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IL029/129 An Introduction to Design Thinking Theory and Practice

Photo of a design workshop in the FAB


What you will get through this module

This module will equip you with valuable techniques for your next steps at University and beyond, in your studies, work, and life. No prior experience of design, innovation, group work or creativity is needed – although we will prove that everyone can do it! And we will have a lot of fun doing it.

This module is a transformational experience, developing your capabilities, establishing a network of supportive people, and a portfolio of work, so that you can quickly progress to being an effective designerly change agent in work, study, creative practice, or social development.

Every day people struggle with bad design – from small annoying things like automatic doors that don’t work properly, up to the design of ill-thought-through institutional systems that perpetuate discrimination or unsustainable waste. What if we could design things differently, better, more fairly and sustainably? In this module you will learn how to use collaborative, ethical, creative and systematic methods to make the world a better place. We call this the designerly way.

Together we can design solutions that fit with people’s needs and values, stick in use, spread to more people and places, and help us to grow our capabilities for further improvement. This is not simply theory, through practice you will build-up a valuable portfolio of experiences and skills, and have a positive impact on other people through the projects you undertake during the ten weeks and beyond.

What do you think should be redesigned to make our lives better?

You will experience working at all stages in real projects to deliver worthwhile results, within our Design Agency, contributing to work groups and whole-agency activities. You don’t need to be a natural-born collaborator to do this, we will teach you how using tried and tested methods based on practices used in real-world projects. You will be able to confidently take on responsibilities to lead and support co-workers and participants, from exploring challenges through to implementing ideas.

You will have the opportunity to try out a variety of roles within the Design Agency, to see what fits best, but also to stretch yourself into new ways of working.

The key to success in this is being open to new experiences, willing to try, trusting in the process, supporting each other, participating enthusiastically, and being systematic in reflecting on what you have encountered. You don’t have to be a natural at that from the start, we will show you how.

Our recipe for success

You will work in three modes, based on the real-world practices of successful designerly change agents. Note that we do not have a reading week, and attendance is necessary for all sessions.

1. Whole Design Agency sessions and online activities – with a 2 hour session on campus every Friday morning. In these sessions we will coordinate Work Groups. We will introduce the methods and concepts you will use. Share reflections on experiences. Answer important questions of interest to the group. And do lively, fun, whole-agency activities. Work Groups will report into these sessions, and may be asked to lead mini-workshops called Teachbacks. The Design Agency will have its own web site and a wiki of design studies (short explorations of a real design in action). You will contribute design studies to this as part of the assessment (individually and in your group).

2. Work Group – a 1 hour session each week (except week 1) in a physical location and at a time agreed by your group. We will organise and schedule these sessions in the first week, so that all group members can attend every session. This is essential. You will produce reports and activities for the whole Design Agency sessions, as well as material for your personal journal. One of the four design studies for the assessment will be created with your group. You will also share your personal reflections (from your journal) with your peers, and get support from them to identify further goals and actions.

3. Individual Work – you need to record and reflect on your experiences continually throughout the module. This must be done in your personal journal. Use these reflections in your one-to-one sessions with the coaches. You will need to provide your personal journal as evidence to support your assessed reflective essay (1,500 words). The examiners will want to be able to look into specific details behind the claims and points you make in your essay. You will also need to contribute 3 design studies to the Design Agency wiki. Again these need to backed up by your reflective journal.

The teaching team

Dr Robert O'Toole is an award winning educator (National Teaching Fellowship) and design researcher. He has a PhD in Design Thinking. Robert mentors Warwick students, staff and graduates to guide them through to being successful designerly change agents. He has undertaken a wide range of significant projects in many different fields, with a focus on digital innovations. He coordinates Warwick's work in VR and AR, and leads the Arts Faculty's Digital Arts and Humanities Lab. Read more about the DAHL hereLink opens in a new window.

Ed Watson is an acclaimed "modern elder" of design and innovation, with a focus on sustainability and equality. Ed says:

I design and facilitate workshops to unleash untapped creativity and the power to solve tricky (wicked) and difficult challenges for teams using collaborative, multi-skilled, human-centric and immersive techniques. I also mentor and coach in these techniques.

Read more about Ed on his websiteLink opens in a new window.

We also draw upon many University and industry contacts for small contributions to the module, helping students to make contacts with experts to help with their future work

Assessment summary

You will create 3 x 300 word design studies in the Design Agency wiki, as well as 1 x 600 word design study created with your Work Group. You probably will not have created a design study before, so we will teach you how to do it and practice the skill in the whole Agency sessions. Each design study will have an initial deadline. We will give you feedback on your initial submission. You will then be able to propose improvements in your reflective journal, implement the improvements, before the final deadline. Your reflective journal will be used as evidence in assessing your design studies.

You will individually create a 1,500 word reflective essay describing and analysing your personal journey of transformation and growth through the whole module, the impacts your work has had, and how you envisage developing and applying your capabilities further. This is not a conventional academic essay. We will support you in learning how to do this.

The final deadlines for all assessments is (provisionally) in April, but you must not leave any of the work until that late. You need to be developing your work throughout the module, getting feedback, reflecting, and improving. Starting too late is a recipe for sub-optimal performance (we don’t use the word “failure” here!).

About Agent-P

The platypus is the symbol of design thinking. Agent-P is our tame platypus (spot him in the photo at the top of this page), with us for all of our work. Why the platypus? When first discovered by European scientists it was considered to be a hoax, stitched together from different animals: webbed feet, a beaver's tail, a duck-bill, venomous barbs on its feet, a mammal that lays eggs. Surely impossible? And yet this strange combination of parts is perfectly adapted to its environment and lifestyle. Design Thinkers are just like platypuses. Combining together many different disciplines, professions, skills, techniques, knowledge systems to achieve our goal. And it works. Perfectly adapted.



This module will now be hosted in the new Design Studies division of Cross-faculty Studies please register hereLink opens in a new window

Module Convenor

Robert in VR

Dr Robert O'Toole NTF
Robert dot O-Toole at warwick dot ac dot uk (right)

Class Time 2023-24:

Term 2 (Spring)

Friday 10-12 for whole-agency sessions, and 1 hour weekly of group work scheduled to fit with your group.


Main Campus locations to be announced, including use of the Mobile Design Studio (this is really cool, click to enlarge):

Image of the studio