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Design thinking for all

| Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The book, “Imagine, Design, Create,” by the design software company Autodesk, provides what I believe is the most comprehensive definition of design: “Even with all the dramatic changes being wrought by technology, design remains, and likely always will be, a fundamentally human endeavor, fueled by the insights, ideas, passions, and talents of people in pursuit of progress.”

Since the earliest developments of tools to do tasks more effectively than bare hands, to the development of machines in the Industrial Revolution, design is a way to answer or anticipate human needs. One of the biggest changes during the last century has been the transition from answer to anticipate; our consumer society creates a demand for innovation of goods and environmental concerns have created a demand for eco-mindful design for the future.

This begs the question: “What is good design?” Over the last 20 years, since the rise of the Internet era and the ability to research and compare different products quickly, the bar has elevated. It is no longer enough to be clever, now design must be thoughtful. It must consider, anticipate and analyze as never before, taking into account multiple human needs. It must factor in all the variables that can influence how a design will perform (or fail) once it is exposed to real-world pressures.

We are now expecting good design to know the unknown and to understand what we need, though we may not realize we need it yet. We want design to do all this and, oh by the way, make it all affordable, functional, scalable, sustainable and, of course, aesthetically beautiful.

So what is the role of a designer? A designer must be an interdisciplinary thinker who considers artistry, technology, social changes and consequences, both of the past and future. Designers’ roles in society are only growing and the skills needed to be a good designer are becoming more technical and specified.

So where do we find these designers? The ones who will design for the needs of the soon-to-be retiring Baby Boomers and Gen Y-ers alike, who will anticipate ecological challenges, who will solve medical mysteries and save lives?

They are in classrooms. Their mothers and fathers may still be packing their lunches and taking them to fill-in-the-blank practice, lesson, rehearsal or the big game.

This brings me to the importance of design education at the primary and intermediate level. The current core curriculum focuses on learning facts about many classic subjects but it does not teach how to solve problems. Average history classes will speak of the past, good ones will speak of current world problems, but what about history’s implications in the future? One growing curriculum that I believe should be essential to the core of modern education is a concept called design thinking. Design thinking at a rudimentary level entails “empathizing, defining, ideating, prototyping and testing.”

One may feel at first that this process is limited to consumer design projects or architectural studies, but it is really about how people interact with objects, spaces, processes and each other. In this way, it can be applied to nearly all human interactions and should be taught at a simplified level to even the youngest of children. Much funding goes towards teaching young children how to respond to hurt feelings or how to respectfully attain an end goal; all of these can be solved with the application of the design thinking process.

The new generation, if armed with this reactive and responsive thought process, would be better prepared for everything from negotiating peace, designing for people, solving geopolitical conflicts, reconsidering urban planning and even just getting along on the playground.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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