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  • Ryan Bailis

Designing a Design-Thinking Workshop



In mid-January, Julia Knox, Kartikeya Sharma, and I were invited to develop a two-day workshop for entrepreneurship and innovation students at Susquehanna University. The focus of our workshop was to be design-thinking, an iterative and collaborative design process developed at Stanford University that helps creators develop human-centric and action-oriented solutions to difficult real-world challenges.


I first got involved with design-thinking during the summer of 2018 when I was tapped to help lead a group of first-year students during a pre-orientation program at Bucknell. During the program, we worked with real clients to help them generate solutions to challenging questions like ‘how do we better build a relationship with the local community?’ or ‘what type of board game would capture an audience age 10-18?’. How did we work through such broad, open-ended questions with inexperienced first-year students? Design-thinking!


Now, if you’re under the impression that design-thinking is a fantasy method that creates pie in the sky solutions, you’re somewhat right. But that is precisely the point! Somewhere between fantasy and reality is where we want the world to go, and design-thinking is one technique that will help us get there.


And that precisely is why I place so much faith in design-thinking. I have seen first-hand that this methodology inspires greatness. In my experience, the reason it works so well is because it forces designers to consider the person they are designing for. And a human-centric mindset leads to incredible action-oriented solutions. But don’t take my word for it. Product development teams at companies like Google, Deloitte, and Nike all use this methodology. Yep, the products developed by these multi-billion dollar companies come from design-thinking.


Back to my recent opportunity to teach a workshop at Susquehanna. Was I qualified to teach a nuanced concept to upperclassmen at another university? Quite frankly, no. But the planning process that Julia, Kartikeya, and I went through gave me the confidence I needed as I looked to apply my passion for design-thinking in an educational setting.


The entire planning process took about 50 hours, spread across 6 weeks. During this time, I made leaps and bounds in understanding the design-thinking process. This was an increasable milestone in my professional development, and as I look to reflect on my experience, I thought I would share the process Julia, Kartikeya, and I went through.


Interacting with students and helping them better understanding their client during the 'empathy' stage of design-thinking.


Planning the Workshop and Going To Susquehanna

When starting to plan out what the workshop would look like, we became obsessed with the introduction. We knew that we wanted to start strong and set the bar high. And we determined that starting strong meant getting the participants off their feet and interacting with each other from minute one. We decided to not start with the classic introduction (typically something like: “Hi, I’m Ryan, and I’m studying.... blah blah blah”). After all, my name isn’t relevant. The workshop isn’t about us, it’s about design-thinking. But with such a bold start, we feared that everyone would be incredibly confused. It was a risky move, but it worked brilliantly.


So, how did we start the workshop? We had the students line up in order of ‘blueness.’ To be honest, we had no expectation for how they would interpret our request– we didn’t even know what ‘blueness’ meant. The first lesson we taught? There is immense power in ambiguous problems, so embrace them. Just try something. If it doesn’t work, adjust.


Once they were lined up (quite arbitrarily at this point), we counted them off into four groups, and we had them do one my favorite entrepreneurial activities– something creative, silly, and collaborative. I call it ‘no bad idea.’ It’s an activity that forces students to come up with a product or service based around two random words, market it as a viable product, and pitch it to the group. For example, if my two random words are ‘tectonic’ and ‘stapler,’ I might develop a massive staple gun that holds California to the continental US in case of an earthquake. It’s silly, but that’s the idea. It creates an atmosphere of high energy and culture of idea generation.

Different images of design-thinking in action. Groups work together to solve complex problems step-by-step.


After the introduction was finalized, my co-directors and I wanted to introduce the students to the ‘iconic parts’ of design-thinking that absolutely need to be shared. We wanted to include these concepts not only because they are fun, but because they are ingenious activities that spur creativity. One example of a widespread tool in design-thinking is the use of sticky notes. Research has shown that sticky-notes provide the perfect opportunity for designers to get up and move around. But more importantly, it ensures ‘idea individuality.’ By allowing everyone to work in isolation on their own stick-notes, we mitigate the fear of a dominating personality taking over the ideation process.


Our directions during ideation were simple: you take a sticky note, write whatever comes to your mind, and place it on your whiteboard around the concept it best relates to. Repeat until you have exhausted all of your ideas. Interestingly enough, each group had a drastically different interpretation of these instructions. One group placed the sticky notes in one amorphous cloud, showing that all ideas are equal in value and interchangeable. Another group put the sticky notes in a few long chains, which showed a specific flow and thought process. The third group placed the stick notes in clusters, which loosely organized them by the overarching concept. And the fourth group decided that sticky notes weren’t of practical use and opted to use a whiteboard instead. All groups were given the same instructions, but the diversity of outcomes surprised me. I knew the ideation process was meant to be adaptable to the dynamic and speed of your team, but what I witnessed was amazing. But that is the beauty of design-thinking, it works for anyone in any context.


Reflecting On Our Performance

A video timelapse of DAY 1. During the first part of the workshop, we covered steps one and two, 'empathy' and 'define' respectively.


Both days of the workshop went incredibly smoothly. Timing was flawless down to the minute, students produced incredible work, and Julia, Kartikeya, and I loved what we were doing. We mentioned all the points we wanted to and had time to reflect along the way.


But to get a different perspective, we asked the students to fill out an anonymous survey after the conclusion of our program. The survey was designed to give us feedback on whether or not the students met our intended learning goals. And to our delight, most (>90%) cited some form of learning as a result of our workshop. The portion of the workshop that resonated most with the students? The “how might we…” statements that encourage human-centric and action-oriented solutions. This is a central theme to design-thinking, and I’m glad the students realized the potential insights that can be made by reframing questions.

Our market research proved incredibly insightful. 90% of students indicated impactful learning about one of the core design-thinking competencies as a result of our program.


The feedback we received from Dr. Fleck was also incredibly supportive and encouraging. In fact, I’m pleased to announce that we have been asked to return to Susquehanna in the fall and run a similar workshop with a more diverse range of students. We also discussed the possibility of holding similar design-thinking workshops for K-12 students. I’m incredibly honored and humbled to have been given so many new opportunities.


I learned so much about design-thinking throughout this process, and I’m incredibly thankful for Dr. Emma Fleck’s invitation to Susquehanna University. Being able to engage with her students on a personal and professional level was an incredibly rewarding experience. It has been a fantastic learning opportunity and a milestone of my professional development.


I also have to extend a big thank you to my incredible co-directors, Julia and Kartikeya. Without these two incredible thinkers, the workshop would not have come together so beautifully. I’m looking forward to many great adventures in the future!

The three co-directors of the design-thinking workshop: Julia Knox, Ryan Bailis, and Kartikeya Sharma.

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