Design Thinking

Design Thinking

“Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns
in order to look at things a different way.”
Edward deBono

In order to be successful as instructional designers, we engage in a unique creative process through which we form a bond with the learners we serve. Through design we create and deliver value  in the form of learning products and activities that are constructive, effective and efficient. Achieving this value proposition requires the skill of “design thinking.”

A Distinct Thinking Skill

Dr. Edward de Bono, one of the foremost authorities on creativity and thinking, has suggested that design is actually rooted in a distinct thinking skill, which he calls “design thinking.” While our traditional mode of thinking is based on pattern-recognition (e.g., logic, analysis and judgment), design thinking is based on skills of new pattern-creation. Design thinking is at the very core of generative creativity:

“Value is to design as truth is to logic. Logic seeks to proceed from truth to truth. Design seeks to proceed from value to value. The many aspects of value will be described in later pages. There may be different values for different people. Negative values have to be kept in mind. Design is very much more than classical synthesis, where thesis and antithesis are combined.   …The elements from which the design is put together may indeed be standard elements — just as music uses standard notes. So the message is clear. We need more thinking. Not more of the traditional judgment thinking but more design thinking. More of ‘what-can- be,’ not more of ‘what-is.’  We need to teach thinking and perceptual thinking in particular (it is possible, cheap and easy). We need not only to develop more and more technology but to design value concepts to deliver value from the technology.”

Edward de Bono, New Thinking for the New Millennium, (2000), pp. 217-18.

De Bono elaborates a distinction supported by the research into “left-brain” and “right-brain” thinking; however, he goes further. The difference between design thinking and traditional thinking is an important insight into the creative process:

“Design thinking is very different from traditional judgment thinking. For judgment thinking, the desired output is truth or apparent truth. For design thinking, the output is value. For logical thinking, certainty is essential. For design thinking, possibility is essential. Logical thinking likes to work with facts. Design thinking has to work with perception. The three most important things in design thinking are: perception, possibility, and practicality (the three Ps).

“Traditional thinking is based on analysis, judgment, and logic. Design thinking is far more different than most people realize. Design is not simply a different purpose to which traditional thinking can be applied, just as it is applied to any other purpose. This is an unfortunate mistake made by every educational establishment throughout the world. The serious result of this mistake is that no attempt is make to teach design thinking. Even less effort is made to teach creative thinking, which is a key component of design thinking. This is also because creativity is still, quaintly, regarded as a mystical gift that cannot be taught.”

Edward de Bono, ibid, p. 222.

Critical Thinking
Creative Thinking
Analytic Generative
Convergent Divergent
Vertical Lateral
Probability Possibility
Judgment Suspended judgment
Focused Diffuse
Objective Subjective
Answer An answer
Left brain Right brain
Verbal Visual
Linear Associative
Reasoning Richness, novelty
Yes but Yes and

Impact on Strategic and Operational Thinking

Solving instructional design problems requires being able to think strategically, as well as operationally. We have adapted an illustration originally developed by Michael Maccoby (, which highlights the different aims of strategic and operational levels of thinking.

Maccoby’s original graphic has two important messages: one, to illustrate the difference between strategic and operational thinking tasks, and two, to show how continuous learning is an integrating process uniting strategic and operational workflows.

To these messages we add one more: that strategic thinking and operational thinking become more effective and complete when our thinking enables us to express both “a desire for truth” and “a desire for value.”

It is a common observation that some individuals are excellent at an operational level, but never excel at a strategic level of thinking. Ideally both Traditional Thinking (analytical) and Design Thinking (creative vision) will be applied in both strategic and operational thinking tasks. However, it is clear that a one-sided, “analytic only” mode of thinking will be genuinely incapable of dealing with the range of thinking tasks that the strategic level requires. Strategic thinking, especially, demands both the analysis-judgment and possibility-value frames of thinking.

This is a skill, by the way, that de Bono asserts can be taught and learned. A good portion of his career has been engaged in demonstrating this: Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step (1970), Six Thinking Hats (1985), Six Action Shoes (1991), and Serious Creativity: An interactive course (2003).

The Importance of Design Thinking

Design can be applied, and needs to be applied, to essentially everything in our world.

“The purpose of design is to bring together different things in order to deliver value. If there is no value, there is no design. If the only value is the self-indulgence of the designer, then there is no design either. Design is the opposite of complacency and being too happy with things the way they are. Creativity feeds into design. A design may be a new way of putting together well-known things. A design may also involve new concepts. Design can be applied to everything we do, think or feel. We may seek to design new types of capital; we may seek to design a better form of democracy; we may seek to redesign the legal system. Anything can be designed or redesigned. Design is very much more than just problem-solving.”

Edward De Bono, ibid, p. 217.

The relationship of design/creativity to education and training is very much the issue.

“At a meeting concerned with the contribution of high technology to education, the technology was brilliant but the education concepts were old-fashioned and feeble. Showing a tired concept with brilliant color and high definition does not make it a better concept. Technology is far ahead of the value concepts that we ask it to deliver. More and more technology is not the answer. More and more technology will deliver less and less value. Technology companies that pursue only technology will find the delivered value getting less and less. Faster and faster communication means nothing if there is nothing to communicate…. The big need in the future is not so much for more technology but for the design of new value concepts.”

Edward De Bono, ibid, p. 100.

Just applying technology can never be the sufficient answer for good design in E-Learning. As Dr. de Bono stresses, “Having a fast car is not the same as having somewhere to go.” (ibid, p. 118)

The Creative Process

The process paradigm — Cognitive design — which we have been describing and advocating for E-Learning, does not depend simply on using technology to convey a message. Rather it depends on thinking clearly about the learning experience we are seeking to catalyze. This is the primary value that we are delivering as instructional designers and developers. It is accomplished through the unique way in which we package Information, Instruction, Media, and Delivery System to evoke cognitive processing in the learner.

It is the difference between believing that our instructional design task is to inform or present, or believing that our design task is to elicit new perceptions and require active responses in the learner. The goal of instructional design is to create learning experiences in which new mental models will be constructed — so that the encoding of meaningful experiences will be retrievable, usable, and transferable to daily life.

To design in this way requires three principle skill sets:

  • Being adequately fluent with the subject-matter to be taught,
  • Understanding the audience’s capabilities and learning needs, and
  • Understanding the opportunities and limitations of the instructional environment.

Design is not just about mastering technology and media, workflow and communication. Design is not just about problem-solving in the analytical sense. All these skills are vital, but they are not sufficient. They are like the painter’s palette of raw color, media and technique — they are not in themselves the art.

Creating successful E-Learning products and activities is a process of designing value — so that meaningful learning experiences will occur. It is from this “value point of view” that the creative vision and inspiration for design originates. The successful integration and synergy among Information, Instruction, Media and Delivery System depends upon “design thinking.” That is applying perception, possibility and practicality to the substance and heart of E-Learning — in order to make it happen.

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