Teaching innovation: it’s not just design thinking!


While design thinking is a tool for developing creativity, spreading across many paths of higher education, design professionals point to the simplistic side of the method, even the deception of a design without designers.

By sharing several years of pedagogical experiments at the Grenoble Alpes University , ENSCI – Les Ateliers and Yncréa Hauts – de – France, we propose to take stock of the variety of design practices and to see how they can open the field of innovation training.

What is design thinking?

Inspired by the work and thinking of designers, design thinking has popularized design in business and education. Focusing on the design process, this method builds on the intimate understanding of the user, and invites prototyping solutions, beyond the traditional design considerations.

Design thinking aspires to two things:

  • Formulate a singular reading of a situation based on the understanding of the users and their practices, thanks to observations or field surveys,
  • Formalize a feasible solution in the short term, leaving aside generally its aesthetic dimension. The watchword is to generate and test as quickly as possible the most concrete and best adapted productions possible.

Take the example of a group of students who must develop a proposal to “rethink the street”. On such a project, one can imagine that a work of observation and interviews leads them to identify a “problem” for a user: a parent who has trouble walking with a stroller in spaces invaded by scooters.

The aim of the project is therefore to formulate a user point of view: how to help the parent to move with his stroller safely without being bothered by the obstacles on the sidewalk? Using a process of ideation, such as creative sessions, students are asked to formalize a concept of service also called “user experience”: an application that tells the parent the clearest path of a point to another in real time.

Mapping of design approaches

“Well, here we do real design, not two-ball design thinking! This comment, taken at a meeting of designers, is typical of the annoyance often caused by design thinking in professional circles. Some even liken it to a contagious disease , replacing critical analysis skills with shrugging and empty phrases.

In its most common sense, in reality, design thinking is essentially a simplified version of a small part of the design. But the design practices are much larger. To grasp the richness, let us return to two main axes of the design activities of which we have already spoken: to formulate and formalize.

To formulate a problem, one can realize as in design thinking surveys and observations of field (it is the “field” approach) but one can also propose a renewed vision or sense, starting from an intention of action in the world, of values, even of a political posture (it is the “intention” approach).

To formalize a solution, thus incarnate in a sensible form the solutions and the imagined devices, we can do it as in design thinking with a solution that can be realized in the short term (the “user experience” approach), but also by formalizing the dimensions of a complex situation to understand and reason (it is the “systems” approach).

There are three other typical situations:

Practice spaces of design

Meaning of design

The quadrant “intention x user experience” is the privileged territory of design in its classic sense. It is a field in which we will have conceptual objects declined in the form of precise solutions.

According to this approach, in the project “rethink the street” students are invited to deploy a research approach on the cultural environment of the street of the neighborhood studied. Then they focus on an element that catches their attention: the market, for example, which occupies the street part of the week and is a place of cultural exchange, as well as a place of economic exchange.

Using research on market interactions in different cities around the world, at different times, students offer a unique experience: a modular street furniture system that allows street dwellers to shop, meet neighbors and their traders, or even offer their self-production products. This proposal, centered on users, comes to renew the meaning of the market in the city.

Projective design

The “intention x systems” quadrant is the territory of a more visionary design, more centered on conceptual objects. One can find here in particular the so-called practices of fictional design.

On the project “rethinking the street”, it is about getting students to look into the future, and to question its meaning and “desirability”.

Using tools to position oneself on values, on utopias or dystopias, from readings from many domains, students are invited to formulate their aspirations for the street in the future, for example in a manifesto.

They formalize scenarios that raise questions about the future, desirable or not, of the street. This work can lead for example to the sketch of a street “metabolic”, able to adapt its configuration to different uses of the street in time.


This quadrant “terrain x systems” is the territory of modeling and conceptualization for exploration. The idea is to bring out singular reading grids, with an intention of objectivity, based on field observations and scientific data.

On the “rethinking the street” project, students are invited to implement a research approach (interviews, review of literature, mapping of actors) to formulate a problem that puts the actors and their issues in tension. They identify a major issue that is currently under-worked: managing sound levels at different times of the day.

Starting from observations and scientific works on sound, they propose a “provotype” – that is to say, an object intended to trigger discussions and reflections. This one can be a serious game to make think the actors of the district on the stakes of each one in noise, and the levers to control the global sound level in a systemic perspective.

Time constraints

Neither better nor worse, design thinking is one of the possible ways to mobilize design in innovation, but it is not the only one. Other approaches are possible, provided you keep in mind what makes the value of design, and therefore associate professional designers to these approaches, to avoid the paradox of design without designers.

From a practical point of view, one must be aware that not everything is feasible in a short time. If a four-year training in a design school was to allow to go through the four different approaches to design (design thinking, projective design, sense design, design-research), an eight-week project and a fortiori a challenge of a few days can only be done in a small area.

We invite educational teams to position themselves in this rich territory of design to evaluate what they can ask their students.

Author Bios: Valérie Chanal is Professor, Management of Innovation and Creativity at the University Grenoble Alpes and Olivier Irrmann is a Professor of Innovation Management and Codesign at Yncrea