This past week I had the pleasure of serving as a Coach at Design the Future, a week long summer camp for rising 9th-12th graders interested in design and engineering. The camp aims at design thinking to create meaningful products for individuals with physical disabilities. As a coach, I led a team that consisted of 5 talented from all over the U.S. We were tasked with creating a product for our client Owen Kent, who wanted to be able to paint comfortably.

Research and empathy always matter!

Teaching empathy and research to the entire student body of the camp was a treat because it’s something that can be overlooked at a young age (and with a week deadline). As the week commenced, we started at the beginning of the design thinking model and had to interview our client Owen, to understand his projected outcome better. The challenges we were presented with were things abled people often take for granted such as putting on socks, handing out business cards, and painting. We dove into the problem by gathering our insights and observations in a mind-map activity that I led. Making sure the students used hierarchy to find common themes from our interview with Owen, we noticed just how important the arts were to him.

Connecting Owen’s interests and needs

From his desire to merging his disability with his artistic passions, to his background in film, we decided to accept the challenge of creating a product to help Owen paint. Starting with low-fidelity prototypes made with paper and post-its, the team was able to create some solid ideas that transitioned us to our mid-fidelity prototypes. After adjusting the length so Owen could see his paintbrush to way at which it latched on to Owen’s footboard, we had a great cardboard and duct tape prototype that served it’s purpose. The team and Owen were all smiles that day because we had struggled with the constraints of making sure the weight and dimensions were correct. I was incredibly proud of my team but while a working prototype sounds great (in which it is), I saw it as a potential setback.

Working mid-fidelity prototype #1

With it’s functionality serving the direct purpose Owen wanted, there were still critiques and ways at which we would need to improve the design. As we brainstormed materials and moved on to more defined prototypes with wood and acrylic pieces I laser cut, I could tell we were going to run into some structural issues. When our second day of prototyping ended, our prototype had long screws sticking out, pieces of wood that were not heavy enough to hold the wooden beams, and slabs of acrylic that did not scream final product. Looking at the second mid-fidelity prototype was difficult because not only were we running up on time, but it was not user-friendly and served as a dangerous object for anyone near it. Still happy from our first working prototype, I noticed the students were neglecting how the user would interact with the final product.

I wanted my students to understand the effects of a product that is not user-friendly so I had them envision themselves in a different situation where they had physical constraints and received a product that was not finished. I had them think of cases where unwanted pieces of their product latched on to things that effected the functionality of their goals they hoped to achieve. This short lesson proved a solid point that brought them back to the beginning of the design process, empathy. Applying this mindset further and pulling from our original research, the students were able to better grasp the materials and dimensions needed to make the product user-friendly and safe for Owen. Not only did this inspire a whirlwind of ideas, it prompted our team to go back to our research and make the product more personalized by adding a unique design to the acrylic pieces and a hint of Owen’s favorite color — the product now had the user in mind.

The final product! Materials used: engraved acrylic and spray-painted wood

Not all products under the umbrella “product design” are digital — but the design thinking model still applies

At the beginning of the design camp, I kept thinking of the web-based designs that I had made and how those would apply to what we had to create for Owen. Ultimately, I struggled because I realized that everything I’ve created thus far was digital. Creating for the digital space vs. physical space was quite different but the commonality between the two is the design thinking model.

Our design thinking process for the week

Given the different backgrounds of the students on my team, they did not know how to initially design this product (and in fact, neither did I). Yet, the design thinking model that I led them through gave them a rich learning experience that enabled them to think of each step of the process as a milestone. This toolkit known as the design thinking model encouraged our team to learn, test, and refine concepts that helped us innovate for Owen. Leading 5 high school students with different skillsets was a challenge at times but further widened our scope when ideating. Using exercises like “yes, and…” and yes, but…” not only inspired collaboration but prompted diverse ideas that helped drive us to better possibilities. Design thinking enabled us to explore different options about how the design would work and the way at which it would be feasible under time and material constraints.

“Design is the action of bringing something new and desired into existence — a proactive stance that resolves or dissolves problematic situations by design. It is a compound of routine, adaptive and design expertise brought to bear on complex dynamic situations.” — Harold Nelson

The gift of design thinking is the way at which the model approaches problems and promotes transformation. Designing for the physical vs. digital space may not merge together, but using the milestones of this model enable the designer to go through the process to create something more meaningful.

Fail up

When it came time to test our prototypes, feedback and implementing a new solution helped us acknowledge where things were going wrong. In the making process, feedback and failure became a gift. One of the other team’s client, Sean, made an incredible speech about his experience with disability and had encouraged us to think of how each mistake would turn into a lesson.

“Be comfortable with the uncomfortable” — Sean Simonson

While I’ve had my fair share of learning and applying the design thinking model, I was quite nervous that I did not have the engineering skills to create a physical product — let alone one that functions. The barriers my students and I had, served as learning opportunities that expanded my mindset in ways I would have never imagined. At the beginning of the last day of camp, our third prototype broke which brought us back to refining the materials used right before our time was up. With the help of the team and other coaches at the camp, we were able to successfully re-construct our paint apparatus right before the final showcase. Our different skillsets proved to be our strength because our well-rounded team of creatives were able to make a product that encompassed all of Owen’s passions and unmet needs.

Final product demo at the showcase

Guiding students throughout this process and using design thinking for physical products not only inspired new ideas for my design projects but broadened my way of thinking. Designing for social impact was truly an amazing experience and I am happy that our team of 5 was able to make an impact on someone’s life!

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