Teaching the Craft of Design

There’s a lot of excitement about Design Thinking–a field of study made popular by Stanford University in which people learn techniques for navigating complexity; gaining empathy for users; and iterative prototyping.

Navigating complexity and gaining empathy for users are skills of the mind. The basics can be taught rather easily and with self-guided practice, they can be mastered. But prototyping is another story.

Prototyping is a skill of the senses: touch, sight, and sound with taste and smell being used less often (unless we are in the culinary arts). Prototyping is also a skill of perception: how objects and systems are perceived in time and space. However, the kind of prototyping we see in design thinking workshops consists of pipe cleaners and other fluorescent colored bits from the craft store with little regard for the senses or perception.

So how do we incorporate the more formal elements of design into design thinking workshops? Is it even possible? I have a few ideas:

  • COLOR. Limit the use of color. Untrained eyes can communicate clearly if they use this magical color combination: neutrals + one color. Neutrals should be used for the bulk of the design and color should be used to make the important parts “pop” or stand out.
  • CONSTRAINTS. Constrain the use of materials. Encouraging people to get the most impact out of the least amount of resources is a fantastic exercise. And it will give the prototype clarity.
  • CRITIQUE. Provide guidelines for giving and getting feedback. Prototyping is a process of continuous learning and improvement. So we can’t be presenting our work-in-progress as if in a sales pitch.

Can these skills be mastered in a weekend workshop? Of course not. But are they a good start for training ourselves to prototype with intelligence, curiosity, and elegance? I think so.