Design thinking is hot.  This methodology for human-centered innovation has changed the world as we know it, shaping the forms and functions of everything from the toothbrushes on our countertops to mobile banking in developing economies. It’s an approach that puts the user front and center, and is a positive force in the way things are created and systems are designed.

But using vulnerable or underserved people as guinea pigs for design thinking education is not.  In conversations with nonprofit leaders and public servants who serve homeless people, teach in low-income public schools, or distribute food to the hungry, I’m hearing of a dark side to design thinking.

Design thinking in schools

Because this approach is so popular, schools from K-12 to universities are offering design thinking courses to meet student interest. But in order to teach design thinking for social impact, schools rely on community-based organizations and social service agencies for access to the “users” so central to this approach. And for the resource-strapped organizations that must be central in the process, I hear that frequently the experience is a drain rather than a help.

Who benefits more?

For students, stepping outside the classroom to grapple with society’s toughest problems is exciting. Done well, it can help to sensitize students to social and environmental needs and build empathy for others.

But let’s be honest about the conflicting incentives at play here. Schools are in the business of education and aim to provide students with an experience that enhances their skills and builds their resumes. They prioritize their students’ needs over those of the intended recipients of these design thinking projects, even if they aren’t conscious of this bias. Service agencies welcome attention to their causes, care about impact in the lives of their clients, and hope these projects can generate useful solutions. The incentives do not align, and in the worst cases, which are not infrequent, people in need and the stretched organizations that serve them contribute a lot of time and knowledge without getting anything in return.

On top of that, school calendars have time limitations. Classes generally run only eight to ten weeks, hardly long enough to engage meaningfully, get input, generate solutions, and deliver real value, even for professionals. We all know social change does not neatly align with academic calendars and requires patience and persistence.

What is design thinking?

For those new to it, design thinking methodology entails the following cycle. It is not a linear approach.

  • Empathize: learning about the audience for whom you are designing
  • Define:  redefining and focusing your question based on your insights from the empathy stage
  • Ideate: brainstorming and coming up with creative solutions
  • Protoype: building a representation of one or more of your ideas to show to others
  • Test: return to your original user group for testing and feedback

While the idea of design as a “way of thinking” has been around for a few decades, its rise to prominence as a tool in business is relatively new. Other approaches tend to be more fearful of failure, less likely to engage input and participation from diverse sources, and less agile in responding to new information and feedback. Today, it seems obvious to put your audience’s needs and behavior patterns at the center of any design process, but it’s not easy.


So what could go wrong in such a straightforward, benevolent process?

Design thinking’s greatest strength can also be its greatest weakness: its dependence on real users.  If you are using design thinking to solve a problem like homelessness, you need to empathize with homeless people. If it’s recidivism in the prison system, you must meet with prison inmates. If it’s poverty, you must engage with the poor.

I’ve heard about design thinking projects gone awry from Stanford to Harvard and Maryland to Portland and at many schools and organizations in between.

Here’s an example from our own backyard.  Stanford offers a short format “pop-up” course on “Redesigning Criminal Justice.” Here’s the announcement:

Are you a Stanford student and can’t wait to dig into design thinking? Are you excited about the, but can’t commit to a full-quarter class? Are you fired up by working on projects on cutting edge topics? Take a pop-up class at the! Pop-ups range from weekend workshops to multi-week intensive design projects in a variety of subjects.

I am an optimist, but I can’t conceive of any way that even brilliant Stanford students can make real inroads to redesigning the criminal justice system in a weekend workshop, particularly not using “human centered design.” To be true to design thinking I dare to say it takes commitment and time.  A design thinking project that yields useful outcomes for the target audience should allow time to really listen, develop empathy, brainstorm, propose solutions, get feedback, reflect, iterate, and try again. Am I the only one who sees this pop-up course purporting to redesign criminal justice as an example of craziness?

When education is prioritized over impact, it can really suck for people you thought you were going to help. Whether homeless, incarcerated, or hungry, yes these people have needs. And it’s nice that students want to better understand those needs. But these people are not guinea pigs for your learning pleasure.

When I speak with organizations tackling these social problems, they have some pretty nasty things to say about their interactions with universities. They perceive arrogance on the part of educators. They see students and faculty as aggressive and entitled in seeking their time and attention. They say that at first students make big promises and seem committed to the issues, but that the commitment dwindles fast. Students visit, talk to their clients, gather a few interviews, and then head back to campus. Whether distracted by friends, exams, or the end of a quarter, college life gets in the way and there is usually zero follow up or value provided to the organization or to the end users students proposed to help. Sadly, such experiences can compound the gap between the privileged and the disadvantaged, when their intent is to have the opposite effect.

Four keys to design thinking education

Design thinking is a powerful methodology, and for the record, I am a big advocate.  I think it has potential in the world of social change and have taken the entire Tides staff through design thinking training. We see design thinking as one tool to employ in serving our clients, knowing it will take years to build our skills and practicing first in our own organization, applying the methodology within the TIDES team, processes and programming.

I am against quickies in design thinking, and I think it’s crucial that schools not overlook the costs they put onto organizations and end users in asking for this kind of engagement. If you are school who wants to educate your students in design thinking to solve social problems, here are some pointers:

1. Hold the education and impact goals with equal importance. Educating students is a priority for educators, but if you aim to use design thinking, you must be genuinely invested in social impact as well. You must commit to follow-up and be mindful of the costs you put on the organizations that provide you with access to end users, and on each end user as an individual. Be clear in setting expectations, and do not pretend to care about meaningful impact if you aren’t willing to prioritize the work it will take to ensure that it happens.

2. Make time to do it right. Schools face inherent time constraints, because classes are bound by quarter or semester calendars and students don’t stay forever. But there are ways around this. My favorite example of design thinking education is the Design for Extreme Affordability course (fondly referred to as “Extreme”) at Stanford’s Extreme has worked around this constraint by spanning two academic quarters, and requiring participation in both.  Between winter and spring quarters, students taking the course have the opportunity to travel during spring break to go deeply in the field to better understand their end users, and some students even apply for support to work on their projects over the summer.  If you don’t have the time required, consider making your campus the design thinking sandbox and create opportunities for students to experiment with the methodology to address issues on campus, where the stakes are lower and the chances for short-term success are higher. Or if you really want to engage with organizations in the community, be realistic about the value of their time and the probability of them getting anything of value in return. If you will take more than you will give, offer to make a donation to support their work or to pay for their time and services.

3. Establish committed relationships. Design thinking is more akin to a marriage than a short-term fling, and it’s critical to really screen potential partners, take the time to get to know them, understand their interests, priorities, and constraints, and agree to hang in there even when there’s a bump in the road. The design thinking cycle works best when both parties are committed, have open channels of communication, and both get something of value from the relationship. Be aware of power imbalances in your relationship, and seek to hold both sides in equal importance.

4. Find a champion. Getting the first three right is only possible with a champion who deeply understands the inherent conflict between educational and social impact priorities and will make it a personal mission to reach both objectives. Professor Jim Patell is this person for the Extreme course at Stanford. He pushed the educational structure to accommodate the unique requirements of Extreme. He and his team personally vet and engage with each of the course’s partner organizations. He deeply believes that it is possible to deliver both student learning and high-impact interventions. And he does all he can to further the impact students make for end users.

To close, I have a new plan for responding to the emails I get from people excited to introduce their students to design thinking. They write to ask me for introductions to partners doing great social impact work with “users” for students to meet. I think I will send them this article. If they have a plan for meeting my criteria above to ensure that both impact and education goals have a chance at success, I’m happy to chat.



Amanda Greco contributed to and edited this piece, a true partner.