What is Design Thinking, Anyway? And Why Should We in Higher Ed Care?

If you’ve attended a conference or read articles or, well, done anything, really, in the past few years you’ve likely heard of something called “design thinking.” And if you’re anything like me, you’ve turned your nose up at what seems to be the latest fad out of Silicon Valley.

But design thinking is not business-school jargon. It isn’t pretentious, or fake, or overhyped. It’s actually useful—yes, even to higher ed, with all its quirks.

Here's why.


Great question, imaginary interlocutor!

At its core, “design thinking” just means “thinking like a designer.” That’s it! Thinking like a designer to solve problems.

We can summarize design thinking with a few adjectives: It is empathic, in that through it we seek to listen to and understand constituents and stakeholders; it is iterative, in that it involves imagining and testing different versions of multiple ideas; and it is self-examining, in that it requires us to examine the results of our work to determine what we can do to improve going forward.

Design thinking is commonly broken down into five steps.

  1. Empathize—talk to people

  2. Define—state the problem(s) facing those people based on your conversations and observations

  3. Ideate—come up with ideas to solve those problems

  4. Prototype—sketch and develop a small, workable version of your proposed solution(s)

  5. Test—try out your solution(s), gather feedback, and make it better

Typical problem solving

Problem solving with design thinking

You “know” what the problem is and start thinking of solutions

Assume your understanding is limited and talk to stakeholders and constituents to define the problem

Develop ideas in isolation from those whom the ideas will serve

Develop ideas in consultation or collaboration with those whom the ideas will serve

Decide on one idea from among many and run with it

Create prototypes of different ideas and try iterations of those that work

“That’s it! We’re done!”

“How is this working? Can we make it better? Do we need to go back to the drawing board?”

Watch this video from the Wikipedia page on design thinking. It's a good intro.

Did you watch it yet? Seriously, watch it. It's great.


Let’s lay out an example.

You and your team want to develop new programming to serve alumni you are not currently reaching with existing programs. You have some ideas but remember the design thinking principle that your constituents know what they need better than you do. So you survey your alumni community in several ways to gather their input:

  1. Empathize: Share a short online survey with open ended questions asking what alumni need. Include a link in your next alumni newsletter. Post the survey in the most active alumni Facebook group(s), especially those representing underserved alumni populations. (e.g. cities/regions without chapters, young alumni, first-gen alumni, alumni of color, etc.)

  2. Define and ideate: Collate survey responses and identify the areas of greatest need and imagine programs that can serve your constituents in those ways. As part of the ideation process, consult with the alumni concerned. That can be as simple as having some of the more interested survey respondents phone in during the discussion. Involving alumni in this process will keep you on the right track.

  3. Prototype and test: Sketch what the “minimum viable product” for the programs you envision would look like, the smallest possible version of each idea that you could implement for the purpose of testing. Imagining a nationwide event series? Start with one. Hundreds or thousands of networking conversations? Start with a dozen. This process will help you iron out the wrinkles in each idea and figure out whether they are scaleable and ready for primetime. Not every idea is meant to see the light of day, so don’t feel bad about moving on from those that don’t work out. For those that do, figure out how you can improve them.

This example is just one variation on a theme. The first step—listening, empathy—might consist of in-depth in-person interviews rather than an online survey. Or it might mean constantly collecting feedback from your constituents over time. You might try one prototype at a time or try half a dozen. There are many ways to make it happen.


We can summarize design thinking with two maxims:

“Nothing about us without us.”

“Try, try, and try again.”

As you can tell from the examples above, the individual steps of the process involved in design thinking is not set in stone. Though we commonly label the first step as “empathize,” that doesn’t mean we give up empathy in all steps that follow. Definition and ideation bleed into one another, and where do we draw the line between ideation and prototyping?

What’s most important is that we prioritize the needs of our constituents and directly involve them in the design process and that we not be afraid to test new things.

"Nothing about us without us," or, put more eloquently, "It takes the hood to save the hood," the motto of the San Francisco nonprofit  United Playaz .

"Nothing about us without us," or, put more eloquently, "It takes the hood to save the hood," the motto of the San Francisco nonprofit United Playaz.