A Brief History of Design Thinking

Each of the past two summers, I have participated in workshops on a method for program development called design thinking. You may have heard of it, as it has been the subject of workshop presentations at education conferences, articles in education publications, and faculty retreats. In this article, I recount the history of design thinking in independent schools as I understand it. Call it “Design Thinking: West Coast Edition,” if you will. I would love to hear your experiences as well. Then, in a second article, I plan to tell the story of design thinking here at U Prep, particularly the experience of applying design thinking theory to on-site practice.

Design thinking has its origins in the world of business, specifically product design. A better chair, shoe, or building design have been common subjects of design thinking over the years. IDEO‘s David Kelley is cited as the pioneer of design thinking. Concurrently with explorations of design thinking, independent schools were engaged in a process of “professionalization”, looking to learn from business practices such as employee expectations, employment, and evaluation. The Summer 2011 edition of Independent School featured the theme of “Developing a Professional Culture in School.”

Independent schools were perhaps also attracted to the prestige of a national leader in design thinking, Stanford University. The Institute of Design (a.k.a., d.school), and its offspring IDEO, reached out to schools as early as 2009 (12), and a number of independent school leaders visited and attended their workshops.

A smaller but also prominent school is also located along the Peninsula south of San Francisco, Nueva School. The school came into contact with the Stanford d.school, found that these ideas resonated with its practices of experiential education, and decided to make design thinking a core feature of its instructional program. This led to the development of a dedicated space for prototype fabrication, hiring of a program director, and the integration of design thinking methods throughout the school’s curriculum. Nueva staff took design thinking one step further, adopting it as a process for learning environment design, and began to train its own staff as well as those from other schools. This led to several much-cited conference presentations, Nueva’s summer institute for design thinking, as well as its Innovative Learning Conference.

The 2012 NAIS Annual Conference featured workshops on design thinking (12). Architecture firms developed design thinking partnerships with educators (12). Mount Vernon Presbyterian School used a community-based design thinking workshop to inform the redesign of the school’s library and held a Design Thinking SummitRiverdale Country School and IDEO offered a free online course in design thinking and published an educator’s guide to design thinking. A number of schools began to try design thinking in classrooms and community projects (1, 2). Personally, I have been involved in the design thinking work of Santa Fe Leadership Center and Leading Is Learning. You may be interested in some upcoming Leading Is Learning events, a free webinar on Jan 30 (offered with Whipple Hill) and a design thinking event in June 2013 at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School.

We have engaged with design thinking in a number of ways at University Prep. My next article will explore these efforts and investigate the differences between attending a workshop on design thinking and implementing it in school practice.


  1. Ojanoschka says:

    thanks for this post- The activities at the Hasso Plattner Institute for Design Thinking in Potdsam/Berlin/Germany are certaintly not focused on the field of education, but genuinely the offer as such, as an innovative form of qualification and education is very interesting.


  2. […] a previous post, I described a history of design thinking in independent schools. This article describes how we are […]

  3. […] is the third article in a series (1, 2) about using design thinking in practice in our school. This year, I convened a study group to […]

  4. Richard,
    Thank you for including Mount Vernon Presbyterian School in your post about the brief history of design thinking. We have been utilizing design thinking in our school for the last four years and see us broadening and deepening this methodology throughout the PreK-12 arena for quite some time. For more demonstrations of our DEEP design thinking challenges, please take a look at my picture blog http://mvidesignk4sciencelab.wordpress.com/ and also more about DEEP at http://www.deepdesignthinking.com. Last spring, we held our first http://www.designthinkingsummit.org and drew a huge number of educators around the Atlanta and surrounding areas. This summer we are holding a two day design thinking experience called //fuse http://www.mountvernoninnovation.org June 18-19. I would love to talk more with you about design thinking in education. Thank you for your series of post on design thinking.

  5. Richard says:

    Mary, it was a pleasure to learn about your school’s programs at NAIS this past year. Best wishes for your continued work, and I will look forward to learning more about the program in the future.