Design Thinking

Does Design Thinking Have a Pedagogy Problem?

Slide from Julie Schell's SXSWedu Future 20 Session

Slide from Julie Schell's SXSWedu Future 20 Session

This was the question posed by Julie Schell (@julieschell), a leading expert in learning design and innovation in higher education, during her Future 20 Session at SXSWedu.  Julie posed the question to a packed room of educators, many of whom are design thinking enthusiasts and shared not only the problem she sees but also a few solutions. Here’s a recap of the session with my take-a-ways.

The popularity of design thinking is contributing to the pedagogy problem.  With so many people eager to dive into design thinking, the number of design thinking boot camps, toolkits, and free resources are on the rise. This is the pedagogy problem that no one is talking about—rapid exposure and the way we are teaching it.  With such limited exposure, people are not developing an expertise in design thinking but have illusions of familiarity. As a result, are we sending out novice design thinkers who are ill-prepared to tackle our wickedest problems?

The  problem was further outlined that the dominant design thinking pedagogical model creates unintended consequences because we currently have:

  • wildly divergent definitions of design thinking
  • wild variation in implementation
  • lack of sustained engagements to provide course correction.

And the following three ideas were shared to fix the pedagogy problem:

  • Stop saying design thinking isn’t definable
  • Instead of rapid exposure aim for anticipatory socialization
  • Start collaborating with learning scientists

I don’t disagree with Julie and I see value in the proposed solutions, however, I also see value in continuing to expose people to design thinking at a rapid pace. While some may attend a two-day boot camp and consider themselves a design thinking expert, I don’t think that is the norm.  In fact, most of the leaders I have met who are experiencing success using design thinking have committed deeply to learning more about design thinking and developing their expertise. There is great value in learning by doing. Perhaps another solution to consider is the reframing of how we are teaching design thinking.  Rather than aspire to turn out more design thinkers, what if we aspired to teach the habits and mindsets of a designer? You don’t need to be an expert to start thinking differently and therefore leading differently.

What's on My Design Thinking Bookshelf?


When working with school leaders, I frequently get asked for my top Design Thinking book recommendations.  Whether you are looking to learn more about design thinking yourself or engage your staff in a collective book read, these are my (current) top ten recommendations to get you started:

  1. Creative Confidence, Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All, by Tom & David Kelley.  This book is written for everyone who wants to get in touch with their inner creative spirit.  Filled with practical exercises and stories it makes for an excellent group book read. 

  2. Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations & Inspires Innovation, by Tim Brown.   This book provides a fantastic overview of design thinking and methods. This book is written in a way that makes Design Thinking accessible to any leader who wants to infuse the strategies into their organization.

  3. Ten Faces of Innovation: IDEO’s Strategies for Beating the Devil’s Advocate and Driving Creativity Throughout Your Organization, by Tom Kelley.  If you have ever been annoyed by the “devil’s advocate” in meetings this book provides a remedy...ten in fact.  Over the years, IDEO has developed roles people can play to foster new ideas.  Anthropologist, Cross-Pollinator, and Hurdler are just three of the roles to explore.

  4. Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy, by Dev Patnaik.  Wired to Care is full of stories about people and companies who have achieved great success using empathy as their platform for change proving that people are really “wired to care.”

  5. Designing your Life, How to Live a Well Lived, Joyful Life, by Bill Burnett & Dave Evans.  This book takes Design Thinking mindsets and tools and helps you apply them to designing your life.  It is an empowering book that will allow you to experience the power of design thinking on a very personal level.

  6. The Art of Innovation, by Tom Kelley.  This book is a behind the scenes look at the problem-solving process used in IDEO.  Kelley shares both success stories and failures using the process which can help any organization aspiring to be more creative in their approach to problems.

  7. Design Thinking: Understanding How Designers Think and Work, by Nigel Cross. This book digs deep into the habits and mindsets of designers.  Cross help demystify design ability.

  8. Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, by Austin Kleon. While not a book directly on design thinking, Kleon explores the notion that everyone is creative.  You don’t need to be a genius, you just need to be yourself.  Fun, inspiring and practical advice for everyone.

  9. Design Thinking for the Greater Good: Innovation in the Social Sector, by Jeanne Liedtka, Randy Salzman & Daisy Azer.   Thus far most books on design thinking focus on the how-to and results within the business world.  Design Thinking for the Greater Good looks at the potential impact in the social sector.  Ten stories of change are told in fields such as healthcare, education and social services showing how design thinking strategies can work in heavily bureaucratic organizations.

  10. Designing for Growth: A Design Thinking Tool Kit for Managers, by Jeanne Liedtka & Tim Ogilvie.   This book serves as a very practical handbook for leaders looking to use design thinking. Filled with strategies and tools, it is an action-oriented read.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of books on Design Thinking, but will certainly get you started. What books make your top ten list?  I’m always looking for recommendations.  If you are looking for a book that explores the intersection of design thinking and school leadership, we may have just the book coming for you.  Design Thinking for School Leaders: 5 Roles & Mindsets That Ignite Positive Change will be published in May of this year!  Stay connected to get information on the book launch.

Putting the Human in "Human-Centered Design"

Getting Started with Empathy Interviews

Getting Started with Empathy Interviews

I was initially drawn to design thinking or “human-centered design” as it is sometimes called because the starting point was so much different than almost every other problem-solving process I had experienced.  This one actually starts with people!  It doesn’t start with a pre-cooked idea,  a top-down directive or an already tried solution.  It starts by spending time with people to really understand needs from their perspective.  This simple difference is what excited me, but it is also what scares some people from truly embracing design thinking. We all know, engaging with humans can be messy.

There are a number of ways to dig into the needs of your end user, but one of the simplest ways is to talk to people. I am constantly amazed at how much I learn from others through conversation and how much others are willing to share if I create the right conditions for the conversation.   Most people love to talk, especially if you touch on a topic of interest.  And since design thinking is all about solving problems, most people find being a part of a solution (especially to a problem they too experience) interesting.

If you are contemplating using design thinking, I would encourage you to start talking to people and practicing what we call “empathy interviews.”  It might be scary at first, but I promise it will get easier.  And as Tiny Fey said in Bossypants, “ You can’t be that kid standing at the top of the waterslide overthinking it.  You have to go down the chute.”  Below are a few steps to help you stop overthinking it and get you started with your first empathy interview.

  • What are you curious about?  Think about the problem you are trying to solve.  What makes it an interesting problem?  Perhaps there are already solutions out there, but the problem still exists.  Why?
  • Whose problem is this?  Who will benefit when you solve this problem?  This will help you identify your end user and get you thinking about who you need to talk to.

  • Who will you interview? Brainstorm a possible list of people that might have interesting insights on your topic.  Don’t forget to include “extreme users” — those who might have experienced your problem in a drastic way or those who may have never experienced your problem. Some of our most interesting insights have come from extreme users

  • Pick a Design Partner. Conducting empathy interviews is always more fun with a friend.  Select someone who is invested in helping to solve your problem and willing to help.  This way one of you can do the interviewing and the other can capture notes.  Try to capture exact phrases and don’t forget to watch the body language.

  • Schedule Your Interviews.  Allow for a minimum of 30 minutes for an interview, sometimes it takes the first 15 minutes just to establish rapport and get the conversation flowing.  

  • Plan Your Questions. When planning your questions and interview prompts, keep in mind these types of interviews are meant to draw out stories and evoke emotions.  These are not hiring interviews where you must ask everyone the same set of questions.  Plan a general outline and let the interview go where there is energy.
  1. Encourage Stories. Stories reveal how people think about the world.
  2. Avoid usually, always and rarely. Ask about specific instances, such as “tell me about the last time you___________.

  3. Ask why. Even when you think you know the answer, try asking people why they do or say the things they do; sometimes the answers will surprise you.

  • Interview. Enjoy the interview.  The more comfortable you are, the more comfortable your interviewee will be in sharing their experiences. Don’t be scared of silence, some of the deeper responses come after a moment of thought and reflection.

  • Synthesize & Reflect.  After you have completed your interviews, take some time to reflect and digest all that you learned.  How will this new information impact your next steps?

To make this even easier, try downloading the Empathy Interview Template.  It has everything you need to conduct a successful interview.  I can’t wait to hear what problem you are solving, who you are talking to and what you learn!


Picture Books to Build Design Thinking Mindsets


It might be the elementary teacher (or child) in me but I have always loved picture books.  Even as an adult, when I read an outstanding picture book I smile with sheer delight.  They make me happy.  I especially love sharing picture books that inspire creativity, taking risks and being brave—all of which tie directly to design thinking.

I was delighted this week to receive Kobi Yamada’s newest book in the mail, “What Do You Do With a Chance?” Reading this book prompted me to pull out some other favorites, including Yamada’s two previous picture books. Below are my (current) favorite pictures books that inspire creativity and can be used to build design thinking mindsets with both students and adults.

My Current Top Ten (in no particular order):

  1. What Do You Do With an Idea? by Kobi Yamada  This is the story of how one idea gets brought to life by a child.  The idea lingers, but when the child’s confidence grows so does the idea. This book inspires you to nurture ideas, let them grow and then unleash them.

  2. What Do You Do With a Problem?  by Kobi Yamada In this book, you are faced with a problem but encouraged to look beyond the constraints of the problem and actually see that every problem has opportunities embedded. The longer the problem is ignored, the bigger it gets, but once faced it turns out to be something quite different than expected.

  3. What Do You Do With a Chance? by Kobi Yamada  In this newest book, a child encounters a chance but isn’t sure what to do with it.  After ignoring chances, they stop coming around full stop.  This book encourages you to say yes to new experiences, take chance and be brave.

  4. The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires  Every creator or inventor knows how beautiful but messy the process of creating can be.  We may have a beautiful idea but things don’t always go as planned, we mess up and things don’t work out.  The Most Magnificent Thing illustrates both the beauty and the frustration in the process and reminds us all that sometimes we need to step back and relax to get a new perspective.

  5. Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg  This simple, colorful, pop-out board book helps you celebrate mistakes and turn them into something beautiful.  This book has a beautiful playful spirit that will have to you turning coffee stains into art doodles in no time.

  6. Not a Box by Antoinette Portis  Have you ever seen how excited children are when given large cardboard boxes?  If not, you are missing out.  Boxes become rocket ships, NASA stations, and forts with a little tape and a few sharpies.  This book reminds us that a cardboard cube is anything but a box.

  7. The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken With very few words, this book illustrates in a playful way how mistakes can be turned into something new and beautiful.  It is always a great reminder that most everything is a work in progress, including ourselves.

  8. After the Fall (How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again) by Dan Santat  We all know the story of Humpty Dumpty, but have you ever wondered why Humpty was sitting on that wall and what happens to him after the fall? This fun book explores what it means to face our fears and press on despite setbacks.

  9. Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth by Oliver Jeffers  The author shares a very personal look at his own hopes and dreams for his child’s life here on earth.  Humorous and beautiful, it is a great reminder that we are all in this together and will appeal to the do-gooder in you.

  10. Going Places by Peter Reynolds A school go-cart contest inspires children to build the latest go-cart, but who says you have to follow the directions out of the box?  Maya doesn’t.  She builds a go-cart that is very different from the rest of the students and crosses the finish line in her own way. This book celebrates thinking outside the box, the creative spirit and going against the grain.

If you think picture books are just for children, picking up anyone of the books listed above is guaranteed to change your mind.  We are all in need of a little beauty, inspiration and fun, sometimes a picture book is the perfect way to deliver that.  I’d love to hear if you have a favorite picture book that inspires and nurtures your creative spirit. Your recommendation just might make me update my own top ten list.

Lead by Design, Not Default

5 Questions to Define Your Personal Leadership Brand

5 Questions to Define Your Personal Leadership Brand

Have you ever felt like you were operating on autopilot at work?  I have.  At one point, I was working as an elementary principal of a k-6 school and every day my morning routine, barring any emergency, was the same. I would get to school early, check my email, calendar, and subs for the day, stop in the teachers’ lounge and then head out to greet students/families as they arrived at school. It wasn’t a bad routine, in fact, there is a lot to celebrate here, but it had become so automatic it started to lose its’ luster.  I was caught in a “rinse, lather, repeat” cycle and I was no longer clear on why this had become my routine in the first place. I was leading by default. It was time to shake things up. Is it time for you to shake up and redesign how you lead?

The exciting part is that anything that has been designed can be redesigned.  Anything at any time can be redesigned.  We can choose to lead by design, or we can let inertia have it’s way, stay on autopilot and lead by default.  Let’s be honest, leading by default is the easy option. You can do what has always been done, but is that why you chose to be a leader?  I’m guessing not.  I’m guessing you chose to be a leader to make a difference, improve learning and make a big impact on the future of our world.  If so, choose to lead like a designer.

Leading like a designer means not accepting the default options in leadership or in life.  Here is a fun example to think about.  Adam Wharton, author of Originals: How NonConformists Move the World, uncovered insights about what your web browser says about you. When you purchase a computer, it comes with a default browser installed: Internet Explorer if you own a PC, Safari if you own a Mac. The actual browser you use doesn’t matter; what does matter is how you acquired it. Sixty-seven percent of computer users stick with the default browser without ever questioning whether or not there is a better option. They just assume they are stuck with what they have. Those who select and download Chrome or Firefox display initiative and take steps to personalize their browsing experience. Choosing the default system is certainly easier. It is a stance that says, “The world is supposed to be this way; therefore, I don’t need to be dissatisfied with it.” This default stance also keeps us from considering alternative and, in many cases, better solutions. What are the default settings of your leadership or at your school?

If you don’t want to be a part of the majority who choose default settings, here are five questions to ask yourself that will help you lead more intentionally by design.

  1. What is my leadership mindset? (What are your values? How do these influence your mindset and your work?)

  2. How do I want others to experience me as a leader? (How do you want to make others feel? Is it clear who you are (and who you are not?)

  3. Who do I want to model my leadership after? (Who inspires you?  How can you surround yourself with leaders who inspire you?)

  4. How will I cultivate meaningful relationships as a leader? (What actions will you take to build relationships?  With whom do you need to build stronger relationships?)

  5. How do I want to change and grow as a leader? (What areas of curiosity will you dive into? How will you evolve over time?)

Answering these five questions will help you begin to design how you lead and create your own personal brand of leadership.  How you lead can be different from other principals, superintendents that came before you.  It can be different from your colleagues or how educational leaders are portrayed in the media. You do not need to be like the sixty-seven percent of people who accept the default settings of life.  I’m convinced together we can redesign the role of educational leaders and create a system where all leaders are leading by design rather than default.