HMFH Architects

The Potential of
Design Thinking

In partnership with the Boston Private Industry Council, the BSA Foundation is piloting an externship program to create unique professional development opportunities for Boston Public School educators. The program is designed to introduce design thinking and to give the teachers a greater understanding of the power and potential of design thinking in education. Earlier this month, as part of the program we hosted a group of those educators and provided a deeper dive into design thinking through a series of architectural experiences.

What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is an approach for creative problem solving. It is a process with concrete steps designed to cultivate empathy, generate ideas, prototype products, and share. As architects, we use design thinking every day but many of the elements in our design toolkit can also be applied in the classroom to help prepare students to become critical thinkers and problem solvers. To demonstrate what design thinking entails and how it can be used, we took the group of teachers through each phase.

Gather Inspiration

To begin the day, teachers surveyed a series of images and discussed with our architects how the spaces and design made them feel.

Polly Carpenter, FAIA, Program Director of the BSA Foundation’s Learning by Design, provided an overview and introduction to the steps of design thinking. She described the numerous trades that go into a school building, from woodworking, masonry, and architectural design as an example of the collaborative nature of design.

Our architects presented images of a range of learning spaces, diving deeper into design elements – scale, space, color, light – and how those elements crystallize into a design and allow a building to become greater than the sum of its parts. We asked teachers to put themselves into a new mindset and to look at learning space in a different way than they may have previously, thinking about how design can meet users’ needs, from natural light to the way in which color can help with wayfinding and orientation.

Generate Ideas

The teachers then began to generate ideas to tackle the question, “how can design enhance learning?” Each teacher was asked to conceptualize an ideal learning space for themselves, a task that prompted them to think first about how different types of spaces make them feel and why, and then what is important to them in their learning space. They considered how they learn and from that, the activities the space would need to support. They thought about how are they most comfortable when reading or when working on a laptop. How do I store my work?  What about yoga breaks? Developing simple diagrams, the group looked at how and where those activities overlapped.

Make Ideas Tangible

After a discussion of their goals, the teachers transformed their vision into physical models using recycled architectural materials.

Interpretations of the ideal learning space were broad and varied: one of the teachers designed an intricate loft space containing various scales of spaces from high open ceilings to cozy niches. This process of making allowed them to fully visualize their ideal learning space, but also to realize the value in what didn’t work so well. Encountering the notion of “failure” is less terrifying when it is seen not as a mistake but an opportunity to re-think, iterate, and try a new solution. Applied in the classroom, this can be an effective way to teach critical thinking.

Share the Story

Articulating an idea and then inspiring others with that vision is a critical component of design thinking. For the group of BPS teachers, this was the final step of the day as they shared their models with each other and with us. At the end of the series of architectural exercises, the teachers expressed an interest in using what they had learned to inform their classroom set up and their approach to lesson planning.

Applications of Design Thinking

At its core, design thinking is a human-centered approach that helps solve problems in a creative way. Its relevance to disciplines beyond architecture is evident in its use everywhere from the classrooms to the corporate boardroom. As teachers develop and implement curricula and students head back to school, they’re bringing more to the classroom than new school supplies, they’re armed with a new methodology that can unlock creative confidence.