Literature Review

A review of the following writings highlights divergent lines of thought about design thinking, and understanding the differences is key to understanding whether learning spaces are well designed for the students in today’s  ever-evolving learning environment.

Buchanan, R. (1992). Wicked problems in Design Thinking. Design Issues, 8(2), 5–21.

Hatchuel, A., Le Masson, P., & Weil, B. (2004). CK theory in practice: lessons from industrial applications. In DS 32: Proceedings of DESIGN 2004, the 8th International Design Conference, Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Kimbell, L. (2011). Rethinking design thinking: Part I. Design and Culture, 3(3), 285-306.

Melles, G. (2010).  Curriculum Design Thinking:  A New Name for Old Ways of Thinking and Practice?  In Proceedings of the DTRS8 Conference (pp. 299-308).

Razzouk, R., & Shute, V. (2012). What is design thinking and why is it important? Review of Educational Research, September, 82 (3), 330–348.

Simon, H. A. (1973). The structure of ill-structured problems. Artificial Intelligence. 4, pp. 181–201.


Design Thinking is defined as an analytic and creative process that engages a person in opportunities to experiment, create and prototype modules, gather feedback and redesign.  (Razzouk, 2012).   Nobel prize winning scientist Herbert Simon describes design thinking as a linear, step by step process with seven stages: define, research, ideate, prototype, choose, implement, and learn.  (Simon, 1969).  The process has two distinct phases: problem definition and problem solution.  Problem definition is an analytic sequence in which the designer determines the elements of the problem and specifies the requirements of a successful design solution.  (Buchanan, 1992).  Problem solution is a synthetic sequence in which the requirements are combined and balanced against each other, yielding a final plan to be carried out.  (Buchanan, 1992).

Simon (1973) writes that problems are either well structured or ill structured. Ill structured problems (“ISP”) are defined as those problems that are not well structured problems (“WSP”), and the boundary between the two are “vague, fluid and not susceptible to formalization”.  Simon reasoned that his approach would work with not only the WSP but also the ISP, and saw no reason that yet uninvented and unknown concepts could hinder fuller exploration of those problem domains.

Not everyone agrees that design thinking can be reduced to a process or defined as a problem.  Buchanan (1992) viewed design more as a new area of study, a liberal art of technological culture.  Buchanan argues that no single definition of design adequately covers the diversity of ideas and methods gathered together under the label.  Rather, design problems are “wicked problems” where the problems are ill formulated, information is confusing, there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values, and the ramifications in the whole system are confusing. (Buchanan, 1992)  With wicked problems, although the designer brings a unique way of looking at problems and finding solutions (Kimbell, 2011), this version of design is less concerned with individual designers and how they design, and more concerned with defining design’s role in the world.

Buchanan believes that Simon doesn’t capture the radical sense in which designers explore the essence of what the artificial may be in human experience. In Simon’s world, the elements of the WSP or ISP are determinate, whereas Buchanan believes the elements of wicked problems are indeterminate.  Further, Simon’s methods are analytical, directed toward the discovery of solutions already known rather than the invention of solutions yet unknown.

Hatchel (2004) expands upon Buchanan’s notions, distinguishes between concepts and knowledge, and develops “C-K Theory” in an attempt to prove that creative thinking and innovation are not external phenomena to designing thinking, but rather are at the core of the theory.  C-K Theory offers a formal framework for a unified model of reasoning which avoids the two traditional design views of (1) reasoning within a stabilized set of functions and (2) interpreting creativity in design as an uncontrollable process.  For Hatcheul, “design is a reasoning activity that starts with a concept about a partially unknown object and attempts to expand it into other concepts and/or new knowledge.” (Razzouk, 2012).

Kimbell (2011) suggests design theory can be classified in 3 different approaches.  The first approach stems from Simon and focuses on design thinking as a cognitive style.  The second stems from Buchanan and focuses on design thinking as a general theory of design.  The third line began after year 2000 and looks at design thinking as an organization resource; however, Kimbell argues that design presented as a way to balance organizational tensions between exploration and exploitations (Martin, 2009) or as a loosely-structured organizational process that stimulates innovations (Brown, 2009) doesn’t have the same academic foundation as the two other approaches, as it doesn’t draw on research in either design studies or management studies.

While the nature of design thinking and what makes one person a design thinker and another not a design thinker remain elusive, some traits have been identified and can be helpful in understanding how a design thinker thinks and approaches issues.  Razzouk (2012) composed a list of 7 traits of a design thinker, which included (1) human and environment-centered concern, (2) ability to visualize, (3) predisposition toward multifunctionality, (4) systemic vision, and (5) affinity for teamwork.  (p. 336).  Razzouk also defines good designers as those who employ these traits to help clarify requirements – they search for information, summarize it, prioritize it, and remaining open to first solution ideas – and they are solution based rather than problem focused.

Razzouk argues that by teaching students to think like designers, we can help students deal with difficult situations and solve complex problems in school, in their careers, and in life. New skills like design thinking, multitasking and digital literacy could keep students engaged, whereas  current educational practices of focusing on increasing student proficiencies in traditional subjects tend to leave students disengaged (Gee, 2005).

Relating design thinking to education, Melles (2010) highlights the emergence of design thinking classes in higher education in North America.  Relating to Buchanan (1992) Melles acknowledges that design thinking has logic with potential applications to other fields, and shares common notions of experiential knowledge, abduction, and wicked problem solving. In describing the development of a design thinking unit in an Australian school, where such programs are lacking, Melles characterizes the curriculum development process itself as a kind of wicked problem.


Kelley declared in the foreword to Doorley’s Make Space that space does matter, as we read our physical environment like we read a human face.  When it comes to how to design the space, there’s a wide spectrum of views on what is considered good physical design of learning spaces, but a few key traits among well designed learning spaces seems to be that they start with a collaborative effort among stakeholders, they begin with a design brief, and the space reflects a holistic approach (as Mackintosh prescribed in the late 1800s) as it incorporates the culture, character, and mission of the institution using the space.

Berger (2003), an experienced teacher, consultant, and carpenter, outlines an approach to designing a learning space that starts with the notion that excellence is born from culture, and culture transcends community.  To immerse the community of users in an ethic of excellence perpetuates the culture of excellence, despite the fact that school cultures that support excellence can look different from one another and can be housed in different settings.

When designing space for an ethos of excellence, Berger (2003) recognizes that a lot of designers have ideas for improving schools, but no one seems to be talking to the builders, and if they do, it’s usually too late.  This is where a good design brief comes into play.  Walker Technology College’s design brief, Dear Architect, provides a strong example of a holistic and collaborative approach to designing new learning spaces.  The brief incorporates views from the students, faculty, administration, community and others; it outlines the schools mission and principles; and it profiles students in different grade level and their course work.

Recognizing that not everyone learns in the same way (Hattie, 2013), Berger suggests space should be designed with different learning styles in mind.  In the educational context, Doorley (2012) encourages us to experiment with our space, and design space with multiple situations in mind.  In the corporate context, space takes on a feel of its own and is “the body language of an organization”. (Doorley, 2012).

To the extent that government gets involved in the design process, it’s evident from reviewing various government standards for the physical design of learning spaces that there’s a wide variety of non-conforming standards, which raises the question whether a set of uniformed standards can be created given the unique nature of each learning space.  (Thomas, 2014)

In the context of the creative sector of the corporate world, Kelley (2005) recognizes the importance of the user of the space, as “the only real path to innovation is through people”, but incorporates an experience architect to design compelling experiences that go beyond mere functionality.   Catmull (2014) argues that the designers of the space itself should be those who are to be inspired by the space, namely the users of the space.

Schools fall short of the ideals of designing good learning spaces.  Fundamental features of an effective learning space, like acoustics, are being overlooked.  (Treasure, 2012).  There’s no consistency in the design review for the construction of new school buildings as there’s no centralized review service. (Kletnner, 2013).   The oversight organizations involved focus more on the cost-effectiveness of the building structures than the character of the structure.  ( UK Department of Education, 2012).

The standards in the United States have similar shortcomings.  While there’s a movement to link learning and school design (Copa, 2012)., the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities (“NCEF”), a U.S. organization providing comprehensive information on designing, building, and maintaining high-performing schools, continues to struggle with funding to maintain a website of reference materials.

If the goal in designing learning spaces is to change practices, designing a space that plays down the “sage on the stage” is one way to do that.  (McIntosh, 2014).   After all, students arriving with misconceptions about phenomena will not alter their misconceptions as a result of direct instruction or simple listening.  (Hattie, 2013).  Further, learning requires effort and a high level of uncertainty (Hattie, 2013), and traditional classroom configurations and learning environments require students to neither exert much effort nor confront much uncertainty.

To the extent that space can be designed to help students think like designers, it’s unclear which skills the space should be designed for.  Gee (2005) suggests skills like multitasking and digital literacy, but Hattie (2013) found multitasking isn’t effective for learning as students who multitask tend to employ selective attention, or engage in multitasking to relieve boredom.  Regarding digital literacy, Hattie (2013) found the digital native theory is overstated.

To the extent that stakeholders can design their own learning spaces, Hattie (2013) discovered effect underpins what we value most, so taking part in the design of space should increase the value of the space to the ones designing it.  As a designer who has worked through much trial and error, Doorley discovered a number of insights in designing learning spaces, two of which resonated with me:  (1) Space can be used to nudge culture (but not to shove it), and as Berger experienced, designing space with a culture of excellence promotes learning.  (2) Creating a space collaboratively is the best way to create a collaborative space.  Of the dozens of other insights, perhaps Doorley’s most important insight is there’s no substitute for doing it yourself.


Two divergent approaches of design thinking have emerged. The traditional approach stemming from Simon views design thinking as a cognitive style, employs a linear, step by step process, focuses on the individual designer, and considers problems as either well designed or ill designed with determinate elements.  The later developed approach stemming from Buchanan focuses on design thinking as a general theory, has no special subject matter of its own, and views problems as wicked with indeterminate elements. Kimball proposes a third description of design thinking as an organizational resource, but it lacks academic foundation and is not as relevant in the educational learning space environment.

The second design thinking approach as modified by Buchanan appears better suited for the academic learning environment as it views problems as unique and provides for the possibility that problem elements are indeterminate. This process includes not only critical thinking skills, but also personality and dispositional traits such as creativity and persistence/resilience (Razzouk, 2012).  Experience shows that good design skills can assist in solving complex problems and adjusting to unexpected changes.

What has worked in practice are learning spaces designed from collaborative efforts, projects that are designed and created by stakeholders, adjustments to spaces made through trial and error, planning spaces using a holistic approach which considers an institution’s mission and principals, designing with an intuition’s culture in mind, and allowing for the exploration of the indeterminate factors, or as Rumsfeld would say, the unknown unknowns.

What has not worked in practice are government promulgated standards, expensive professional designers who ignore stakeholder input and install whiz-bang solutions, educators who complacently preserve the status quo, and the inability to create an oversight organization which reviews learning space design projects on a consistent basis.

What is left to do is formulate and articulate a common definition of design theory and design process as it relates to designing learning spaces, develop a curriculum towards the effective design of learning spaces, determine methods to assess the effectiveness of learning spaces, and share our knowledge with those making decisions in the process of creating new learning spaces.

In preparing students to succeed in the world, the designers of student learning spaces need to provide students with the opportunity to interact with content, think critically about it, and use it to create new information.   Further, we need to develop innovative assessments that aim at reliably measuring those skills. (Razzouk, 2012). Our ultimate goal is to teach learners to think for themselves, and if we can design spaces that promote learning and design assessments which measure the effectiveness of those spaces, then we’ve succeeded in our role as designers.



Berger, R. (2003), An ethic of excellence. Heinemann Educational Books. Introduction. Retrieved from

Bogle, R., A Framework for School Design Excellence.  Retrieved from

Brown, T. (2009). Change by design: How design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation. Harper Business.

Catmull, E. (2014). Creativity, Inc. US: Random House

Copa, G. (2012), Linking Learning and School Design: Responding to Emerging Ideas, Retrieved from

Doorley, D., & Witthoft, S. (2012). Make Space: How to set the stage for creative collaboration. John Wiley & Sons.

Education Funding Agency & Department for Education (UK) (2012, October 2). Innovative new school designs deliver efficiency for every pound spent. Retrieved from:

Engine Service Design & Walker Technology College.  Dear architect.  The vision of our future school.  Walker Technology College.

Gardner, H. (2004). Audiences for the theory of multiple intelligences. Teachers College Record, 106, 212-220.

Gee, J.P. (2005).  What would a state of the art instructional video game look like?  Retrieved from

Hattie, J & Yates G. C. R. (2013). Visible learning and the science of how we learn. Routledge.

Kelley, T., & Littman, J. (2005). The ten faces of innovation: IDEO’s strategies for defeating the devil’s advocate and driving creativity throughout your organisation. New York: Double Day.

Kletnner, J. (2013, May 2). Architects fear school design standards, Retrieved from:

Martin, R. (2009).  The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage.  Cambridge MA:  Harvard Business Press.

McIntosh, E.  (2014).  Module 4.2:  Design strong spaces: design strong learning.  Retrieved from

National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities (2012), Standards for US Schools, Retrieved from

Rumsfeld, D. (2010).  Unknown Unknowns!  Retrieved from

Simon, H.  (1969). The Sciences of the Artificial. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Thomas, J. (2014). A Look at Government Standards for Physical Design.

Treasure, J. (2012). Why architects need to use their ears, Retrieved from:

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