Designers are Educators. Educators are Designers. What Happens When the Best of Both Worlds Collide?

Illustration for Design Thinking in K-12 Education by Misa Yamamoto

Illustration by Misa Yamamoto

By Katie Krummeck

From radically redesigning the syllabus, to reimagining the role of facilitators inside and outside of class, to considering student-directed learning as a human-centered design challenge, designers are leading the way in transforming the collegiate classroom.

Designers are educators. Educators are designers. What happens when the best of both worlds collide?

We can learn a lot about how to improve the K–16 education system by observing what happens when and how the worlds of design and education overlap. 

In the last 20 years, design leaders have sought to integrate the traditional disciplines of the field (industrial design, graphic design, UX, architecture, etc.) to focus the design process on the needs of the end user. One way they have accomplished this is by creating a new field: human-centered design, which provides a robust system for conceptualizing ideas before determining a product’s final form. Another way design leaders have done this is by codifying the human-centered design process and training non-designers through a simplified approach called “design thinking.”

As the field of design has opened up to non-designers through exposure to design thinking, many sectors have taken up the approach, from business to health care to education. The adoption of design thinking in education has been particularly interesting because of the overlapping values and shared approaches between designers and educators, which include a professionalized approach to empathizing with others, a posture of lifelong learning and a sense of hope that the status quo can be changed. In addition, there is an increasing trend of designers moving into the classroom to train non-designers in the design process. This confluence has the potential to break new ground for positive transformations in education, from pre-K to college.

First, a quick definition of terms: Human-centered design, forged by design firms like IDEO and frog design, is a methodology for creatively solving complex problems that puts people and their needs and motivations at the center of the design process. Human-centered design utilizes empathy as a core part of the design research process. Human-centered design has a number of modes the designer occupies; these modes shift from a focus on divergent thinking and exploration to convergent thinking that yields concrete outcomes. These modes also help keep the designer moving forward, through ambiguity and even confusion. The methods of human-centered design are the activities that designers curate and complete to move through the modes of human-centered design and make progress toward a creative solution. The tools of human-centered design are often the tools traditionally associated with other design disciplines, including graphic design and software, computer programming, fabrication, etc. The mindsets of human-centered design allow the designer to get traction with the modes and methods of the process. These mindsets include (but are not limited to): having a beginner’s mindset, a bias toward action and an openness to ambiguity; challenging assumptions and the status quo; embracing an iterative process with many rounds of feedback; and collaboration with a diverse team representing many perspectives and points of view.

Professionals who actively engage in human-centered design—let’s call them designers—approach their work with a beginner’s mindset. Instead of bringing their expertise to bear on a problem by jumping to a single solution at the start, designers practice a process of meta-cognition that allows them to explore the problem from many perspectives while withholding judgment or the urge to “know” the right answer. This process of meta-cognition is supported by design methods: activities designed to structure a process of learning. The designer’s expertise lies in designing their own process of learning; therefore, designers are self-educators who design their own learning experiences.

Professionals who thoughtfully craft learning experiences for others—let’s call them educators—approach their work with a deep empathy for those they are trying to teach. To successfully craft these learning experiences for others, educators must thoughtfully construct a scope and sequence and a set of scaffolds to support learning new material. While educators may not think of themselves as designers, they share a similar process but with a different scope. Without tools from the design process, educators are left hoping to nail each lesson the first time it is taught. However, by empathizing with those who have a beginner’s mind (their students) and by carefully crafting a process of scaffolded learning, educators can more effectively design learning experiences that improve the learning outcomes for a broad group of diverse students.

Where do these worlds overlap?

There are increasing numbers of professional designers who shift their careers to enter the classroom to teach the methods of the design process outside of a traditional design education. (See the Stanford d.school, the Master of Arts in Design & Innovation program at Southern Methodist University and the School of Design and Creative Technologies at The University of Texas at Austin as examples.) Designers are particularly poised to become educators because of their awareness as self-educators who design their own learning experiences in the form of a design process; they can quickly leverage what they know to create learning experiences for others.

Likewise, more and more educators are gaining exposure to the world of design because of how the methods of design align with a pedagogical framework for self-directed learning (see the K12 Lab at Stanford’s d.school as an example). These educators are drawn to the methods of design as a framework for creating more student-centered learning experiences. Because of this logical alignment and overlap, we can look to these individuals to gain insight into how the intersection of these two professions might accelerate positive educational reform.

What Designers Bring to Education

Most professional designers who have actively cultivated an education-based practice are doing so in college settings. Through the process of actively designing learning experiences for their students (not just content and delivery), designers push the boundaries of the collegiate classroom. Designers who teach human-centered design outside of traditional design school begin by fundamentally reimagining the role of the instructor. Instead of rote delivery, designers leverage their beginner’s mindsets, as well as the methods of the design process to create open-ended design challenges created to support the learning of their students. In this pedagogical approach, the instructor delivers content through crafting the design challenge and exposing students to the methods and modes of the design process. Quickly, the instructor moves from content delivery to a coaching and facilitation role, leaving the students to rely on the methods to move their learning forward.

Because these design challenges are authentically grounded in the real world, the learning flows from inside the classroom out into the context and users for which the students are designing. By taking these learning experiences out of the confines of the classroom, students are further empowered to chart the course of their own learning.

Designers are also keenly aware of all the levers they can pull to create a learning experience. Suddenly, a learning experience is not just about the reading or lab work assigned and the lecture delivered. Designers know that they can influence the pace of the learning and the motivation of the learners by leveraging the tools of design to reform many aspects of the learning process. Designers in collegiate settings are doing everything from radically reimagining the format of the syllabus, to disrupting the systems and indicators of power and hierarchy, to redesigning the classroom to be modular and active. Designers are unafraid to use music, improv theater games, sketching and a playful manner to increase creativity and engagement. Designers are leading the way in reforming the higher education system by approaching the design of learning experiences from an empathetic perspective, by taking a beginner’s mindset (where sacred cows are not tended to) and by using the levers of the design process.

What Educators Can Adopt from Design

Similarly, educators who are adopting the mindsets and methods of design are reforming the K-12 educational system. From the beginning, quality educators have intuitively approached their profession as designers of learning experiences. While many educators did not have awareness of the tools and methods of the field of human-centered design, this is now changing. As the design community builds awareness that design can be brought to bear on fields that are not traditionally considered design fields, student-centered educators are adopting these tools, methods and mindsets to improve their ability to design effective learning experiences.

Educators who intentionally design learning experiences for their students also have a lot to offer designers. Many of these educators have finely tuned the instructional approaches and strategies they deploy to push students who are stuck and are not progressing in their understanding of a concept.

Educators are experimenters, whether they recognize it or not. Standing in front of a group of complex individuals with varying learning needs, motivations and interests, every lesson is an experiment in engaging students in a process of learning. If an educator tries something new and seeks to learn from the experience, they are taking an experimental approach to designing learning experiences. Because cycles of facilitation and learning are well-suited for reflection and refinement, educators have a particularly well-developed disposition toward iterative design and failing forward to learn what works and what doesn’t. And, educators have a reliable group of user testers—their students!

Designers are educators, whether they are designing learning experiences as a part of their professional practice or they are designing learning experiences for others. Educators are designers—using empathy and a student-centered approach to reach more students and increase positive learning outcomes. By bringing these two communities together and by sharing the best educational practices embedded within the design process, educators and designers can work together to create one of the most insightful and exciting frontiers in education reform.