02 Nov

Design thinking – what it entails

design thinking


Using design thinking to improve learning & performance solutions

Quintellius, a Roman theorist, proposed the following questions to understand the context for solving tasks in an inventive manner: who, what, where, with what, why, how and when. We have used this approach to address design thinking in learning.


1. What is design thinking?

In 2001, Apple launched the first iPod. This nifty device ‘packed 5GB of music storage into a sleek white box no bigger than a deck of cards’1. 5GB! A design thinking mindset explores different possibilities, including those that don’t seem possible at the start. The iPod design was Apple’s response to competitor products that were ‘big and clunky or small and useless’ with user interfaces that were ‘unbelievably awful’. 2

Design thinking is not new. It started in the 1960s as part of a move to involve customers in the product-development lifecycle. The first method was called participative design and focused on product usability. Users were seen as participants in experiments. This was followed by a method known as user-centred design. It focused on the end-user experience and users were considered to be co-developers. In the 1990s, there was a move towards service design, where users exchanged information with designers after a product launch, enabling design teams to gain insight into customers’ emotional responses.

Since 2000, in the period known as the 4th Industrial Revolution, there has been a shift to human-centered design where the focus is on empathising with the people you are designing for. The fundamental change is a shift from seeing design as a way of doing, to a way of thinking.


2. Why do learning experience designers need design thinking?

While learning experience designers try to understand their client’s needs, it’s often a brief exercise focusing on the sponsor’s view and context. Getting to know learners in the real world and getting the right information is what leads to a project’s success. Why? Because it takes away the guesswork and enables the designers to focus on measureable outcomes that their clients want to achieve.

3. Who are the stakeholders?

Design thinking places the customer at the centre of the process. This means that learning experience designers need to immerse themselves in the lives of their target audience and come to deeply understand all stakeholders’ needs: the learner, the leader, the business, and clients of the business.

4. Where might learning experience designers best apply design thinking?

As the science of learning has evolved, so has the design of effective learning solutions. With so many choices available, it’s easy to dip into a prized treasure chest and pull out a handful of learning strategies and solutions. A key requirement of design thinking involves suspending judgment until the client’s world has been fully explored . This is followed by steps to make sense of what has been learned; identify opportunities for design ; prototype possible solutions (share and refine); and eventually test the new solution in the real world with the people who are going to engage in the learning process.

5. With what?

Learning experience designers use design models such as ADDIE, 6Ds, and SAM. All three include inspiration, ideation and implementation (key stages of design thinking), but arguably they rush through problem definition and arrive at a solution before the client and their needs are fully understood.

What is lacking in traditional learning design models is the focus on a creative problem-solving approach, which includes developing an emotional connection with learners, gaining insights into difficult-to-articulate problems, thinking of solutions from unconventional perspectives, and getting real feedback on solutions and future concepts. These insights will ultimately produce unique solutions that add real value.

6. When should learning experience designers use design thinking?

Design thinking should be seen as a process that, when combined with familiar learning design models, enables learning experience designers to improve the overall learner experience and business impact.

7. How should learning experience designers approach design thinking?

Design thinking requires a desire to dream and to have an inquiring and growth mindset. At a practical level, we must ask what, why, who, where, with what, when and how, and reframe our learning opportunities using different lenses, including:

• Time shift (weeks ago, today, months from now)
• People shift (insider frame, my frame, outsider frame)
• Risk shift (no risk, some risk, caution to the wind)
• Resource shift (shoestring, some budget, money is no object)
• Perspective shift (brick, wall, cathedral)


To learn how we can put you at the centre of our design process, send us a mail at info@ceedlearning.com.

We are indebted to Dr Arup Mazumbar for introducing us to design thinking and in particular to the Quintellius’ 6Ws+1H framework and the concept of reframing.

Written by Bernadine Sprighton


  1. Edwards, Benji. The iPod: How Apple’s legendary portable music player came to be, Macworld, October 23, 2011. Retrieved on October 23, 2017.
  2. Kahney, Leander. Straight Dope on the iPod’s Birth, Wired News, October 17, 2006. Retrieved on October 23, 2017.


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