    • Test

    Some of the terms might sound a little jargony, but the idea is that before you can solve a human problem you have to understand the emotions involved and empathize with the user. You then define the problem and ideate, or come up ideas for solutions to that problem. Next you create a prototype and then you test that prototype to see what works and what doesn’t.

    Redefining gift giving

    The Stanford d. school’s exercise challenges people to “redefine the gift-giving process.” Participants are paired up and instructed to interview each other about the last time they gave someone a gift. They are encouraged to probe deeply and pull out the often buried emotions involved in the process of choosing, buying (or making), wrapping and presenting a gift to a friend or family member.

    For the next few steps, each participant reflects on the interviews they conducted with their partner. They take note of their partner’s needs, and jot down insights revealed through the interview. Based on these needs, they define a problem – which may or may not directly relate to gift-giving – and then sketch out ideas for solutions to the problem. Participants are instructed to think in ways that are radical and creative.

    The partners then come together, sharing their solutions and giving each other feedback.

    Then they are given a few minutes to sketch a solution and, finally, to create a prototype, a model of the product they want to create.

    Intimacy leads to empathy

    The exercise is fast-paced, yet intimate. Participants, who may not know each other at all, are compelled to reveal details about personal relationships and about feelings they may not even have realized they have.

    The students use simple craft supplies — origami paper, cardboard toilet paper rolls, markers and paper plates — to make prototypes of their ideas. Photo by Scot Tucker

    The students use simple craft supplies — origami paper, cardboard toilet paper rolls, markers and paper plates — to make prototypes of their ideas. Photo by Scot Tucker.

    “The idea of sitting with a stranger and talking about the gift-giving situation was challenging for me and my ‘buddy,’” Trine Simonsen, an exchange student from the Danish School of Journalism, wrote in an email interview about our design thinking workshop. “We opened up and talked about why we remembered this situation, how the person reacted to the gift, and what we talked about with the person who received the gift. The process of opening up to a stranger was a really a good learning experience in the process of trying to develop a new product.”

    Simonsen’s partner had given a gift of healthy food to her ailing father. From that Simonsen recognized a need for sick people and their loved ones to share information and advice about diseases and she came up with an idea for an app that would facilitate this sharing.

    Other students thought up products that would help geographically distant friends connect and multigenerational families find fun things to do together.

    Jennifer Sarkodie, a journalism major in the class, said the design thinking exercise helped her understand the steps involved in product development.

    “Using this process made it more clear to me how to get from thought to prototype,” she wrote in an email. “It made it clear how much work it takes to actually build a prototype. It also helped me to try to think about need-finding and to brainstorm multiple solutions to needs rather than just going with the first idea.”

    Design thinking has obvious applications in an entrepreneurship course or workshop, but it might be used in other settings, as well. A student newspaper, for example, could use it to stimulate ideas for improving coverage and better serving readers. A radio or TV station might employ design thinking to generate ideas for new programs or services.

    Design thinking is a fun and engaging way to get students to think creatively. As one of my students, Mona Chiu, said, “It opens up my eyes, ears, and heart for the needs of my interviewee and (sparks) ideas. This process loosens our mind to throw out ideas freely.”

    Rachele Kanigel is an associate professor of journalism at San Francisco State University, where she advises Golden Gate Xpress, the student newspaper, and teaches reporting, writing and online journalism classes. She was a daily newspaper reporter for 15 years and has freelanced for magazines and websites, including U.S. News and World Report, TIME and Prevention. She has directed summer study-abroad programs for ieiMedia, the Institute for Education in International Media, and is the author of The Student Newspaper Survival Guide. Follow her at @jourprof.

    Tagged: design problem solving rachele kanigel san francisco state university

    2 responses to “Course Remix: Design Thinking Leads to Aha Moments”

    1. Mary D'Ambrosio says:

      What a fun, creative and down-to-earth approach to entrepreneurship. Thanks for sharing, Rachele!

    2. Mindy says:

      Such a thought-provoking article! Thank you for shining a light on this concrete way to move the focus away from me the designer to you the user. Empathy is at the heart of all great teaching, understanding, designing, selling (pretty much everything), isn’t it?

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