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Running Blades — Inventor Van Phillips knows the design process well. At the age of 23, Phillips lost his foot in a boating accident. This accident was to be life-changing for it began Phillips’ long personal journey to create a better prosthetic foot. Using his creative mind, he fashioned the Flex-Foot prosthetic foot in the shape of a blade.

As Nelson Mandela says, “Everything seems hard until it’s done.” To advocate for the design thinking mentality, our mantra should be “Everything seems hard until it’s designed.”

Behind the concept of any design lab are certain critical questions that drive the projects and purpose of the space and program. What is being designed? Why is this space being designed? For whom is this designed for?

“Making” should not be the only aspect of design in which our schools engage. Design thinking is not important to our schools because we sit on pretty chairs or possess clever objects. Creativity and design thinking invigorate the problem-solving processes that students learn, and that through practice, become second nature to them.

At times, innovators must look back to design forward thinking products and solutions. Paul Rand’s now famous essay written in 1965 titled “Design and the Play Instinct” continues to speak to educators today. The article calls for a creative new orientation to our schools that design thinking provides. Rand acknowledged that design thinking allows students to face the future armed with the experience and design solutions of previous innovators. Design thinkers are makers and propagators of the future only because they recognize that the challenges we face today are not entirely new. Design challenges sometimes appear as frontiers, but solutions are often discovered through the vast and ingenious canon of industrial, mechanical, structural, and aesthetic solutions of the past.

The future of design is understanding all the ways that design thinking delivers information, comfort, beauty, and efficiency in the myriad ways the process is used to solve critical issues of transportation, energy, food security, disease control, health and wellness, communication, forestry, water, recreation, housing, community development, and so many other areas of human need. To understand human need deeply, we must understand humanity through the lens of empathy.

We believe empathic design is one of the strongest elements of the design process. Empathy is not the same as sympathy, which in turn is not the same as compassion. Students need the exposure and experience to move beyond the narrow bandwidth of sympathy so that they can feel empathy.

Compassion is a generalized feeling. Empathy is a deeply personal one. Our goal should be to shrink the empathy deficit of our students. To do this, we must experience the world and hear what is hard to hear, see what is hard to see, and then do what is hard to do. As Nelson Mandela says, “Everything seems hard until it’s done.” To advocate for the design thinking mentality, our mantra should be “Everything seems hard until it’s designed.”

Design by its very nature is an art form matched with precise math, and governed by the principles of science that collectively guide the eyes, hands, and hearts of students. The design process allows young people fiercely to imagine the future. The process is as valuable as the product. While the design thinking methods we employ are revelatory and important, the motive to create and to solve problems on behalf of others is even more powerful. It is easy to view design thinking as merely a technology-driven approach to problem-solving. It is not. Removed from the machine-dominated enterprise of making, design thinking has a greater purpose. We want our students to be architects of a better future for everyone. We want designs to be human-centered and eco-friendly.

Empathic design is all about improving the conditions that frame our daily experience. Design thinking is an intrinsically humanistic discipline tethered to the very core of our existence. The design process provides a map for progress, but the compass that guides our models and maps for the future are born deep within us. Human-centered design confronts one’s personal ideals and is magnified by the reality of another’s life and circumstances.

Design thinking is not nearly clever enough to change indifference or worse yet, ignorance, but soulful creativity and innovation can frame the dimensions and outcomes of our future. Design thinking matters in education because people matter. Empathic design sparks novelty, expands academic connections, leverages skills, engages authenticity — all in the pursuit of fulfilling humanity’s needs and purpose. We discover that purpose and those needs through connections.

The Power of Stories

Evolution endowed humans with a unique gift: storytelling. Our history is our stories, and our stories are our history. Our ability to relate contextualized detail and emotion is one of the reasons humans advanced so successfully. In a world of facts, stories inform us of all the beauty and meaning, and context and connection that exist just beyond the facts. In his book Sapiens, author Yuval Harari postulates that common stories developed communal threads of understanding and trust between large groups of early Homo sapiens that their Neanderthalensis cousins did not possess.

Early language among humans did not merely relate fact. Language among early humans seemed to develop as much as an art as a device for sharing knowledge. Harari believes the language of early Sapiens was nuanced and possessed the element of myth and fantasy very early on. As humans embraced the power of language to tell stories, Homo sapiens added depth and breadth of detail and emotion. This expansion of language required an ever-expanding vocabulary in an ever-broadening array of tongues. In English, Shakespeare used over 15,000 words to tell his stories. His stories resonate still today because the stories and the themes are so recognizable. Even in their fiction, Shakespeare’s stories were real. Stories are a lens we aim at life’s moments that provide humor, depth, color, texture, emotion and sometimes embellishment to the things that matter most to us.

Because stories relate a deeper understanding of what is important, stories need to be an integral part of the design process. Long after the facts of a situation dim in our mind, stories illuminate what is essential about an experience or a problem. John Scully, former CEO of Apple once said, “The future belongs to those who can see possibilities before they become obvious.”

Inventors need to be story tellers. Creators need to develop narratives and context that link their ideas to those of others. Design thinking requires skillful stories to harness all of the emotion and the resources behind a new idea.

Pink, D. A Whole New Mind. NY: Penguin. 2005.

Harari, Yuval N. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, NY: Harper Collins. 2015.