Education Trends

Design Thinking in the Classroom: Free Inspiration from the Ad Award Winners

August 5, 2013
Photo credit: 38273634@N04 via flick (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The 2009 Clio Awards

"For students, the best classroom experience is a space of possibility." - Anne Stevens1

Design thinking can transform your classroom into a space of creativity, excitement and possibility. The design thinking process involves rethinking and reframing problems to make things easier, more streamlined or different. Jackie Gerstein attests that design thinking is an important skill for students to learn as part of their education.2

What Is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is a structured approach to solving problems. It involves taking real-world problems and using research, analysis, brainstorming, innovation and evolution to come up with creative solutions.2 Even though design thinking is a structured approach, Simon Coley attests, "It is unavoidably messy in practice." These are problems with no clear information and possibly no solution.3 Making matters even messier, there are many different design thinking approaches.

But for the purposes of this post, we'll define the eight phases of design thinking as follows:

  1. Define the problem: This is the first and most important step of the process. Defining the problem is about constraining the issue and pinpointing the specific task at hand rather than looking at it as an overarching problem.
  2. Research the problem: This includes completing historical research, acquiring background knowledge and learning the facts and figures.
  3. Analyze the situation: With the problem defined and information in hand, you can critically examine the situation.
  4. Redefine the problem: Finally, after all of that work, you may need go back to reevaluate and/or redefine the problem, further narrowing the scope and better articulating the task.
  5. Ideate: Now it is time to brainstorm and come up with original ideas.
  6. Prototype: Steps 1-5 set the stage for developing a plan of action. Prototyping involves bringing the ideas together to create a solution. You may create a model, try out the ideas with a small group or conduct a short pilot study.
  7. Refine: As you approach the conclusion of the design thinking process, you're evolving your ideas and making them better. You might refine your analysis, conduct more in-depth brainstorming sessions or develop a second set of prototypes.
  8. Repeat: You repeat the process until you are ready to implement your final solution.

How Can I Bring Design Thinking into My Class?

There are a variety of ways to bring design thinking into the classroom, but here is one excellent activity that is easy and free.

Have students look at the numerous winners of design awards, such as the London International Awards (LIA), CLIO Awards and Effie Awards. Break the class into small groups. After looking at the winning designs on the websites, each group should select their favorite design and imagine they are the designers going through each step of the design thinking process. Students need to put themselves in the designers' shoes, completing each step as the designer would. They should imagine they are tasked with selling the product and recreate the actual campaign by using the design thinking process. The goal of the activity is to use design thinking as a way of understanding a problem the designers were trying to re-frame.

How Should I Run This Activity?

This introduction to the design thinking process will take about 5-15 minutes of presentation. This will be followed by 45-60 minutes of student working time and 5-10 minutes of wrap and class discussion. Students should work in groups of 4-6 people. Allow them to work in a collaborative setting, using large workspaces or bringing their desks together. While the students are working in groups, you should circulate and ensure that they are on task.

What Materials Are Needed?

Students will need access to a computer with Internet to view the award winners. They should also have paper and pencils for brainstorming and prototyping. If desired, art materials could be used to make more extravagant prototypes.

What Should I Expect?

After looking through many ad campaigns, students will notice unique products, witty phrases, interesting special effects and, most importantly, how the design teams rethought and reframed the product and its environment. Students will have plenty of ideas when going through the eight steps of the design thinking process while imagining they are the designers. It's possible that they might not go through the entire design thinking process in the allotted time. This is to be expected. Helen Walters insists, "Design thinking is not a quick fix -- it's a process."4 Students may come up with excellent and detailed explanations to:

  • What is the problem?
  • What are the background issues to the problem?

This is fine, since the point of the activity is to try walking in shoes of the designer while understanding that these advertisements may not have been created in an hour. After the students are finished working, it is important to have a teacher-guided class discussion examining each group’s findings and results, allowing for student discourse and commentary. The class discussion may encourage further exploration and creativity.

Is There a Follow-Up Activity?

A great follow-up activity is revisiting what the students just did, but changing their role. Instead of walking in the designer's shoes, this time they are in charge. Using the product from the original advertisement, the students now have free range. They should go through the design thinking process, creating their own design campaign for the product from their new viewpoint of the problem, historical research and ideation.

My hope is that these award winners will be a catalyst for both teachers and students to use the design thinking process as a way of viewing traditional classroom activities in a different light. Through this fresh perspective, they can make their classroom environment inspiring, engaging and amazing!


1Stevens, A. (2013, June 26). "How to apply design thinking in class, step by step." Retrieved from
2Gerstein, J. (2013, March 11). "Hacking the classroom: Beyond Design Thinking." Retrieved from
3Coley, S. (2013, May 27). "Here's to the crazy ones: Simon Coley on design thinking." Retrieved from
4Walters, H. (2011, March 24). "'Design Thinking' Isn't a Miracle Cure, but Here's How It Helps." Retrieved from

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  • Education Trends
  • Design Thinking
  • Media Literacy
  • Student Engagement
  • Teaching Strategies
  • 9-12 High School

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