Learning Design Thinking by embodying it: redesigning the restaurant experience in Aalto University

When I was practicing ballroom dancing many years ago, my instructors kept on emphasising the importance of embodied knowledge and muscle memory. That is, in order to perfect your movement your muscles need to know what you want to do. Watching others do the same movement gives you an idea what you need to do, but it is only through practice – embodied knowledge – that you know how it feels to do the same movement.

Same applies to Design Thinking, actually. Teaching DT is somewhat challenging since it inherently requires us educators to depart from our comfort zone. Traditional classroom lecturing or asking students to read seminal books on DT are both important, but they are only one part of the picture as DT is something the students need to embody and internalise. As the ballroom example above illustrated, providing your students with opportunities to create embodied knowledge about DT is pedagogically powerful when it comes to understanding and feeling the essence of DT.

Here my aim is to illustrate this by reflecting on a recent experience I had teaching a course titled Creative Teamwork in Aalto University’s International Design Business Management (IDBM) program. Creative Teamwork serves as a sort of introduction to IDBM as the students are expected (but not forced) to take this course as their first course in the program.

I taught this three-week intensive course in Aalto University this September, and the main learning objective was to familiarise oneself with multidisciplinary teamwork. However, this is where things get interesting, as I wanted the students (some fifty students from design, business, and technology) to go beyond concept development by actually testing their concept. Their brief was to reimagine and redesign the restaurant experience and execute it with a budget of zero euros. And this is what they came up with:


Concept video

Behind the scenes

More information about the experience from the students’ point of view can be found here. The experience students designed and executed was absolutely amazing (if you don’t mind me saying that) and I can’t praise them enough for what they did, but here I’d like to focus more on the pedagogical aspect of the course. Namely, what does it take to teach DT in this fashion. This is my first attempt at fleshing out the process onto which the course was built, but hopefully I get to provide a more detailed analysis later on.

Figure 1. Initial framework for utilising DT in teaching DT.

This framework should be understood as a sort of spiral where learning and experiences broaden and deepen as the students go through design briefs. Having said that, first step in this spiral should be the community / team building phase as during the course students often explicitly mentioned trust as one of the key factors behind their team dynamics. Achieving trust early on in such project-driven courses is essential since it enables each group to work on their specific tasks while not having to worry whether other teams are doing their part or not. Thus, creating a safe space for the students to experiment and collaborate is crucial.

The design brief, on the other hand, serves as a sort of conceptual sandbox for the students. It is not about limiting the students in a wrong way (positive vs negative liberty, as it would be called in political science), but instead making sure the foundations are there to support their design and execution processes. In terms of our course, we collaborated with an experimental kitchen space in Helsinki called Flavour Studio, and the students were given free hands to transform the space according to their vision.

Finally, after the execution phase we organised a feedback and reflection session where the students discussed their teams’ best practices as well as what worked during the course and what could be improved. From an educational perspective it is worth noting that the way this course was designed this time might not apply to the way it will be organised next year. Thus, the aim here is not to create a template that you can copy year after year, but it is more about understanding through the feedback how the course design could be improved. Just like design itself, this framework is also to a large extent about asking the “what if?” question: by drawing on past experiences and best practices, and combining those with propositions of what kind of skills our students might need in the future ensures that the educator can provide their students with most up-to-date pedagogical content.

Pitfalls – or what could go wrong?

  1. Competition, not collaboration between the student teams
  2. Students drop out
  3. Focus on perfection, not on learning

Key learnings from an educator’s perspective

  1. Tolerate ambiguity
  2. Iterate and test: before, during, and after the course
  3. Work with people who share your vision and passion (and aren’t afraid to challenge you!)

As I mentioned above, this is my first attempt at making sense of what actually happened in the course and as such this description has been written from the educator’s point of view. Nonetheless, I hope it gives you some food for thought while I’m working on the next post!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *