A view of the earth from space

Principled Innovation design process


This design process, developed by a team of faculty, staff and students at MLFTC, represents our approach for how to engage in design, in particular designing in education settings. Our design model is infused with the values and practices of Principled Innovation.

While there are many similar design and design thinking models out there, we believe our model pays particular attention to the broader context of a problem, the need for human connection from the beginning of a design process, and the importance of communication and regular opportunities for reflection. The three “I” phases — inquire, imagine, and iterate — reflect more typical elements in design.

Elements of our framework

A graphic representing the PI design process

At the center of our model is the often amorphous and changing context in which our partners find themselves. This is because communities, schools and education systems are complex social systems which require nuance and flexibility in approach, and we wanted to visually represent a process that reflects that. Below, we articulate each of the spheres of design activity within our graphic, and show how it connects to the whole.

  • CONTEXT AND PROBLEM-SOLUTION SPACE: The context represents the broader space in which we are designing, and within this context, the problem-solution space defines the boundary of the challenge we are addressing. It is imperative that we understand the landscape of the context by considering factors like language, culture, history, experiences, knowledge and beliefs of the people in the system, and how these factors influence the system, the challenges and opportunities present, and the ultimate success of our design. 
  • CONNECT: We build relationships with others in the context we are working in. We also clarify our goals, purpose and values, striving for mutual understanding and building trust so that we can take united action towards change. Connecting reminds us to be human-centered: to focus our design work on people, not things. It also helps us develop empathy and leads to effective collaboration. 
  • INQUIRE: We inquire into the context and problem space to develop deeper understanding. This means searching out empirical research and considering what others have done in similar situations. It also means inquiring into the specific experiences of the relevant stakeholders, building empathy through interviews and observations, and collecting data about the problem. Finally, inquiry includes drawing upon systems thinking: analyzing the systems embedded in the context, as well as the system that the context itself is a part of. Any design work will affect and be affected by these systems, so we need to do our best to understand them.
  • IMAGINE: Imagine includes thinking generatively and empathetically. When we generate ideas with a focus on possibility, rather than constraints, we search for uncommon solutions and try out new approaches. This is important because the problems we are working on require uncommon solutions. We also imagine empathetically–we consider what others are feeling and how they will react to things we do and say. Finally, imagining involves considering the consequences of our designs, both intended and unintended.
  • ITERATE: Design is about doing–making and acting, and designers learn while they do and act. Despite all attempts at imagining outcomes of our actions, we cannot know exactly how something will work until we try it. However, we want to do so in a way that minimizes negative consequences for others. We do this through progressive iteration: starting with basic prototypes and small implementations, evaluating the results, and then refining our design. We gradually expand to larger implementations. This process helps us both learn through action and mitigate unintended consequences.
  • COMMUNICATE: Communication happens internally–inside the problem space–and externally, inside the context at a variety of levels as well as outside the context. Effective internal communication is critical to advancing a design process, being considerate of and caring for others, and ensuring creative, purpose-driven action. External communication helps us engage a broader group of stakeholders into the design process and also expands our impact, for example by sharing what we learned through journal articles or conference presentations.
  • REFLECT: The need for reflection exists regularly and intentionally throughout the process, and should be done both individually and collectively. Taking time to pause and consider how our actions are being received or interpreted goes a long way to mitigate unintended consequences and refine solutions to make sure they meet the needs, and reflect the values, of those involved. It is just as important to reflect on our own thoughts, reactions, and biases throughout the process.

Although we presented the design actions here in a certain order, in practice they do not have any particular order. In fact, they happen within and across each other. For example, part of iteration includes evaluating prototypes–something that includes inquiry into results. We can use imagination to better understand others as we are trying to connect. The design actions, then, become a way of acting and should be a part of both everyday practice and larger change efforts.

Why and how we created it

Many design thinking (DT) process models introduce sequential phases or steps. Notably, the Stanford d.school historically used the hexagonal model, and IDEO’s Human-Centered Design Toolkit has used the 3-I framework of Inspiration, Ideation, and Implementation. A cursory Google image search for design thinking will yield a plethora of models for DT processes and steps. Most of us in the Office of Scholarship and Innovation have been introduced to design thinking through these models, and we often draw inspiration from their visually appealing and procedurally useful guidance. 

We have discussed elsewhere some of tensions we have with these models, however, particularly because of some of the difficulty of models and the associated challenges of introducing design thinking practices and mindsets in sprint-style workshops and rapid design charrettes for novice design thinkers. So over the past few years, with the help of colleagues across MLFTC, we developed our own way to understand how we engage in design – and how we introduce it and share it with our partners. 

The model above was developed primarily with support from Melissa Warr, a doctoral candidate in the Learning, Literacies and Technologies program. Melissa has written extensively on the spaces in which design operates in education, and has an excellent overview here. As our team worked with Melissa to develop our own take on a visual representation of our approach to design, we strove to infuse our graphic with the guiding principles, character assets, and practices of Principled Innovation. Punya Mishra and Cristy Gulesarian have written quite a bit about the development of this process – see their blog posts in two parts here: Part 1 / Part 2.

We invite you to make use of our model as you reflect on and engage in your own design ventures. As is the case with the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) contexts in which we work, our graphic is in a continual state of development and iteration. It has evolved to this place, and will likely continue to grow and change. As such, we think it is a useful addition to the plethora of existing resources. We welcome your stories of use, feedback, and critique as we continue to iterate on our own practice of Principled Innovation!