This article is more than 2 years old

How to design our way to a better future

Bo Kelestyn and Rebecca Freeman ask if design thinking can open up spaces for respect and creativity in the student experience.
This article is more than 2 years old

Bo Kelestyn is Associate Professor at the Warwick Business School and co-leader of the Leadership for Educational Transformation programme for education leaders from Ukraine

Rebecca Freeman is the Dean of Students at the University of Warwick

In his blog Wonkhe’s Jim Dickinson asked how institutions solve problems for students, given the value students that place on how universities approach problems that are “felt viscerally” by students.

Diverse student cohorts are demanding more participatory and equal approaches to engaged learning and institutional development, but it can be hard for institutions to open up spaces for genuine collaborative engagement.

It means that we should build structures to design “student experience” with respect and creativity, and design thinking can be part of the solution.

What is it?

Disrupting dated ways of thinking about management and innovation, “design thinking” is a mindset and a tool for decision making, problem solving, and ideation.

Nurtured in the business and digital realms it reflects complexity and uncertainty brought about by accelerated levels of change, and in the last 18 months, we have had accelerated levels of change.

Examples of design thinking have been increasingly seen in curriculum and learning design but it has much wider scope. Applying design thinking to student experience design and student engagement offers new opportunities to open up spaces for students to shape university change.

Design thinking provides the structure and space for students to understand and unpick institutional challenges and redefine these spaces and solutions. The process focuses on empathy, cognitive diversity, co-creation, continuous and fast testing of assumptions and biases to form solutions that work. It consists of five interlinked stages (Empathise-Define-Ideate-Prototype-Test) with empathy at the base of each step.

Imagine you are designing a new module catalogue. Your intention is to deliver a positive experience interacting with the catalogue and you are leveraging the best of your team’s talent. Your focus is on meaningful and useful design for students, and you want it to work.

You set up a workshop using design thinking approaches and dig deeper into their wishes and goals, frustrations and anxieties when choosing modules (Empathise). Assessment methods seem to be the main pain point and something students want to use as a filter when choosing a module. There are a few other surprising insights that your team has not come across (e.g. international students need more information on X,) which reframe your challenge (Define). With students and the team you refine and generate more ideas (Ideate) and as you build the catalogue students engage with developing models (Prototype and Test). The catalogue is built on in-depth empathy for the experience of the diverse student body.

Why bother

Used for student voice and engagement, design thinking provides structure and space for complex cross departmental conversations, bringing in students who may not be part of formal representation structures. Working in this way has made a positive impact in a number of ways:


Design thinking starts and ends with empathy. One design thinking activity is empathy mapping, which helps to gain a richer understanding of the audience and challenges participants to go beyond personal experiences. Student voice and understanding a range of voices is at the core of the design process. It is not used to validate an existing idea that is already in development, it is the basis for creating solutions and shaping institutional thinking.

Students are in control of the exercise and the space so feedback and ideas are more authentic, visceral, and revealing of the real student experience. Design thinking generates opportunities for students to participate in decision making and innovation without the emotional labour of more formal opportunities, it can be a one off, or longer term engagement. This enables students to frame problems and solutions leading to more respectful and creative design.

Diversity as a strength

Design thinking allows respect and design for diversity. It opens people up to seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary, not rejecting conventionality, but instead playing with and building on it. Institutionally it can be easy to look to fix problems rather than question some of the assumptions that underpin how things are done. Simple every day observations and experiences bring powerful and sharp insights.

Injecting even one design thinking activity into a process creates space to understand the diversity of student experience and for students to reflect on problems individually and collectively to identify potential solutions. Design thinking allows space to design for and with students. It respects the diversity of student experience and explores ways of reflecting that in solutions.

Embraces complexity and creativity

Design thinking embraces looking at the extremes and bringing students into unpicking complexity. Tackling institutional problems is hard, there is rarely one “right” answer. Making space for nuance, understanding student stories and anecdotes and what they tell us about how to tackle complex problems is crucial for finding solutions that are inclusive, and work.

Design thinking recognises that institutions, processes, policies and approaches are enabled by people, and makes space for designing with them (not just for them).

Design thinking is about opening up problem solving as a creative space in higher education, bringing together students and staff to see strength in complexity and respect nuance. Placing student voices at the centre, it opens up new ways of thinking and engaging with institutions and can build trust with student communities.

Through workshops at Warwick we have seen evidence of students never before interested in leadership and university decision making, seeking out opportunities to get more involved.

Design thinking reminds us that wicked problems in higher education are real and visceral and opens up space to better understand nuance and design respectful, empathic and creative ways forward. As we look to build ways to tackle institutional challenges, we suggest one answer could be design thinking.

3 responses to “How to design our way to a better future

  1. Life Design work by Timothy O’Reilly in the United States would be a great tool in this space. He has done some amazing work across multiple universities on empathy, and, student and staff life engagement and experience using Life Design as a framing for student and staff feedback and representation.

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