Changed by design

stick figure holding a light bulb

Hyacinth Steele, 2016

My first four weeks has been a journey of learning to see and experience the spaces that I move and interact with in a radically different way.


As a learning designer my raison d’etre is to design online learning experiences. These virtual spaces are the places I connect in, design for and spend most of my day navigating. Designing spaces for learning is changing and maturing how I practice my profession. As I learn to immerse myself in the spaces I am designing and seeing the world from the learners perspective by adopting a “design thinking” approach my approach is now underpinned by an understanding that empathy is a critical skill for a learning designer. I have learnt that innovation is not just the lightbulb moment. It’s driven by putting people first, developing empathy for the learners who will engage in the spaces I am designing (Brown, 2009, pp.39, 43). As these spaces for learning?


The answer, I’d suggest is that we need to return human beings to the center of the story. – Tim Brown, 2009, p.39.


One of the first challenges we were given was to quickly redesign a space. Having no budget and a lot of enthusiasm I learnt that the foundation of design thinking is also the “willing and enthusiastic acceptance of competing constraints” (Brown, 2009, p.18). I learnt that it was important to visualise these constraints as three overlapping criteria: desirability, viability and feasibility. What was desirable, viable and feasible to change the spaces I had selected to deliver a better environment for learning and creating.

Reading Seidel and Fixson (2013) I discovered the three main methods that are typically part of design thinking: needfinding, brainstorming and prototyping. I realised how little I spend time in the needfinding phase when I am designing learning experiences. I rarely allow myself time for observation and immersion in the environment before I leap ahead to brainstorming the activities and online tools I will use to create the next online learning experience. Some of this reactiveness is driven by tight project commitments too.

As I completed the observation activity for Assessment 2 it was like having a new sense given to me. Immersion in an environment that is part of my daily routine and observation of how others moved and interact with the space opened a new way of looking at spaces that are familiar to me. I am learning to refine this new “super power” by turning off my judgements and assumptions and taking the time to observe, listen and engage.


This lead me to read about brainstorming. I have been a user and abuser of the technique for many years but had little understanding of Osborn’s original intentions or its varied applications (Sutton & Hargdon, 1996). I was inspired reading how IDEO run their brainstorming sessions and how they draw inspiration from everyday objects.  I have started to talk about “desing thinking” methods with the other learning designers in my team. I has become part of our appreciate inquiry approach: discovery, design and destiny (Cooperrider, 2012).

Design discipline versus design science

Many years ago I started a Master of Science by coursework. It was here that I was first introduced to work of Harry Braverman and his book Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of work in the twentieth century. I remember the surprise of learning how craftspeople had become disconnected from their creation with the advent of industrialisation and scientific management principles. Reading Cross (2001) and tracing the historical roots of design from the thinking of van Doesburg and Le Corbusier during the 1920s who advocated “an objective system” “hostile to every subjective speculation” (p.49) to Fuller and Simon in the 1960s who called for design based on “science, technology and rationalism” and “a body of intellectually tough, analytic, partly formalizable, partly empirical “ design doctrines I began to make the connections between the milieu of design in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the seventies radicalism and political upheavals rocked the world, Christopher Alexander and J. Christopher Jones disassociated themselves from the mechanistic and logical attempts to put design into a logical framework paving the way for Donald Schön to later challenge the notion that design could be a science solving well-formed problems. Although a brief tour, Cross helped to weave together the threads between the evolution and connections between management principles, art and design.

Creativity, IDEO, Google and Stanford

How did IDEO or Google come to be the innovators that they are today? Why does my workplace look like a modern version of Frederick Taylor’s division of labour with grey cubicles and carpet while Google’s looks like an explosion of colour and spaces which invite collaboration? I think Tim Brown summed it up well when he said that humans need to be at the center of the story.

Finally, Tina Seelig challenged me with her statement:

One of the most powerful ways to learn things and gain knowledge is by paying attention. Most of us do not pay attention to the world around us.”

Perfect preparation for Assessment 2 and new ways of learning to see the way around me.



Brown, T. (2009). Change by design: How design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

Cooperridger, D. (2012). What is appreciative inquiry? Retrieved from

Cross, N. (2001). Designerly ways of knowing: Design discipline versus design science. Design Issues, 17(3), 49-55.

Seidel, V.P. & Fixson, S.K. (2013). Adopting design thinking in novice multidisciplinary teams: the Application and limits of design methods and reflexive practices. Journal of Product Innovation        Management, 30(S1), 19-33.

Seelig, T. (2012). A Crash course in creativity: Tina Seelig at TedxStanford [Video file]. Retrieved from

Sutton, R.I. & Hargadon, A. (1996). Brainstorming groups in context: Effectiveness in a product design firm. Administrative Science Quarterly, 41, 685-718.

Skip to toolbar