Design Thinking As An Instructional Design Approach

The Design Thinking approach has been popularized by Tim Brown and the d.school at Stamford University as a way to approach problem solving in a way that focuses on the user, employs rapid prototyping, and refines the solution through many iterations. It’s a response to the movement of design away from developing usable solutions and towards capitalism and appearance. According to Tim Brown, the design thinking approach “uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match peoples’ needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.”

The Design Thinking Approach has many parallels with modern approaches to instructional design. When instructional designers look for solutions to learning needs, they start with the learners themselves. They employ strategies such as learner personas and journey maps to better understand the needs, expectations, and motivations of the learners. Instructional designers also work in an iterative model – an ongoing process of developing solutions, testing those solutions, and then revising those solutions based on that feedback. Instructional designers can benefit from studying design thinking methods and strategies, and work to incorporate them into their own instructional design practice.

User-Centered = Learner-Centered

Design Thinking asks us to keep the user at the heart of our decision-making as we go through the development of a design solution – good instructional design is always grounded in a learner-centered approach. In instructional design, the “user” is always a “learner.” Gaining empathy for the learner can help us to develop more effective learning environments that help the learner to achieve their goals and meet the stated objectives. Learner-Centered means understanding what the learner wants to get out of a learning experience, and what they are bringing into that experience. You can gather this information through learner interviews and surveys, and using that data to develop learner personas and profiles. However the learner input does not stop with the analysis phase – learners should be involved throughout the design process, where the instructional designer can seek feedback on early prototypes, and beta test more advanced design solutions to gather learner feedback.


Many view instructional design as a one time process that occurs when a stakeholder needs to solve an instructional problem. However instructional design is never really complete – instructional design solutions should always be organic and ready to evolve along with the learners and the needs of the learning organization. Good instruction instructional design is constantly engaged in a process of evaluation and revision. It is an iterative process, much like the design thinking approach. The solution is developed, tested, reworked, and tested again.


Instructional designers can take inspiration from the design thinking approach, by incorporating more creativity into their instructional design process. Concepts such as “building up ideas” rather than “break down ideas”, as well as judgment free brainstorming, fail-forward approaches, and taking a holistic view. These ideas, developed and shared by the individuals at Stamford’s D.School, can help instructional designers be more successful in arriving at creative solutions to instructional needs.

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