Design Thinking Literature Critique

The following essay is written in response to – Write a literature critique, which presents at least six pieces of literature which highlight the challenges facing institutes in conceiving spaces for learning that are, in the end, likely to meet the ever-evolving needs of learners into the future.

In 2008, the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australian was written on which an understanding of the need to develop a learning environment that supported, enhanced and strengthened the capabilities of children for the 21st century was founded.  As educators move towards the commitment made in the declaration, foundations have began to be set for the social, physical, emotional and cognitive development of learners through establishment of an Australian Curriculum, various state and federal government building and infrastructure programs and Australian teaching standards. The challenge for government and educational departments is designing the spaces for learning needed to cater for the ever evolving needs of learners.

The traditional role of the professional designer was generally deemed as the purveyor of all creative and innovative processes, however the works of Brown (2008), Dorst (2011), Kuratko, Goldsworthy and Hornsby (2012) and Kolko (2010) all contend that the design process should belong in the hands of the intended beneficiaries of the designed service or product. Brown (2008) and Kuratko et al (2012) extends the architect of the design process to include teams of people such as the work place. Each emphasise the point that these designers are not experts in the field of designing, but are workers in the workplace, who have been guided through the design thinking process. The design process however is the basis of several pieces of literature that attempt to explain the thinking or theory about the practices involved. The tensions and similarities of these explanations highlight the complexity that faces anyone undergoing any transformation of an environment.

In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Brown (2008) focused enthusiastically on the concept of ‘design thinking’ and argues that design thinking, as opposed to the approaches taken by traditional designers, uses  methods which closely analyses people’s needs with what is feasible and viable. He contends that design thinking, which requires an initial immersion stage so as to  empathise with the client and identify the problem or need, is essential to gain a picture of needs, likes and dislikes.

Kuratko et al. (2012) reiterates the processes presented by Brown (2008) but rather than simplifying the ‘spaces’ of the process, expands  design thinking as a number of steps that the designer will follow. Unlike Brown’s (2008) prototyping labelling, Kuratko et al (2012) define the central stage of the design thinking process as ‘iterations’. An essential component of iterations is the three step play, display and watch-the-reply. Kuratko et al (2012) attempts to give the process of design thinking a greater linear stepping stone approach with steps back in the iteration process, while Brown (2008) encourages a flow through.

Kolko (2010) pulls even further into the iteration or prototyping stage of designing and elaborates further  to explain the synthesis of the artefacts created. As well as producing a product as a result of the end design thinking process Kolko (2010) contends that a more tangible form of ideas, thoughts and reflections is needed. This forces the designer(s) to externalise the process into a physical realm, which enables the non-designer(s) to make sense of the acts of prioritising, judging and connections synthesised.

Although design is perhaps thought more as a function of product creation,  Dorst (2011) in his article that explores ways in which core design practices can be used for problem solving and innovation, identifies ‘design thinking’ as a paradigm for dealing with problems in many professions.  By understanding basic reasoning patterns, and the establishment indentifying knowns and unknowns, Dorst was able to draw out the productive thinking of abduction. A value is created through the creation of a working principle and ‘thing’ or object. By knowing the working principle and value, a ‘frame’ is established and the object can be created. Dorst (2011) contends that these frames are influence by levels of design expertise, the kind of design activity and the layer of the design, such as whether it is a project, a process or in what field it is carried out.

As with Dorst (2010), Kolko sought to use the concept of abductive thinking to develop frames for object creation. However Kolko (2010) proposes a method of reframing or a shifting of perspective to see things in a new way. The frame definition by Kolko, although similar to Dorst’s working system and value, describes it more as the context that can be shifted to produce new design implications and constraints.

Buchanan (1992) discusses the indeterminacy of problems faced by a designer and references the work of a mathematician and designer, Horst Rittel, who in the 1960s identifies that problems can have no stopping rules; operations are exhaustive and each problem is a symbol of another problem. The label ‘wicked problems’ is identified by Buchanan as a source of tension that exists between designers. The process of design can change the perceptions of the problem, so shifting the placement of the boundaries of the problem.  This shift in placement can lead to what is described as the intuitive or serendipitous quality of a designers work (Buchanan1992). The works of Brown (2008), Dorst (2011, Kuratko et al (2012) and Kolko (2010) place little thought into how ultimately problems may not have a final solution and will undergo continuous shifting.   

In an early work of Hatchuel and Weil (2003) they contend that earlier definitions of design lacked clarity and precision, and sought to propose a more unified design theory called the ‘C-K theory. It is through this theory they argue that creative thinking and innovation, which had for so long been external to traditional design theories, could be incorporated in the central core of design theory.  The ‘C-K theory’ seeks to identify that design is primarily concerned with knowledge development or expansion, and through the use of ‘knowledge and concept spaces’, new knowledge is created. Hatchuel and Weil (2003) outline in detail the process of turning an initial knowledge into concepts through a disjunction, or a pulling apart operation, with the concept possibly further transformed into other concepts. The concepts are later drawn together through conjunction to create new knowledge.

The ‘C-K theory’  that Hatchuel and Weil (2003) have developed is clearly a set of principles on which a way of thinking can be developed. They suggest that their theory can not only be incorporated into design or product creation but into a way of creative and innovative knowledge creation. The ideals of the concept-knowledge principle can see found buried in the works of Brown (2008), Dorst (2011, Kuratko, Goldsworthy and Hornsby (2012) and Kolko (2010).


As world economies move from industrial based services to more information and knowledge based services, there comes a need to instil within our learners the skills that enable them to be active contributors to society. Our schools will need to cater for 21st century learning, enabling them with to acquire sophisticated thinking for problem solving and collaboration. Research has shown that with an increased use of new digital technologies among young people a rethink of key competencies and skills is required. (Binkley, Erstad, Herman, Raizen, Ripley, Miller-Ricci, & Rumble 2012)

Traditionally conceiving  spaces  for learning that meet the needs and requirements of our learners has been in the hands of administration and design teams, as they juggled the constraints of budgets and the concepts of education based on the industrial age. Even with acknowledgement for the need to change educational institutions, buildings continue to be build with little input from the beneficiaries as emphasised by Brown (2008). His design thinking process contradicts the approach taken by the federal government in school building development as exampled by the Commonwealth Building the Education Revolution (BER) program, which tied funding to template specific construction.  An audit revealed nearly 60% of schools felt that there was a limited degree of flexibility and customisation possibilities as a result of template use (National Audit Office 2010).

Didactic methods of teaching traditionally sought closed spaces with tables in rows and the teacher positioned in front of the class. In shifting approaches to learning influenced by the constructivist and connectivism  learning theories, learning environments of students look to more flexible or ‘fluid’ areas that enable the learning space to shift to suit the needs of the student learning outcomes. The Australian Science and Maths School (ASMS) in South Australia is seen as an example of an innovative school that employs a new pedagogical model of CDIO (conceive, design, implement and operate). This pedagogical approach was central in the design of the school resulting in learning commons and studios in which students are able to organise desks to suit agreed social and learning needs (Fisher 2010). Although the design thinking approaches of Brown (2008) and Kuratko et al. (2012) can be identified in the pedagogical approaches of the school, the constraints of placing the school on the campus of the Flinders University of South Australia and the scientific focus of the school curriculum is strongly set in convergent thinking.  Limitations in space, time and teaching experiences also act as constraints on the implementation of CDIO model. (N Davis, personal communication, April 2012)

A visit to the school highlights the interactivity and transparency of the learning spaces, however it is evident that designers failed to consider the impact on acoustic and climate control of the building housing up to 370 students.  Student flow is also disruptive with large groups of students having to negotiate learning areas to access practical spaces and teaching staff. This may suggest that an externalisation of the design (Kolko 2010) or immersion into teaching situations (Brown 2008) may not have been utilised in the design process to discover what would be known unknowns.

The transference of design thinking considerations are more evident  in a qualitative study conducted by Wills (2014). By analysing how one school created a new space for learning through teacher, student and leader involvement  in the design process, Wills was able to demonstrate the development of knowledge and concepts through the use of immersion, research, discussion and conceptual tasks such as scale modelling within a school setting. By undergoing knowledge seeking, constraints were indentified. The process of synthesis of ideas was externalised through discussions, drawings and various visualisation techniques as identified by Kolko (2010). The ‘wickedness’ of this problem (Buchanan 1992) is highlighted by the reframing or replacement that resulted in reflection and generated shifts in pedagogy and further iterations of plans. The process also highlighted the emotional cost and personal development in using the design thinking process in this type of setting, and although the implementation of the design outcomes was realised, the intended audience of the design did not move into the new space.

The use of design thinking for curriculum design was seen in the work of Melles (2010) who sought to use the process to develop a Design Thinking unit of study. Through a number of past and present research articles, expertise in design thinking process, examples from other institutions delivering similar units and framing, Melles developed a course for delivery. Melles argues that the development of a curriculum is ‘wicked problem’ and cites Buchanan(1992) to indicate the openness of the design process for the unit development and dependence on what the designer conceives. He acknowledges the abstractness of the course design and contends that there is a number of questions that remain to be answered. Melles concluded that these questions are relevant for the development and teaching of all education programs.


When considering the principles of design theories or thinking into the practices of education it is difficult to find many examples of the approach in the development of physical structures of institutions within Australia. Educators are faced with working within the constraints of the pre-existing structures; shifting internal flexible furniture to suit the needs of the teacher pedagogy or changing teacher pedagogy to suit the changes of learner needs. Even the example of the ASMS fails to identify any immersion of the beneficiaries but highlights the constraints placed on its original construction. It is when analysing what is occurring inside the wall of institutions  that evidence of the principles of design thinking can become evident.

Design thinking principles are not just for product creation but can, and should, be embedded into the processes of thinking that educators and learners are able to take control of. Wills (2014) illustrated how the approach of teachers can lead to a shift of pedagogical approaches and a sense of ownership of learning spaces. The openness of the process enabled transparency in the development of the learning environment. This externalisation of thinking (Kolko 2010) is needed to answer the ‘what’s in it for me’ thoughts of learners as they grapple for meaning from their learning’s and it allows for a validation of a educators teaching.

Curriculum design is able to incorporate the principles of design thinking to maintain an ongoing development of learning outcomes to suit the changing needs of learners in the 21st century (Melles 2010). Even timetabling of the learning program for educational institutions needs the creative and innovative outcomes of design thinking approaches to ensure all learner and educator needs are met. With the immersion and observation approach of Brown (2008) and the framing through abductive thinking of Dorst (2011), the synthesis of curriculum and timetables, that better suit the needs of the beneficiaries, can be developed. The process ensures the constraints placed on the institution are not the controllers of the learning but a consideration.

The ‘wickedness’ of the problems posed by classroom structures, timetabling and curriculum development underline the need for ongoing thinking practices to embrace the shifting perspectives of education. Professional development in understanding changing learner needs, pedagogical approaches and new ideas in educational resources and technology, help create the shift in perspectives that lead to the continual loop through a design thinking process.

When considering  the C-K theory practices of Hatchuel and Weil (2003), they  seem to encourage the deepest theoretical considerations for education settings. With their emphasis on knowledge development through disjunction to form concepts and subsequent concept conjunction into knowledge, this approach could help develop innovative and creative thinking within our learners. The principles used in the C-K theory could also be applied to other forms of problem solving strategies such as deductive and inductive reasoning.

Design is word that connects theory and practice; the principles of which are constantly having to adapt to the changing circumstances of its context. The concept of design thinking allows for iterative and reflective learning, awareness of change and can bring about transformation of the learning space. How design thinking is processed in an environment is a source of conjecture for some examples of literature but the overarching principle of ensuring design is conducted in a collaborative, immersive and democratic setting is foremost in the ideals of the practice.


Barr, A., Gillard, J., Firth, V., Scrymgour, M., Welford, R., Lomax-Smith, J., … & Constable, E. (2008). Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians. Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs. PO Box 202 Carlton South Victoria, 3053, Australia.

Binkley, M., Erstad, O., Herman, J., Raizen, S., Ripley, M., Miller-Ricci, M., & Rumble, M. (2012). Defining twenty-first century skills. In Assessment and teaching of 21st century skills     (pp. 17-66). Springer Netherlands.

Brown, T. (2008). Design thinking, Harvard Business Review, 86(6), 84-92. Retrieved from:

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

Dorst, K. (2011). The core of ‘design thinking’and its application. Design Studies, 32(6), 521-532.

Fisher, K. (2010). Technology-enabled active learning environments: an appraisal (No. 2010/7). OECD Publishing.

Hatchuel, A., & Weil, B. (2003). A new approach of innovative Design: an introduction to CK theory. In DS 31: Proceedings of ICED 03, the 14th International Conference on Engineering Design, Stockholm.

Kolko, J. (2012). Abductive Thinking and Sensemaking: The Drivers of Design Synthesis

Kuratko, D., Goldsworthy, M., & Hornsby, G. (2012). The design-thinking process in Innovation acceleration : transforming organizational thinking. (pp.103-123). Boston : Pearson.

Melles, G. (2010). Curriculum design thinking: a new name for old ways of thinking and practice. In Proceedings of the DTRS8 Conference, UTS Sydney(pp. 299-308).

National Audit Office (2010) Building the Education Revolution – Primary Schools for the 21st Century  (Pg 189)

Willis, Jill. Making space to learn: Leading collaborative classroom design [online]. Journal of Educational Leadership, Policy and Practice, Vol. 29, No. 1, 2014: 3-16. 

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