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Design Thinking in Higher Education, Part One: Inspiration, Ideation, and Implementation

Leadership and Management

Design Thinking in Higher Education, Part One: Inspiration, Ideation, and Implementation

Design thinking is a creative, collaborative, and innovative approach to solving problems and improving services by emphasizing human experience over product and profit (Brown, 2019). It can improve higher education by providing a framework that leaders—from department chairs to provosts—can use to address problems; search for solutions; test and refine ideas; support continuous improvement; and launch new programs, processes, and policies. We know this because in fall 2021 the members of our college-level administrative team challenged one another to use the framework for collaborative professional development. This article, the first in a two-part series, describes the context and background where we first applied the framework before defining and explaining the concept of design thinking for higher education settings.

Context and background

We represent the College of Education and Health Sciences (EHS) at Bradley University, a midsize private institution in Peoria, Illinois. Known for its innovation, this growing unit serves approximately 2,000 students across six academic departments; it offers 26 undergraduate degree programs, 16 online graduate programs, and five residential graduate programs.

In my first year as the EHS academic dean, I (Jessica) wanted to encourage my leadership team to approach college challenges in new and different ways. I wanted to inspire and invigorate the EHS leadership team by introducing a new foundation for thinking, so I gifted a copy of Brown’s Change by Design—a book widely used in business schools and one introduced to me in my prior administrative role as a healthcare executiveto each team member and then designated time during executive team meetings to discuss key concepts as a means of collaborative professional development. Throughout the academic year, I also encouraged individuals to apply the concepts of design thinking to tackle challenges they faced in their college-level responsibilities. Our goal was to share our design thinking experiences and applications through a national venue to inspire others in higher education organizations to do the same. Once we started, our professional development experience quickly evolved into a yearlong leadership development project that took the shape of a five-stage process: read, discuss, apply, present, and publish—all focused on design thinking (Figure 1).

Read --> Discuss --> Apply --> Present --> Publish
Figure 1. Five-stage leadership development process

Design thinking

Design thinking is a creative, collaborative, and innovative approach to solving problems and improving services that focuses on the human experience. The focus on meeting human needs, not products, sets design thinking apart from other approaches. Design thinking also uses a team approach so that teams can experiment with shared ideas and learn from one another. The goal is to develop ground breaking ideas rather than small, incremental changes.

The human-centered approach of design thinking prompts creative solutions. Often, people have difficulty articulating their needs, so design thinkers help people advocate for needs they may not realize they have. For example, a class that requires a major final project could be designed to require smaller projects throughout the semester that support students in preparing for their final submissions.

Design thinkers also use observation to identify unmet needs. By going out and observing the target population (such as students) to understand its lived experiences, design thinkers identify unmet needs as well as ways to meet those needs. Design thinkers do not stop there, however. Because design thinking is an iterative process, unexpected discoveries often inform end products or services. Design thinkers are open to assessing assumptions and considering new ideas instead of tenaciously sticking to “the way we’ve always done it.”

Our first collective experience with design thinking occurred during fall 2021, when EHS students began verbalizing frustration with limited places to study when COVID-19 related restrictions made it difficult to work on group projects at the library. Our EHS executive team explored options from a student perspective, ultimately realizing that students needed weekend building access to the updated, quiet, and comfortable Westlake Hall, which was locked from 5:00 p.m. on Fridays through 7:30 a.m. on Mondays.

Before providing students with weekend building access, we needed extra security measures in place, which involved walking through the building and viewing safety risks. After observing students working, we realized they needed more than just access. Common sitting areas and the placement of electrical outlets were scarce. Students were sitting on the floors in order to plug-in laptops or phones! In addition to providing building access, our decision to purchase several mobile charging stations and open a few classrooms on weekends allowed students to study and/or work on group projects in Westlake Hall on the weekends the way students envisioned.

Using the process of inspiration, ideation, and implementation; focusing on the student experience; and critically assessing the products and services we were providing, this account illustrates how design thinking lends itself well to higher education settings. The three stages of design thinking break down into 10 sequential steps.

1. Identify the data-based (or anecdotal) problem.
2. Articulate the fundamental (or human-centered) problem.
3. Reframe the problem into a project.
4. Develop a brief (or charge) to guide the design team.

5. Convene an interdisciplinary design team of T-shaped people.
6. Team members go out and observe people.
7. Team members create several prototypes to address or improve the human experience.

8. Select, refine, and pilot one prototype.
9. Document impact over time.
10. Repeat the design thinking cycle if needed.


Design thinking consists of three basic stages: inspiration, ideation, and implementation. Brown defines the first stage as “the problem or opportunity that motivates the search for solutions” (p. 22). Within the stage of inspiration, the first step of the design thinking process is identifying the problem at hand using both data-based and anecdotal evidence (step 1).

Drawing from our college’s student space example, we were inspired to move beyond anecdotal information to asking questions when some of us noticed that students were expressing frustration. Soon, we began gathering data by researching which campus spaces were available to students on evenings and weekends and by observing how many students were using those spaces and for what purposes. Next, we met as an executive team to articulate the fundamental (or human-centered) problem students were facing (step 2), which we determined was a desire to have a campus hangout and study space that was quiet and orderly but neither open to everyone on campus nor closely supervised by adults. We recognized that students considered our building “theirs” and wanted us to trust them to meet and study there on their own terms. Our understanding of the problem from our students’ perspective led to reframing the problem into a project (step 3). At this point, Jessica (the dean) charged several members of our executive team to pursue the question, How can we give students access to the building without compromising their personal safety or risking damage to our facility (step 4)?


The second stage of the design thinking process, ideation is “the process of generating, developing, and testing ideas” (Brown, p. 22). At this stage, the interdisciplinary design team convenes to gather additional information, brainstorm possible solutions, and—if appropriate—to create prototypes or models (step 5). Brown recommends that design teams consist of T-shaped people, or individuals who possess both depth of skill in one area and breadth of knowledge across many areas. Using our student space example, we continued to observe campus spaces, talk with students, and gather information about things like campus police patrols and security cameras (step 6) with less emphasis on articulating the problem than on developing a solution. Eventually, we began to develop possible policies and processes (step 7) that would allow us full confidence in granting safe 24/7 building access to our students.


Where ideation is divergent because numerous options are being created or considered, implementation—which Brown describes as “the path that leads from the project room to the market” (p. 22)—is convergent because options are being eliminated in favor of the best overall choice. In our student space example, after about six months, the design committee brought one recommendation—with a few possible options—back to the full executive team; once the final details were worked out, a date was set to make an announcement to students and begin a trial of the new building access policy (step 8). Jessica made the announcement during an all-college ice cream social, which was itself designed to be a student-supportive event, and our students felt heard.

As of fall 2023, we are one year into making our building accessible and amenable to students 24/7, and no major issues have been reported. In fact, when a corporate partner recently donated a slightly used copy machine to our college, we intentionally placed it in an area of the building commonly used by students so that they would not have to leave the building to walk to the library to make photocopies. Keeping a close eye on the situation, we are documenting the impact of our decision over time (step 9) and continuing to modify and adapt our policies and procedures as needed (step 10).

Individuals, teams, and systems

Throughout the design thinking process, leaders must “make discerning judgments, which will inspire confidence if people feel that their ideas have been given a fair hearing” (Brown, 2019, p. 82). First, leaders must consider the needs of individuals. One question to ask is, What are the experiences and fundamental needs of the consumer? In EHS, the consumer is almost always the students we serve. Second, leaders must consider the needs of teams. When solving a problem or engaging in strategic planning, questions to ask include, Who will think most creatively and collaboratively? and, What outsiders or experts can provide insight? By making an intentional effort to “think outside the box,” leaders can build teams that are less likely to perpetuate the status quo. Third, leaders must consider the systems in which they work, both large and small. Once the team’s innovative ideas are out of the box, the question becomes, How will the solution fit into the larger system (or not)? Unfortunately, innovative ideas and systems thinking do not always coexist. If you cannot change the system, it is often better to scale back a creative solution than not to implement any change at all.


Design thinking can improve higher education by providing a framework leaders can use to intentionally plan, problem solve, and innovate. This article has described the context and background where we first applied the framework and defined and explained the concept of design thinking for higher education settings. Part two of this series will describe how we used the framework to support the management of fast-growing online graduate programs, development of interdisciplinary curriculum, transition from decentralized to centralized business practices, promotion of first-year students’ academic success, and establishment of effective collegewide leadership practices.


Brown, T. (2019). Change by design, revised and updated. HarperCollins.

Jana Hunzicker, EdD, is the associate dean for academic affairs in the College of Education and Health Sciences at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois.

Deborah Erickson, PhD, is the associate dean for distance education in the College of Education and Health Sciences at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois.

Rachel Vollmer, PhD, is the associate dean for student success in the College of Education and Health Sciences at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois.

Cara Burritt, MBA, is the assistant dean for administration and finance in the College of Education and Health Sciences at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois.

Jessica Clark, DNP, is dean of the College of Education and Health Sciences at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois.


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