Design Thinking for Higher Education

Sascha H. Funk
5 min readJun 10, 2022

When you put anything in an institution — whether it be a corporation, a school, or government — one of the first things to be lost is the ability for that institution to improve. All too often, institutions become set in their ways: they become comfortable with certain processes and stop innovating, because the people running the institution focus on maintaining those processes and procedures rather than introducing something new. This is especially true when looking at higher education institutions. Colleges are often decades old (if not older), with professors who have been doing things one way for decades and students who want to learn in a specific way so they can get good grades. So how do we break out of this?

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a way of thinking about problems and solutions. It’s about human-centered design, not just for products but for engaging with customers, innovating within an organization, or helping people learn.

At its core, design thinking is a way of thinking about the world — it helps us ask better questions so that we can create meaningful solutions to real problems. Designers use their creative abilities to go beyond traditional problem-solving methods like brainstorming or problem solving through trial and error. Instead they employ empathy as well as visual and conceptual tools like prototypes to imagine solutions before they’re built. By doing this they’re able to identify key insights into an issue early on in the process which leads them down unexpected paths towards truly innovative outcomes.”

Why should you care about design thinking?

Design thinking is a way of looking at the world that’s more creative, collaborative and human-focused. It requires you to think differently about all the problems you face in life and work, from understanding your audience better to discovering new ways in which technology can be used as an aid for learning. If you’re interested in making positive change in the world around you, design thinking can help you do so more effectively by transforming your ability to solve problems at scale.

What does design thinking look like in higher ed?

Design thinking is the process of solving problems and developing new ideas. It’s about creating a human-centered solution, where the user is at the heart of the design process. Design thinking allows you to create a problem statement and then come up with a number of possible solutions for that problem — and then select among those solutions based on how well they meet your needs or desires.

Design thinking can be applied to any situation in which you want to improve something for yourself or others: designing a website, creating an innovative way to teach children how to count, developing new medical technologies…in fact, there are examples from every industry imaginable! But what does this mean for higher education? How will it transform our institutions?

How can you implement design thinking at your university?

As a first-time implementer of design thinking, it’s important to start small. You don’t need to go all in and create a design thinking program for your entire institution — start with just one class or department. Pick something you’re passionate about and that will show off the value of design thinking for your campus.

The next step is to find a problem that can be solved through the DTP process: Define, Think, Prototype (or explore), Test/Learn, Repeat (DTPR). The DTPR cycle is highly iterative; when we take on projects as designers we often encounter roadblocks requiring us to redefine our goals or pivot altogether if what we’re trying isn’t working out as planned. That’s why I find this approach so appealing because it forces us to constantly zoom out from our initial ideas and look at them from new perspectives before committing real resources towards them.

What are the barriers to adopting design thinking in higher ed?

You might be thinking, “That sounds great! How can I get started?” Well, before you do anything else, take a step back and consider what barriers to adoption might be in your way. Design thinking isn’t a silver bullet that will solve all of your problems or even one that will work for everyone. If you’re not careful about how you approach it, design thinking could take a lot of time and resources from your team without producing much value. For example:

  • It can be difficult to implement with a large number of stakeholders who are not all on board with its principles;
  • It can also be difficult to implement when your organization is large enough that some teams aren’t willing or able to collaborate with each other; and finally…
  • The process itself is hard work — you have to put in the hours before you get any results out of it!

Institutions that use design thinking are more successful by every measure.

Design thinking is a process that helps you create products and services that people need. That’s it. It’s not about the latest technology or design fads — it’s about using human-centered innovation to solve real problems in the world.

Design thinking can be used to improve any kind of business or organization, from customer service at Walmart to the inner workings of the White House. Here are some examples:

  • The United States Army was losing soldiers during training exercises because they couldn’t find their way out of the woods at night when they were lost on foot patrol in unfamiliar terrain — their maps didn’t have enough detail or context to help them navigate safely through difficult territory while also avoiding enemy fire and booby traps. So they worked with Niantic Labs (the company that created Pokemon Go) to create a new game called Ingress, which gave soldiers an augmented reality experience where they could learn how landmarks relate spatially in order to improve their ability to navigate more efficiently.
  • A hospital wanted its patients feeling more welcome during their stay by creating an app that would allow them access information about what was going on around them without having someone explain things every time someone asked for something simple (like “Where are my clothes?”). The result was a playful interface with helpful content tailored specifically for each person based on what staff know about his/her preferences from previous visits so as not only provide accurate information but also make sure it feels personalized too!


Design thinking is an approach that can work for any institution of higher education. Still, getting buy-in and support for such a large-scale change is challenging. But the more schools that adopt design thinking, the more universities will come around to the idea. And we all stand to benefit from this approach, especially when it comes to student success.



Sascha H. Funk

Head of Media Studies | BKK | New Media & ED #Volleyball, #MuayThai. — hosting @FunkItPod | it’s not rain, it’s liquid sunshine