What’s the best way to get rid of the horrible fish smell in the school cafeteria? A Scent Sucker Robot, of course! The Scent Sucker was just one of the groundbreaking innovations brainstormed at an all-day seminar called “What is Design?” by the fifteen 6th grade students we invited from San Francisco’s Hamlin Girls’ School to Spring Studio to learn about problem solving using design principles.
At the start of the day, we had no idea what to expect in terms of the students’ interest in design principles or how readily they’d be able to apply them. Would they be bored? Would the notion of design principles feel relevant to kids? Would they be able to accept feedback from one another? It turns out, there was no reason to worry – these girls were engaged, capable, supportive and uninhibited. They breezed through our design thinking lecture and instructive exercises, leveling-up their design chops quicker than their more reserved adult counterparts have in the past. Next, they did some ingenious prototyping and, finally, wowed us with their design innovation presentations.
When I was younger, problems were tackled by “experts” and once “solved,” would remain so…for a long time. In the twelve years that these girls have been alive, the cycle of technology-driven innovation has changed the nature of problem-solving dramatically. Products can always be refined and improved. These girls are growing up in a world where continuous version updates are the norm. It is also a world in which good design is no longer just a concept people associate with German cars. With so much of our lives being anchored in ever-improving UX functionality, young people realize intuitively that design isn’t just about how something looks. They understand that, as Steve Jobs said, “Design is how it works.”
The design thinking process involves a lot of imagination, play and storytelling, so it’s not surprising that kids would take to it so well. Likewise with prototyping. We struggle to get adults to let go and have fun, resisting the idea that their concepts have to be perfect, etc., but kids are used to being beginners, so creating off-the-cuff comes more naturally to them. They combined ideas, acted out all their possible solutions, and had fun with the process, whether they were “failing” or “succeeding” at any given moment. Ultimately, the creative power of design facilitated some truly high-level problem-solving that left everyone feeling inspired.
Here are some of the things we learned from our time together:
First of all, we learned that blue-sky thinking and focus are not at odds. While we were worried that the creative fun and high-energy collaboration we were encouraging would devolve into a food fight, that never happened. In fact, we learned that allowing the girls to be creative actually kept them focused and on task. In the face of tables spread with a feast of pom poms, pipe cleaners and modeling clay, the Hamlin students showed nothing but motivation and enthusiasm to produce a creative solution.
While prototyping solutions for creating a better cafeteria experience, the students kept asking each other, “What if___?” They naturally asked each other edge-case questions, making sure they weren’t leaving any holes in their solutions to problems like waiting in long lines, dirty tables, and not enough food variety. We noticed that allowing them to lead with creative thinking seemed to generate a natural desire to be comprehensive and balance their ideas with time management, costs, and other logical considerations. They were invigorated by their creative ideas, and didn’t want them jeopardized by bad planning. This inspired them to make sure their prototypes were not only creative, but actually viable.
We were particularly impressed by the girls’ perfect understanding of empathy, an important consideration of good design. They realized that in designing an app, they’d need to create different app states for their respective audiences. They asked one another “What would students need?” and then compared that to the needs of both parents and teachers. Encouraging them to be open-minded and think creatively to solve their design problem, actually engendered an atmosphere of empathy, where it was easy for them to relate to the needs of their audiences. What’s more, the girls demonstrated their ability to compromise. In considering the content of the different app states they’d be creating, one group voiced concerns regarding privacy! Initially, the app was designed so that parents could see what their kids were eating at school, however some students felt uncomfortable with this feature. They weren’t so sure they wanted to volunteer information regarding their lunch choices to their parents. In the end, they decided to keep students’ food choices private, settling on a bit less functionality for the parent interface, rather than including functionality that would deter students from using the app, demonstrating their understanding of opposing needs and the art of compromise.
We were happy to learn that the girls were natural collaborators and didn’t compete with each other. Many designers struggle with needing to outdo one another, fixating on the perfect concept, which of course is a big roadblock to innovation. The girls revelled in the idea that since they were all working together, they could relax, knowing that no one person would be responsible for solving the entire design problem. When asked, most of the girls said that the best part of design thinking was working in collaboration.
Overall we were thrilled that these 6th graders were so keen to use design thinking to tackle and solve the challenges of the day. Not only did they embrace the creative problem-solving process effortlessly, they did so with unabashed enthusiasm. Thanks to the creative students of The Hamlin school, the future of design just got brighter.