Rethinking project-based learning in a changing higher education landscape: design thinking as a paradigm for media making – Part I

I am going to take the opportunity to elaborate on an abstract I have just had accepted for a workshop at the annual Active Learning Network symposium on 11th June at Sussex University. The aim of the workshop is to engage in a rapid prototyping experiment and to evaluate the use of Design Thinking as a paradigm for exploring the ideation phase of the project-based learning lifecycle. My intention here is to explore the concepts I am to deploy and to start to think about how and what kind of data I might capture as part of the workshop process.

Design Thinking is an approach to the development of skills in creativity and innovation that is well established in the fields of design and architecture. It has similarities with other pedagogic approaches such as problem-based learning (PbBL) in that some of the core features of Design Thinking include the posing of ‘ill-defined’ or ‘wicked’ problems, solution-focused strategies, abductive reasoning, and practical prototyping of solutions. In the primary and secondary educational sectors (especially in the USA) Design Thinking has been used to promote creativity, team working and autonomous learning.

The deployment of projects as a means of structuring learning in media practice education is a long-established practice and aims to achieve similar goals, even though it is often overly focused on assessable outputs rather than the learning experience. Such that projects become mere administrative containers for structuring activity and their use lacks a firm pedagogic foundation. As an approach which places creativity, innovation and critical thinking at its heart, Design Thinking offers a potential way into thinking through the experience of project working for media practice students that enhances learning and places process at the heart of its pedagogic discourse.

Design Thinking is a methodology for exploring the ways in which cognitive, strategic and practical processes are deployed in support of concept development by individuals and teams. The notion of Design Thinking is well established in fields where experts conceive of themselves as designers (e.g. architecture, product design, graphic design, etc…) and has also been widely employed within business contexts as a means of innovating in products and services. There are a number of core features to the Design Thinking approach which can largely be codified as (cf. Cross 2011, Cross 1990):

  • resolve ill-defined or ‘wicked’ problems
  • adopt solution-focused strategies
  • use abductive/productive reasoning
  • employ non-verbal, graphic/spatial modelling media

Problem framing, solution-focused strategies and abductive reasoning

A key element is the analysis or problem framing element of the ideation process. In my experience, this is an aspect of unpacking a brief that needs a great deal of attention. Initial responses are often limited to the familiar whereas deeper analysis, evaluation and synthesis results in the potential for more innovative, creative solutions. Problem framing involves re-interpretation, restructuring and re-thinking the context for the problem in order to arrive at a conclusion. This is an inquiry oriented approach similar to that employed in Problem-based Learning (cf. Hanney 2013) and might address some of the issues raised in previous work on problem solving among student teams. This research concluded that students can find themselves constrained by a cognitive bias referred to by psychologists as ‘functional fixedness’ (cf. Hanney 2018). This bias is observed when people are challenged with a problem to solve. 

What is commonly observed is the generation of solutions based on the traditional uses of objects, reference to the familiar, selection of predictable outcomes which operate within preconceived constraints. The hope is that through the teaching of an overtly analytical approach to problem framing, as an element of a Design Thinking approach. It might be possible to overcome this cognitive bias resulting in enhanced possibilities for creative problem solving and innovation.

Design Thinking adopts a particular strategy for getting at problem solutions stands in contrast to what might be thought of as an analytical or scientific method. The main difference being that solution-focused strategies are not so much concerned with the underlying principles but with rapid generation of acceptable solutions. The contrast presented in the research (cf. Lawson 1979) is between that of a problem-focused and solution focused strategies. A problem-focused strategy is characterised by an approach that focuses on analysis at a level of granularity that would enable the discovery of underlying principles, concepts and structure of the problem. Whereas, a solution-focused strategy is concerned with the rapid generation of a succession of problem solutions which are then benchmarked against a set of criteria for success. It might be expected that a solution-focused strategy would tend to include more structural errors which might impact in unpredictable ways. However, the agility of the solution-focused approach results in fewer planning errors. While its iterative methodology means it can quickly deal with any structural errors as they arise.

In this way Design Thinking employs abductive reasoning (cf. March 1984, Kolko 2010) to infer the most likely, most suitable or most acceptable form of problem solution. It doesn’t aim towards scientific or empirical verifiability. Instead it adopts a criterion referenced form evaluation that equates to the simple of principle of ‘is it good enough’. Which in itself is a form of agile quality evaluation. It takes the position that if it works it is good enough and there is no need to be able to identify the structural principles that underpin the solution. In the creative field, there is a sense that if it works it works and there is no need to go further (we should perhaps leave that to the theorists and academicians). After all we are unlikely to be building a bridge so structural integrity or safety is not an issue. The evaluation of quality in creative work is essentially subjective even though there may be clear and evident benchmarks against which to evaluate success. For example, a prize-winning film might offer a standard against which to work. A must-see drama on a streaming service could offer insight into what works for audiences.

In this way, the use of abductive reasoning allows the creative process to move quickly towards a ‘most likely’ or ‘best possible’ solution. In a technical sense abduction sets up a hypothesis to account for some concepts and/or structural elements. Whereas the problem-focused approach seeks facts to prove the hypotheses and is therefore an inductive form of reasoning. In more simple terms, abductive reasoning is all about guessing (Peirce 1901) and poses a hypothesis for the purpose of testing. The point made strongly by Peirce (1910) being that our guesses more often than not, more successful than luck at deriving truth.

The process is essentially iterative in that as solutions are proposed these may shed further light on the problem. New ideas may lead to deeper understanding which may then generate more and better solutions. So, the Design Thinking process sits well in an Agile Project Management context and is well suited to experimental, creative and complex projects. As opposed to a Waterfall Project Management methodology that will necessarily require analysis of problem structure in order to predict and plan for a single solution that the project can work towards. A solution that may not, by the end of the project, meet the requirements for the solution of the project. After all, until you start to generate solutions how will you know what you need to do?


As part of this process the use of representations, rapid prototyping and the modelling of solutions is of great importance. The approach requires the presentation of ‘tentative concepts’ (cf. Cross 1982, Cross 1999, Suwa et al 2000) at an early stage so that they can be tested and their features or properties explored. This might be a well developed subject in product design for example. But how might you prototype something like a fiction film or documentary?

In one sense a script is already a form of prototype (originated by the early film studios as a means of managing the ambitions of directors). So is a pitching document that takes the common form of: a log line synopsis and outline. The problem here is that these are generally text based and are already formal documents. While they are also commonly edited as part of the development process there isn’t a sense that they offer a possibility for rapid prototyping at an extremely early stage of the process. Other forms of prototyping might include, animatics, storyboards, verbal pitches, sizzle reels and so on. But these also suffer from the same problem in that they are not quick to produce and often involve a complex production process themselves. So for the purposes set out below, I believe I will keep it simple and suggest the best and most simple way of prototyping a film is a poster.

So what happens next?

The aim is to run a workshop at the Active Learning Network symposium which will model the Design Thinking approach through the undertaking of a rapid-participatory-action-research activity. The aim of the activity is to not only model the Design Thinking approach for the purposes of knowledge transfer, but to evaluate the possible challenges faced in translocating this approach to a different field of practice. In this case that of media practice education as expressed through the framework of project-based learning (PjBL).

The workshop will set a ‘wicked problem’ for the workshop participants in the form of a typical creative brief delivered to media practice students, in this case one recently used to trigger a L5 unit at Solent University. The workshop will step through the five phases of the Design Thinking process in order to illustrate the core principles of the approach while adapting it, through practice, to a new field of creative activity. Further creative constraints for the activity will confine the problem-solving approach to tools and techniques commonly found within the field of media practice. At the conclusion of the practical activity there will be a rapid appraisal of the experience which will be captured for later analysis.

It is hoped that the outcomes of the workshop will not only provide an introduction to the Design Thinking approach but will also shine a light on any challenges that may be faced for educators wishing to transpose the approach to their own subject disciplines. The data from the workshop will be collated, analysed and evaluated leading to a rapid review (blog post) and later, the writing of a full journal article is intended.


Free: A Crash Course in Design Thinking from Stanford’s Design School

Part II will follow shortly after July 11th 2019…


Cross, N. (1982), Designerly Ways of Knowing, Design Studies 3.4, pp. 221–27.

Cross, N. (1990), The Nature and Nurture of Design Ability, Design Studies, 11, pp. 127–140.Cross, N. (1999), Natural Intelligence in Design, Design Studies, 20, 25-39.

Cross, N. (2011), Design thinking: understanding how designers think and work. Berg. 

Hanney, R. (2013), Towards a situated media practice: Reflections on the implementation of project-led problem-based learning, Journal of Media Practice, 14: 1, pp.43-59.

Hanney, R. (2018), Problem topology: using cartography to explore problem solving in student-led group projects, International Journal of Research and Method in Education, 41:4, pp. 411-432.

Kolko, J. (2010), Abductive Thinking and Sensemaking: Drivers of Design Synthesis, Design Issues, 26, pp. 15–28.

Lawson, B. (1979), Cognitive Strategies in Architectural Design, Ergonomics, 22, pp. 59–68.

March, L.J. (1984), The Logic of Design in the Architecture of Form, Cambridge University Press, UK.

Peirce, C. S. (1901), On the Logic of drawing History from Ancient Documents especially from Testimonies, Collected Papers v. 7, paragraph 219.

Suwa, M., Gero, J. and Purcell, T. (2000), Unexpected discoveries and S-invention of design requirements: Important vehicles for a design process, Design Studies, 21, pp. 539-567.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s