What the Design Process Can Teach Kids

What architects call the "design process" can be laid out as a series of steps that they use to come up with solutions to problems.

Clearly defining a problem leads to gathering information, which in turn leads to designing a prototype until the finished product is ready for presentation, publication, and display.

In practice, however, the process is not nearly as neat as it sounds — it’s much livelier. That is what makes it so valuable as a teaching method. Sometimes the steps go in order, but more often than not things go forward, backward, right, left, up, and down (maybe all at the same time). It’s also not uncommon for someone to spend lots of time retracing what's already been done before leaping forward in a spark of inspiration and insight.

This is how we at ArchForKids think of and use the design process in our studios and workshops: as a nebulous “flow” rather than a straightforward “stairway.” Conceiving of design in this way allows teams of kid to make productive use of everything in their imaginations, rather than trying (likely unsuccessfully) to ascend from one level of knowledge to another in an orderly, predictable fashion.

And the design process works best, in our experience, among teams in which kids can play different roles and share responsibilities as well as triumphs. They learn that several brains working together can create amazing things.

The ArchForKids Design Process

Below is the design process we use in our programs for schools, libraries, and museums. While other descriptions of the process will use slightly different terms, nearly all iterations use some combination of these steps:

  1. Identify the challenge: What are you asked to do?
  2. Brainstorm: How are you going to solve the problem?
  3. Design: How will you sketch out or plan your ideas?
  4. Build: How will your 3-D model look?
  5. Test and evaluate: Does your design work?
  6. Rebuild: Do certain changes make your design work more effectively?
  7. Share the solution: How will you present the project to your peers?

Identifying the Challenge

In our studios and workshops — as well as in classroom settings — we give kids a specific problem to solve. For example: Design something sustainable. This tasks them with building a “green community” that meets the needs of the people who live in it.

Students will be able to solve this problem by building their way to a solution using their collective creativity in design teams.

Brainstorming

The word “brainstorm” has an interesting origin. At the end of the 19th century, people used it to describe a mental disturbance. Over time, of course, the term has shifted from explaining a problem to something more positive: sharing ideas.

But the idea of “storm” continues to be important. Brainstorming should disturb the mind, but in a creative and constructive way. In other words, generating new and interesting ideas, angles, and points of view should gently shake students out of their comfort zones.

Brainstorming is most successful when those involved aren’t judging or critiquing each other. After all, in this context, there are no stupid ideas — only theories that can be tested. The most important things students can do is get ideas out in the open, listen to them with an open mind, and write them down so everyone can read them and think about them later.

Whether a team is coming up with great ideas or not-so-great ones, the most important lesson students can learn is that collaboration spurs creativity, which in turn spurs excitement and cooperation. When everyone is invested and interested, the process is much more fun.

Designing

Once the teams have refined the challenge they’re facing and brainstormed ways of solving it, we use two forms of the word “design” — verb and noun — to help them progress toward their solutions.

Verb: “To design” means, basically, to arrange what is not currently arranged in order to achieve a specific purpose. Stephen Sondheim lays out the elements beautifully in the musical “Sunday in the Park with George”: “The challenge: Bring order to the whole / Through design. / Composition / Tension / Balance / Light / And harmony.”

The process we use when working with students follows this prescription. For instance, for something like the sustainable design project mentioned above, we ask them to lay out the structure of a community. This visual template provides holding places for all the ideas generated during their brainstorming sessions. Once they’ve got a structure in place, they can then start to lay out their ideas, working layer by layer until they have an integrated community that works as a whole.

Noun: But design is also about feel, how the working parts of a plan play upon the senses, which include, for us, not just the usual gang of five, but also more abstract concepts: senses of beauty, of artistry, of delight, of safety, and of homefulness (the opposite of homelessness).

So we encourage kids, as they design their way toward order, to tap into their artistic intuitions. That way, what they build together not only has a form that functions, but also one that just feels right.

Building, Testing and Evaluating, Rebuilding

Though they’re listed separately in theory, in practice these three steps really do function as a single phase of the design process.

The truth is, of course, that kids have been building throughout every workshop or class by forming their ideas and intuitions and putting these down in their journals and sketches.

But in this phase, students get down to the hot glue gun, pipe cleaners, scissors, and all the other supplies we provide — these allow them to shape and test their designs.

If the design process has the shape of a bell curve, then this three-part phase forms the apex in the middle. Design on a page is two-dimensional, but the built environment has three dimensions (and four, if we add in time). Building gets the teams out of their heads, into their bodies, and engaged with the world. An elaborate drawing may fall down in a pile of rubble if the physics aren't right, and the only way to test the physics is through immersion in 3-D.

What is perhaps most important about this crucial phase is not kids’ successes, but their failures (or, as we like to call them, “interesting experiments”). What doesn't work is as crucial an element of the design process as what does work, because failure invites — and even requires — students to do a deeper analysis of their plans, and ultimately to reformulate their assumptions underlying the project.

In this tripartite phase, teams collate, test, discard, revise, re-revise, temper, and adjust, all in service to the success of their collaborative undertakings. At the same time, while the teams are building their constructions, they are also building the skills and habits necessary for constructive cooperation. This is a social version of the balance, light, and harmony they are trying to achieve in their designs.

Sharing the Solution

As the old proverb goes, if you put a candle under a bushel basket, no one can see its light. This is what our final step is all about — making sure that every team’s creation gets to shine for all to see.

For many of our students, this part can feel like torture: Get up in front of the class and talk? But just as people on the teams have roles throughout the design process, they also have roles in the presentation phase. Those who like to talk will get to talk — but they'll also have to learn to share the spotlight. This may not always be easy to do. More reticent kids can participate by pointing out the features to which the speakers are referring.

And you never know — we’ve seen this happen more than once — maybe the student who quailed at the thought of speaking in public suddenly finds a voice. In cases like this, a speaker is born, and a new sense of personal confidence is achieved.

The purpose of sharing is to publish a result to the world. That publication justifies all the sweat, tears, and laughter that go into the project. But it also means that the teams will now have to face the scrutiny of the world — another level of testing, another set of critics, and possibly, subsequently, another round of rebuilding.

But if we’ve done our jobs well as instructors and leaders, the teams will accept this new challenge. The audience is not an invader, but another partner and teacher in kids’ efforts to make their designs come alive and work effectively.

Success

In ArchForKids, we don’t measure the success of a design process by determining whether kids took all the appropriate steps, or whether they reached the academic standards of their coursework (though these are important, too). For us, it’s how well the design process helped our students design the “human” part of “human being.”

What this means is that what kids go through during their projects is what we want them to go through as people: They should find something that excites them, focus their imaginations and joy on exploring that thing, share their explorations with others, find ways to be proud of their work and humble about their achievements as well as energized and patient. And finally, they should share their results with the world in the hopes that what they’ve designed and built can help someone else.

This article was written in collaboration with Michael Bettencourt.

Wondering whether the K–12 schools you’re considering are teaching students about design? Check out their school profiles, and ask a question about arts education — or anything else.