After the Post It Notes Are Gone – Thoughts on Design Thinking in Academia

Written by: Leigh Graves Wolf

Primary Source: Leigh Graves Wolf – June 10, 2016

Design thinking. Back end.At the end of one of the MSU Faculty Development seminars I facilitated back in March Dr. Chivukula made an observation in the Applying Design Thinking to Academic Plans workshop I was facilitating. He said/asked (as I recall) design thinking seems to have a place at the beginning of processes but, where does it fit long term? This is a question that has set in my mind almost every day now for the past 2 months – literally on my drive to or from work it will pop in my head, or, as we’re engaged in other Hub discussions or activities that involve design thinking. At the time, I think I said something to the effect of – yes, you’re right, but, my (lack of an) answer has always sat poorly with me. I didn’t like that I didn’t have a better answer and couldn’t articulate some of the tensions I myself was feeling around design thinking. I touched on this angst in the presentation – and at the end of the blog post reflection on the workshop I said:

In sum, I don’t want people to walk away thinking that this is the only way that I work.  It’s a tool in my toolbox (or whatever metaphor you want to use) as a way to tackle wicked problems.”

Now, fast forward to a few weeks ago – on May 19th the Hub facilitated a Design Day which was the start of a 10 month iterative process of creating a new way to prepare veterinarians at Michigan State University.  We led participants through design thinking activities to elicit ideas and to raise questions about the process. But, then what? So many activities that involve design thinking, post-it notes and brainstorming seem to end in the room. It’s the process that is important — ok, but, a lot of data was generated and a lot of people took precious time off to contribute to the process. How can we honor the time that was dedicated and use the artifacts that were created to further the curriculum reinvention?

If we’re going to be successful at using design thinking in academic contexts, we (I) have to more clearly articulate and situate the strategies and frameworks we’re using within our academic contexts. So – in reflecting on ways not only to capture, but to analyse, synthesize and report we huddled as a team, transcribed post-it notes, created abstractions, performed some qualitative data analysis and created a this report for participants.

The abstractions in particular have received initial positive feedback. Caroline and Libby were tasked with taking the photograpped “maps” that participants had created and I asked them to create the most simple representation possible. (I highly encourage you to read Chapter 5 of Sparks of Genius (Root-Bernstein, 1999) for more insight into the creative act of abstraction.)

I hope that the report helps to provide a more solid footing and insight one way design thinking can not only be operationalized in the moment, but, as an artifact that can be embedded into a process over time. On a somewhat related tangent, we were very purposeful about counting our hours and time dedicated to the project (something that I rarely do) you can find the full detail in the end of the report but essentially it took 125 hours of preparation and 51 hours of analysis.

There is no single solution, no magic bullet to solving wicked problems.  Henriksen et al (2015) outline a rubric for creative work – one that is NEW: Novel, Effective, Whole.  One thing that I have noticed in working across all colleges on campus over the past few months, in so many different contexts is that by nature we tend to desire a solution.  Johansson‐Sköldberg et al (2013) provide a critical analysis of design thinking and I highly recommend taking the time to read this.  Design thinking is one way we can and will solve problems, but it certainly is not the only way.   Design thinking is not new, but, the combination (or bricolage) of the techniques we’re using to solve complex problems (I hope) is NEW (novel, effective & whole) to our unique context as a university.  It is then extremely important that we thoughtfully situate and articulate these processes to our peers here at MSU and as an organization (the Hub); to be clear and purposeful in the techniques, frameworks and processes we are our combining in our toolbox to do our work.

Now what? In having spent some time thinking this through (at least a little bit, and adding a bit of scholarship) I would like to link to Jeff’s post from a few days ago – The new (?) learning designer (engineer) which touches on the array of skill-sets needed to operate in the above context.  In my research for the Design Day report, I came across Wilson & Zamberlan’s 2015 piece: Design for an Unknown Future: Amplified Roles for Collaboration, New Design Knowledge, and Creativity. To me it is a thoughtful and clever articulation of the skills needed to engage in the wicked problem solving that we are doing.

So, where does this leave us? What are your thoughts, struggles, triumphs? Would love to hear your reactions and comments.


Wilson, S., & Zamberlan, L. (2015). Design for an Unknown Future: Amplified Roles for Collaboration, New Design Knowledge, and Creativity. Design Issues, 31(2), 3-15. doi:10.1162/DESI_a_00318.

Henriksen, D., Mishra, P. & Mehta, R. (2015). Novel, Effective, Whole: Toward a NEW Framework for Evaluations of Creative Products. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 23(3), 455-478. Chesapeake, VA: Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education.

Johansson‐Sköldberg, U., Woodilla, J., Çetinkaya, M., Gothenburg Research Institute (GRI), Faculty of Fine, Applied and Performing Arts, University of Gothenburg . Department of Business Administration. (2013). Design thinking: Past, present and possible futures. Creativity and Innovation Management, 22(2), 121-146. doi:10.1111/caim.12023

Root-Bernstein, R. S., & Root-Bernstein, M. (1999). Sparks of genius: The thirteen thinking tools of the world’s most creative people. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.