Teaching the Next Design Thinkers

Elements for a K-12 Design Education Program

By Sam Aquillano, Executive Director, Design Museum Foundation

What do we need to teach young aspiring designers as they move through their K-12 experience? Design is changing in so many ways, but I believe we can instill the fundamentals of the design process and design impact in kids and young adults.

So let’s look at the design process, and I’ll highlight some concepts to think about. This is the classic Stanford d.school and IDEO design process. There are lots of different versions and variations, but this just about covers it: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. I see the need to conceptualize elements of each of these phases for K-12 students.


The cardinal sin of bad design is self-referential design, that is, designing only for yourself. When we say human-centered design we don’t mean just one human, we mean many humans. This is the core of good design, and too often I see youth only designing with their own needs in mind — it’s hard to blame them since, well, they’re young, and their life experience is largely… their own life. At a time when we see 13-year-olds curating their Instagram feeds more tightly than some Fortune 500 brands, we need to teach them to authentically care about other people.

They must get into other people’s shoes to meet the needs of others as designers. The best way to do this is through interviews (is there really any other way?). That means getting kids to talk to people… face to face. A scary proposition for some kids — even some adults. Kids are often shy, sometimes unsure of themselves — let’s teach our kids to be great interviewers so they can learn from others and empathize with everyone they meet.

A great way to practice interviewing is to generate empathy and journey maps. Empathy maps capture what an interviewee is thinking, feeling, saying, seeing, hearing, and doing. It’s a tool for stepping outside yourself, and most importantly getting that information down on paper. There’s no way to process all this information in our heads, our brains are too busy dealing with our own thoughts and feelings. Similarly, journey maps chart someone’s needs, feelings, actions, and/or activities over a period of time. These maps can be as simple as post-it notes on a poster board, or as detailed as an infographic.


Defining things can be difficult for young people, since so much is being defined for them. We’re constantly training them to follow directions. But we need to prepare young people to create the directions themselves and follow their own leads. We must teach youth to identify both problems and opportunities — how to know the difference, and how to engage with both: solve a problem, activate an opportunity. How do we teach this? I think practice. Talk to people, identify pain points or areas of opportunity, write them down, present them, defend them — debate!

The Define stage builds on the in-person empathetic research from the stage before — we must teach kids how to translate that research into action. They must learn how to learn, how to find and absorb information — dare I say read? I can’t tell you how many times a young person has told me, “I don’t know how to do that.” And that is the end of the conversation — they’ve hit a roadblock and they’re done. I thought this was the internet generation. I often ask in response, “Did you google it?” They often say no. When people ask me how I knew how to start a nonprofit, I tell them: “I read a book called ‘How to Start a Nonprofit.’”

Finally, our youth need to be taught how to write and present persuasively. Sure they can get the spelling and grammar right (for the most part), but oftentimes it’s weak writing. It doesn’t spur me to action or help me make a decision. The same is true for presentations. When they graduate and get into the working-design world, they will not be the decision makers. Designers need to be persuasive in a way that is more powerful than currently taught in school.

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For me, this is where the real fun begins. I enjoy talking to people and learning about their needs, but I really love brainstorming and generating ideas. Kids do as well. Kids are natural idea generators, at least until we somehow teach them to not be. To generate new ideas you have to break the rules. It has been a while since I was in K-12, but I do remember there being a lot of rules. So let’s create some space (physical and mental) for kids to forget the rules and come up with crazy, great ideas.

To come up with the best ideas, you need a lot of ideas. What I’ve seen in young people is that they fall in love with their first idea. They fall in love, get married, and buy a house with their first idea. It might be a great idea, but again, as young designers they won’t be deciders — their role will be to present options.

Another important concept on the road to generating lots of ideas is to collaborate. Let’s teach our kids to work together and celebrate the ideas of others — in the real world the best designs and innovations are created by diverse minds working together and building upon each others’ ideas. Much like empathy, this requires young people to care about others and be respectful and open to multiple points of view.

To collaborate effectively, communicating visually is essential. Your ideas aren’t doing anyone any good if they’re stuck in your head, you have to get them out onto paper (or a whiteboard). Not every kid needs to be an artist or one of the design sketchers I follow on Instagram. But every aspiring designer needs to be able to communicate their thoughts on paper, quickly and clearly. I love the graphic facilitation work of Collective Next, a consultancy in Boston — their graphic artists are famous for quickly capturing thoughts and ideas visually.

On the other coast, in Portland, a consultancy called XPLANE runs their Visual Thinking School to help people express themselves and their ideas graphically. Last time I was at XPLANE we played a few rounds of Broken Telephone Pictionary — look it up — it’s a great way to get kids (or anyone) drawing.



Humans like to build things, it’s in our nature — and kids really love to build things. Every evening when I come home from work, my 2-year-old daughter drags me to the cabinet and pulls out the blocks, we build towers for the next hour or so. We must foster that building spirit because prototyping is how we help young people realize their ideas. Prototyping is more than building, it’s creating — yes a prototype can be cardboard taped together, it can also be a storyboard, a role play, or a video. The important thing is it’s quick and dirty, often ugly — let’s teach kids to make lots of stuff that they don’t care about.

And at the same time… teach them to make beautiful things they do care about. I believe every kid should learn a craft — ideally many — but at least one. Something where they can sweat the details and make things they are truly proud of. I’m seeing too many undergraduate and graduate design programs that only focus on design thinking. They’re forgetting about design doing — the two types of design are equally important and reinforcing. Having one without the other weakens the design work.

So let’s teach kids the tools, both physical and digital, that they can use to make, create, and build. When I was in high school and college, everyone was teaching me how to build things out of paper and cardboard. I remember thinking, ‘Why?’ It turns out there’s always paper and cardboard around. On the digital side, yes there’s Adobe Creative Cloud — with every single piece of software for every creative pursuit — but there are also free and less expensive alternatives available online with free online classes to learn literally every piece of creative software.



This last phase is where I find young people struggle the most, because it entails sharing their precious ideas with others. This can be terrifying for some kids — and scary for adults too. I often hear from young people that they’re scared to show off their idea, they’re afraid someone will steal it from them. I usually respond by reminding them they’re 20-years-old, and nothing is going to happen with their idea unless they talk to others about it. There’s a great children’s book I read to my daughter called What To Do With an Idea — I want to read it to everyone.

We must instill the courage and confidence necessary for kids to believe in themselves and their ideas to the point where they share them with others. Practice makes perfect here. They need to learn to take feedback and criticism without taking it personally. I’m not sure how to teach this, but four years of design school drilled it into me. After my first critique I wanted to curl into a ball and cry — by the end of my senior year, I was craving the feedback of others. I knew their ideas would help make my concept stronger. Perhaps a way to instill this is to work it from the other side: let’s teach our kids how to give constructive, respectful criticism to others. Have you ever heard of the critique sandwich? Give a compliment, give a critique, and follow it with another compliment. It works every time.

One more thing on feedback — we must teach kids to change their direction based on findings, even if they’re not their own. If they get entrenched in a concept, it’s the same as falling in love with their first idea. Kids have a lot of pride, but our ideas must exist outside of our personal pride in order to grow beyond our own imaginations.


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