Design Thinking Workshop at Idea Week

Dennis Doyle at Jordan Hall, Campus of the University of Notre Dame
Image Taken by Daniel Mares – CC BY-NC-SA

In late April, I had the chance to attend part of Idea Week, a collaboration between the IDEA Center, on the campus of Notre Dame, and the larger Michiana region. The event brings in many national leaders, innovators, and entrepreneurs to share their insight with the students of Notre Dame and the Michiana community at large. The event spanned nine days with business, technology, and entertainment options over the course of the week. Some of the events included a Mini Maker Faire at a local elementary school on Sunday, April 22nd, a keynote by Mythbuster Adam Savage on Monday afternoon, and the event that I attended, a Design Thinking Workshop with an IDEO founding member, Dennis Boyle. IDEO was the designer of the first usable computer mouse for Apple in 1980!

During the session, Dennis Boyle discussed and shared the increase of the use of design thinking across many spectrums of our society. In fact, I would argue that many educators are already experts at Design Thinking as they routinely do it in their classrooms, even if they do not know it. This process also works seamlessly with making in your classroom Every time we teach a lesson, reflect upon it, and go back through and look for ways to innovate, we are using the design thinking process.

If you are not familiar with Design Thinking, it is a process that prioritizes problem solving and critical thinking that are used in the process of designing a solution, solving a problem, or innovating. It is increasingly used in other areas as businesses and schools consider staffing, longterm goals, and thriving in the digital age. While there are some variants of the design thinking process, here is a generic look at what goes into the process.  

Design Thinking Process
Image Created by Daniel Mares – CC BY-NC-SA



Empathy is trying to put yourself in the shoes of others and understand the problem. It is also where we must start when working with design thinking. When working on solving a problem, we must empathize with the group that the problem impacts. Another way to think of this is to consider this part of the process as a phase of discovery, where we are trying to discover all aspects of the problem. Failure to do so will not allow us to fully understand the problem from the impacted group’s point of view and will not allow us to solve the problem at hand. When working with design thinking, this is absolutely the first thing that must be accomplished. During this phase, do not seeking solutions, only trying to understand the problem. Do not suggest solutions at this point, simply brainstorm possible solutions.


Once we have understood the problem at hand from the point of view of those that are impacted, we must work to identify and define the problem and all of its aspects. This is why we empathize first, to truly understand all of the aspects of the problem. Another way to think of this portion of the process is to work to frame the problem at hand. We ask an open-ended question that focuses our efforts on the problem at hand. During this, Dennis Boyle likes to ask the very basic question, “How might we…?” Leaving the question open-ended allows the design team or the problem solving team to explore all options.

How Might We on Lightbulbs
Photo by Marcus Castro on Unsplash and adapted by Daniel Mares – CC BY-NC-SA

During this phase of the process, throw noodles at the wall. We are brainstorming as many options that will potentially solve the defined problem. One way to ensure that this process goes smoothly is to ask “and…” from the group as they participate. During this process, don’t eliminate ideas that may not work yet since we are simply trying to gather as many solutions as possible. We should broaden our thinking as well, expanding upon the ideas that we have already gathered. Some ways to accomplish this are to use a mindmap, to develop a web using sketchnotes or a wall full of post-its. Really, there is not a bad way to ideate unless you discount ideas from the start. The goal of this session is to simply gather as many solutions, no matter how far fetched, as possible.


When we reach this stage, we have gone through a lot. We have empathized with the group we are trying to aid, defined the problem at hand, developed many possible solutions to that problem, and now we must start making some decisions. During this phase, we prototype and come up with ideas that we can pursue. From the Ideate stage, we likely have many ideas that will not entirely work and, at this point, we discount those and start to provide the focus on how we could solve the problem. During this series of events, work with models, diagrams, mock ups, interactives, or focus groups to develop a solution. It is usually helpful to approach a prototype as a sacrificial product. During this phase, test out prototypes and observe how it works, but this will be done exclusively in an environment that is safe and where harm could not happen. Think of a roller coaster. If you have just designed the world’s most awesome roller coaster, you probably aren’t going to load it up with your friends and try it out, instead, you will focus on computer models, diagrams, test dummies, and more to ensure safety to those riding it.


We are nearing the end of the design thinking process, and we finally get to test our idea out! During this stage, we are unveiling our product or idea to the world and letting users engage with it. This is the make or break moment for our solution. How does the group respond? Usually, this goes one of three ways. The first is that everything works and nothing needs to be adjusted. This is unlikely, no matter how much prototyping was done. The second is option is that it worked, but there are some issues with it. Dennis Boyle shared the automated parking lot or garage money collectors and the amount of added signage they have on them for users as added signage tends to be a giveaway at improvements being needed in the design process. The third option is that the design did not work as intended and we must go back. If it doesn’t work as you intended, then we go back through the process of design thinking to try an alternative outcome or make the necessary tweaks somewhere.


The last portion of this process is to take time and reflect. While you will likely not encounter the exact same problem, you can reflect on the process and look for ways that you and your team can improve upon it. Reflection is really an important piece of the whole process as you will continually look to solve problems and innovate on past practices.


As you potentially wrap up your design thinking process, I want to finish with offering a few tips that Dennis Boyle offered to us during his presentation.


  • It all starts with empathy, you must immerse yourself in your problem to fully understand it.
  • Stick to open ended questions.
  • Thinking like a designer involves being more aware of design around you. Take a lot of pictures.
  • Look for workarounds and notice people’s behaviors.


When working through this process, think of each step like a flow chart. When something doesn’t quite fit or meet the standards of the chart, return the beginning and find a way that it does. This is the essential goal of the process. When things do not work according to you plan or design, return to the start to continue working through this. When Dennis Doyle was asked about failures, he had two answers. The first, companies tend not to market failures. Second, when working through the process you return to the beginning early and often to ensure that your final product is more successful.

Squeazable Gravity Enhanced Ketchup
Photo by Flickr User Mike Mozart – CC – BY

And one final reminder, your innovation doesn’t have to really be a major thing. Dennis Boyle shared an amazing story about Heinz Ketchup. He talked about how hard it is always to get the ketchup out of the bottle, especially the glass ones. He showed us, someone came up with the revolutionary idea of using gravity to help with the process and redesigned the bottle to be upside down all the time. Even something that simple can be a grand improvement.

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