Design thinking in academic education

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Design thinking, or design-oriented working, is a problem-solving method particularly well-suited for addressing complex ("wicked") problems. The method originated in engineering but has since proven to be highly relevant across various disciplines, including the social sciences (e.g., Owen, 2007). Additionally, education can greatly benefit from design thinking by helping students tackle complex problems in an interdisciplinary manner (e.g., Razzouk and Shute, 2012).

In this article, you will learn more about what design thinking is, how it is already being applied at the Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance (REBO) at Utrecht University, and what you can do if you wish to incorporate design thinking into your own teaching.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a non-linear, iterative process aimed at understanding stakeholders, challenging assumptions, redefining problems, and creating and testing innovative solutions. There are multiple models and representations that describe design thinking, and the process is typically divided into various phases. In the widely-used Stanford Design School model, five phases are identified, and the designer can iterate through them as needed (e.g.,, 2010).

  1. Empathize: In this phase your aim is to understand the user or stakeholder and their needs. This is achieved through research, interviews, observations, and other forms of empathy-building.
  2. Define: In this phase you articulate the problem you want to solve. This is done by combining insights from the previous phase and translating them into a clear problem statement or design challenge, often framed as a "How Might We..." question.
  3. Ideate: In this phase you generate creative ideas for solutions to the defined problem. This is done through brainstorming sessions, mind mapping, and other creativity-enhancing techniques.
  4. Prototype: In this phase you build prototypes of your ideas. This helps make your ideas more concrete and refined.
  5. Test: In this phase you test your prototypes with the user or stakeholder, for example, in a pilot, experiment, or through feedback discussions. This helps determine whether your solutions truly meet the needs.
Figure 1: the different process phases of design-oriented working ((, 2010; figure: University of Illinois).

Benefits of design thinking

Design thinking offers several advantages over some other problem-solving methods (e.g., Lewis et al., 2020). It explicitly focuses on the user, placing them at the center of the process, which increases the likelihood that solutions align with user needs. Additionally, design thinking fosters creativity and innovation, paving the way for new and groundbreaking solutions. The iterative nature of the approach encourages ongoing adjustments in the process (e.g., Schön, 1983).

A core aspect of design thinking is the integration of different types of knowledge, requiring an interdisciplinary or even transdisciplinary approach to issues. This aligns well with the Utrecht University’s ambition to connect various disciplines and teach students to work inter- and transdisciplinarily.

Design thinking is also particularly well-suited to help address society's most challenging problems (e.g., von Thienen et al., 2014). Therefore, it is crucial to incorporate design thinking skills and knowledge into our curriculum.

Design thinking in the professional field

Design-oriented working is applied in various ways within the fields of Law, Economics and Governance. The emerging field of Public Design demonstrates a systematic approach to finding solutions to governance and organizational challenges (Bason, 2017). In the field of Law, the methodology is applied in the emerging field of Legal Design, where it is used to organize, solve, and present legal issues (Perry-Kessaris 2019). In Economics, Design Thinking plays a central role in the rapidly growing field of entrepreneurship education worldwide. Design Thinking and related methods such as Lean Startup are considered essential tools for promoting a more innovative and entrepreneurial economy (Sarooghi et al., 2019).


Design thinking in education

Students in every academic discipline can benefit from design thinking as a competency because it helps in interdisciplinary problem-solving. It is a way of thinking that can be applied independently of the domain.

In academic education at the Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance the components of research, theory, and analysis are well-developed. However, there is relatively little emphasis on the creation and shaping of solutions following the principles of design thinking. At the same time, students can greatly benefit from the knowledge and skills of design thinking.

As part of the USO project 'Design as a Competency for REBO Students', we have explored how design-oriented working is integrated within the three REBO departments.


Within the REBO curriculum, several courses apply design thinking. These courses serve as illustrations of how design thinking can be implemented in education. See below for three examples.

What can I do with design thinking in my education or program?

Online community

To assist lecturers, program coordinators, and researchers an online community has been established: Design Thinking for REBO. Initially focused on REBO educators within Utrecht University, this community welcomes other educators and interested individuals. Within this community, we exchange ideas on how to apply design thinking in education (or research). This MS Teams repository provides an overview of information sources. Here, you will find background literature on design thinking in general and specifically for the REBO disciplines. You will also find educational materials, such as slide decks, which can serve as examples of how to integrate design thinking into education.
Join the community in MS Teams: Design Thinking for REBO

UU-projects and initiatives with an approach related to design thinking:

Other sources

More information on design thinking:

Contact and more information

If you would like to learn more about the outcomes of the USO project or discuss design thinking in your own education, please contact the project team:



Bason, C. (2017). Leading public design: Discovering human-centred governance. Bristol UK: Policy Press., An Introduction to Design Thinking PROCESS GUIDE, 2010.

Lewis, J. M., McGann, M., & Blomkamp, E. (2020). When design meets power: Design thinking, public sector innovation and the politics of policymaking. Policy & Politics, 48(1), 111-130.

Owen, C. (2007). Design thinking: Notes on its nature and use. Design research quarterly, 2(1), 16-27.

Perry-Kessaris, Amanda. 2019. “Legal Design for Practice, Activism, Policy, and Research.” Journal of Law and Society 46 (2): 185–210.

Razzouk, R., & Shute, V. (2012). What is design thinking and why is it important?. Review of educational research, 82(3), 330-348.

Sarooghi, H., Sunny, S., Hornsby, J., & Fernhaber, S. (2019). Design thinking and entrepreneurship education: Where are we, and what are the possibilities? Journal of Small Business Management, 57 (S1), 78-93.

Schön, D. A. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. Basic Books.

von Thienen, J., Meinel, C., & Nicolai, C. (2014). How design thinking tools help to solve wicked problems. Design thinking research: Building innovation eco-systems, 97-102.