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IL924 Design Thinking for Social Impact

“Design Thinking” (Buchanan, 1992; Brown, 2008) refers to:

- a socio-political movement for empowering people with the capabilities of professional designers;

- and a rapidly coalescing interdisciplinary academic field, seeking to understand and improve how we do designing and how it can have a positive impact on the world."


This interdisciplinary module provides an induction into Design Thinking as research and practice, with a focus on its uses and limitations in the field of "social change" - especially participatory design and the development of design capabilities amongst communities (designing by communities, as opposed to designing for communities)

The module has developed out of Robert O’Toole’s “transdisciplinary” PhD thesis on Design Thinking in Higher education, and Bo Kelestyn’s PhD research on digital innovation and scaling through patterns (WBS). It will draw upon the synthesis of academic and professional work achieved in this research, and our experiences as design thinking consultants. It will combine theory, creative practice and formal methods.

It will give you a framework, based on experience and research, that can be used to better understand and transform the world through innovation and enterprise. It aims to be a transformative experience. You will develop a powerful set of capabilities through which you can interpret and change the world around you, with positive social and economic impacts.

The module draws upon insights from a broad range of disciplines (philosophy, psychology, sociology, creative arts, technology, history) to address essential questions such as: What constitutes a design? How are designs created? What is successful designing? Who does the designing? How can we analyse designs, their operation and impacts, using qualitative and quantitative means? What are the common challenges in managing design capability?

After completing the module, you will have a powerful and far-reaching “designerly” way of thinking and acting (Lawson, 2005). You will apply this during the module to a series of “design challenges”, collectively exploring the challenges and “wicked problems” (Buchanan, 1992), defining design briefs, and developing design ideas – one of which will be developed into a more detailed proposal with prototypes. Design challenges will be defined by experts from a variety of domains with a focus on social innovation and (most excitingly) the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

A critical dimension runs throughout the module. This is especially essential when considering DT as an approach for social change. Design Thinking and design anthropology will be considered as a critical response to the role of so-called ‘scientific design’ in industrial and colonial capitalism. But is Design Thinking really the emancipatory force that many claim it to be? Or is it merely the latest means through which the newly evolved ‘platform Capitalism’ exploits the free labour of participants? This will be debated as we proceed through our investigation.

Principal module aims

Having completed the module, students will be able to confidently and successfully undertake participatory innovation and enhancement projects using the design thinking approach with real, diverse communities. They will understand what it means to ‘think like a designer’, supported by knowledge of academic research in design, and will naturally translate this into action. They will have an effective repertoire of techniques and tools. They will also have a critical appreciation of the limits of Design Thinking, and the negative impacts it may have when undertaken without a sound appreciation of culture, power, history and difference.

They will be well positioned to continue their work as design thinkers social enterprise. They might also consider further research in design thinking and its related fields.