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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Shoe Design Offers a Trojan Horse for Problem Solving with Design Thinking

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
Design thinking session led by IDEO founder David Kelley.

"Design your own shoe." That's what high school students thought they were signing up to do when they volunteered for an immersive experience in design thinking.

Truth be told, the course description was not quite accurate. Shoe design "is really a Trojan horse for solving problems in a new way," acknowledged Chad Faber, director of the Knight Family Scholars Program at Catlin Gabel School, an independent K-12 school in Portland, Oregon. He facilitated the four-day, hands-on learning experience along with Greg Bamford (@gregbamford) from the Leading is Learning collaborative in Seattle. Several more Catlin Gabel staffers took part to learn by doing, building a cohort of teachers with design chops.

As a strategy for problem solving, design thinking is quickly gaining a foothold in a variety of K-12 settings. I wrote about design thinking at the Henry Ford Learning Institute in this previous Edutopia post.

Watching this class unfold in Portland, I was reminded that design thinking also offers a perfect vehicle for connecting students with their community.

Understanding User Needs

One of the first assignments students tackled: Hit the streets, food carts, and shopping malls of Portland to interview complete strangers about their shoes. What problems do their shoes pose? Which factors influence their footwear choices? This exercise in empathy took students out of their comfort zone and got them thinking about the needs of specific users (other than themselves).

One all-boy team, for instance, was surprised to learn from a middle-aged woman that she carries an extra pair of shoes to work each day. Her wish: a shoe that's comfortable enough for walking from home to bus to office, but dressy enough for a professional setting.

Another team was inspired by talking with an eco-conscious consumer who bikes to his office job. With this user in mind, they started to imagine a dress shoe made of lightweight, sustainable materials that could be folded up to slip into a biker's pocket or backpack.

Expert Insights

As students worked through the process of researching, brainstorming, and prototyping their solutions, they had opportunities to learn from some of the world's leading shoe designers. Many of these experts happen to live and work in Oregon, home to Nike, Adidas America, Keen, and other top names in athletic and outdoor footwear. They didn't hesitate to share their time and insights with students.

Faber says educators can find willing experts in any community by connecting a design challenge with local industries, traditions, or issues. "If we were doing this in Maine," he reflected, "we might focus on lobster fishing. In Portland, it's shoes."

D'Wayne Edwards was formerly the footwear design director for Nike's blockbuster Jordan Brand. He had an illustrious career as a designer before opening his one-of-a-kind footwear academy in Portland. Pensole offers an intensive "master class" in shoe design, attracting applicants from across the country who aspire to be the next generation of shoe designers, regardless of socioeconomic background.

Edwards shared his story and insights with Catlin Gabel students, and then hosted their final pitch session at his Pensole headquarters.

Edwards started drawing shoes when he was an 11-year-old growing up in South Central Los Angeles. He won his first shoe design contest at 17, beating professionals and college students. The prize was a job offer that he was still too young to accept. After high school, he started working as a file clerk at L.A. Gear but earned his way to a design job by submitting a sketch a day.

The shoe guru peppered his talk with advice and anecdotes. A few highlights:

  • "Try to become the person you're designing for." In designing a custom basketball shoe for Carmelo Anthony, the NBA all-star, Edwards studied the player's family history, personal likes, playing style, and even the story behind each of his tattoos. For more design inspiration, Edwards went to the local zoo and watched how jaguars (whose dimensions approximate Melo's 6'8", 280 pounds) use their paws to move with agility and power. Look closely at the sole of the Melo shoe and you'll see a cat-paw design.
  • "You don't notice good design. Bad design? You complain about it." Edwards helped students understand the difference between art and design. "As an artist, you draw what you see. As designer, you create what doesn't exist."
  • "Never let anybody outwork you. Act like someone's chasing you." That's the mantra that propelled Edwards's career, and it's the work ethic he expects of students at Pensole Academy. The secret, he added, is that doing what you love "doesn't feel like work. I'd do this for free."

Lasting Lessons

On Day 4 of their design experience, students pitched their prototypes to a panel of local experts. They got authentic feedback from the pros, including questions about choices of materials and price points. One team got a shout-out from the experts for carefully documenting their problem-solving process with detailed sketches.

Afterward, Edwards acknowledged the courage it took for students to deliver their pitches. That's another quality designers need to develop, he said, along with teamwork.

As students reflected on what they gained from the experience, several brought up challenges of collaboration. "We had to learn to compromise," one student said about his team, "and stay positive, even if you hated someone's idea at first." Another said he learned how to redirect teammates. "It's annoying if they're not on task and you are."

As the fast-paced week came to a close, Faber encouraged students to think of themselves as campus leaders "who can teach the design process to others. You know all the steps now."

Problems in Search of Solutions

The shoe design challenge was a natural -- and fun -- fit for this introductory design experience, but the process of design thinking can be applied to a wide range of serious issues. In South London, for instance, educator Ewan Mcintosh recently introduced design thinking to youth who are designing community solutions to knife and gun violence.

Has your school explored design thinking as a strategy to teach problem solving? What challenges have your students tackled? Please share in the comments.

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