Design Thinking vs. “Refrigerator Projects”




Close-up of a project in progressDo you remember as a child the sheer thrill that came with having your work displayed on the family refrigerator? We do. Vividly. “Fridge-worthiness” was granted for only the best and did not come easily, especially for those of us with competing siblings. It often served as an exhibit for the artistically inclined and a trophy case for the non-athlete. Growing up, it was the height of affirmation in our households. When we became teachers, we strived to transform the walls of our school into our very own refrigerator—a showcase for supreme student work.

As we initiated this effort, the results were almost immediate. Our projects focused on compelling products, and critique was embedded throughout the process to ensure beautiful work. We were not just teachers anymore; we had become curators of excellence. Educators throughout our district and beyond came to see our gallery of artifacts. We must admit, the notoriety was flattering and drove us to further improve with each installation. It wasn’t long before we started separating student work into two categories: those worthy of our walls and those worthy of the trashcan. The end product was increasingly trumping the learning process, and this was not lost on our students.

A turning point came one day after school as we were admiring a recent installment. One of our students—let’s name her Destiny—approached the wall hoping to find that her project had been displayed. Disappointment sank in as she realized her work had not been chosen among the elite of her class. In an effort to alleviate the uneasiness of the situation, we started in with some conciliatory compliments about her efforts. We were about to kick in the “maybe next time” speech, but she stopped us with one simple question: “Do you think we can do a project that isn’t just for our walls?” We were a bit surprised by her question. We told her we would “look into that” and sent her on her way. We wanted to dismiss her as a jealous student, but her question was relevant and worthy of a better answer.

Destiny’s question struck a nerve and, for the next few weeks, we struggled with how to proceed. On one hand, we were proud of the work we designed for our students. Not only were they creating incredible products, but they were doing it while learning significant content and developing a 21st century skill set. Every project included opportunities to collaborate, gain feedback, and communicate their results. On the other hand, we were not challenging students to solve complex problems—especially those that extended beyond our school. It was also evident that we had not created a culture of self-directed learners. We gave all the marching orders about what would be learned and how it would be defended. Most troubling, our students seemed all too happy to fall in line and play the “teacher pleaser” game. After reflection, we made it our mission to find schools, businesses, and organizations that were routinely seeking and solving authentic problems. It didn’t take long until we discovered the design thinking method.

Design Thinking

Design thinking is an iterative process that facilitates problem identification and solution generation. It is an approach to learning that is product focused, uses empathy to identify problems, promotes a bias towards action, encourages ideation, and fosters active problem solving (Kwek, 2011). Design thinking is used to solve design challenges, or units of study structured around real world problems linked with interdisciplinary academic studies. Design challenges begin with an authentic and open-ended question that launches the design thinking process (Carroll, 2010). Most practitioners of design thinking have adapted the components of the method to meet the needs of their students. The components of design thinking as adapted by The G School (2012) are:

  • Gather
  • Glean
  • Generate
  • Gauge
  • Go
Gather: What do we need to know?

The first phase of design thinking is focused on understanding, empathy, observation, and research. During this phase, students consider the challenge they have been issued and determine what information they need to gain empathy for their users. In the Gather phase students participate in a variety of activities such as primary and secondary research, anthropological observation, interviews, surveys, listening and conversation. The goals of these activities are for students to uncover needs, identify users, and discover emotions and motivations that guide behaviors (Stanford, 2010).

Glean: What is our focus?

The Glean phase is all about developing a focus. Students must synthesize the information obtained during the Gather phase and identify a clear and actionable problem statement. The Glean phase should reveal the point of view of the user as well as provide a platform for further innovation.

Generate: What are the possible solutions?

The Generate phase is concerned with moving from convergent to divergent thinking. During the Glean phase, students have developed a tight focus. In the Generate phase, however, students produce as many ideas as possible. The most common method used during this phase is brainstorming, which may occur in a variety of formats. Students adopt a brainstorming mindset by adhering to a few rules: one conversation at a time, build on the ideas of others, go for quantity, encourage wild ideas, be visual, and defer judgment (Stanford, 2010). Brainstorming encourages students to uncover unexpected ideas and insights. During the Generate phase, students collaborate to leverage the power of the group and build on the ideas of others (Carroll et. al., 2011).

Gauge: How do we build and test our ideas?

We often begin the Gauge phase with a reality check. Students have documented all of their ideas while deferring judgment in the Generate phase, but now they must find a solution that will work for their users. Adding constraints and then building and testing ideas encourage this. Students begin by prototyping their possible solutions. A prototype can be any type of artifact that can test a solution: a blueprint, sketch, model, storyboard, or even a skit. As prototypes are built, they are also tested to ensure that they are feasible, desirable, and viable (Brown, 2009). During the Gauge phase, a strong feedback loop is constructed to empower students to create, test and repeat the process until a final design is achieved.

Go: No more questions. Time to GO!

Once prototypes have been tested and final designs have been refined, students then create and implement their final solutions for their intended users. This phase is critical, because students are performing work for an authentic audience. The solutions are no longer mere ideas or prototypes; they are now real. Students present their findings, reflect on their progress, and assess the impact of their work.

The International Corridor: A Case Study in Design Thinking

The achievement gap and cycle of poverty have been well documented in the community served by our high school. Both of these factors have resulted in a low graduation rate, failing test scores, and a defeatist attitude shared by a large portion of the student body. The majority of students served by our high school are minority and face significant socioeconomic challenges. Generational and situational poverty are common. The high school is set in an urban environment surrounded by the “International Corridor.” The name “International Corridor” was bestowed on the neighborhood to reflect the diverse businesses and cultural centers that line the streets. This neighborhood stands in stark contrast to the upper middle class neighborhood directly adjacent to the International Corridor. Our neighborhood is a reminder of the results of suburban sprawl with its aging infrastructure and vacant buildings. While the diversity in our neighborhood makes it arguably the liveliest and most fascinating in our city, it also creates a unique set of challenges for our students. In our newly adopted quest for authentic learning and solving relevant challenges, there was no more immediate problem to be addressed than the needs of our students and community.

As we sat down to consider how to best meet the needs of our learners, we decided that the most important characteristics of this challenge would be: identifying and solving a real and meaningful problem, increasing student engagement and commitment to the educational process, self-directed learning, and mastery of core content. Now that’s a tall order! We issued our students a simple, yet complex design challenge: “Identify an existing community problem and implement a solution or intervention.” Each group would be responsible for writing their own driving question, designing a solution, and presenting it to a relevant audience.

The academic subjects addressed in this Design Challenge were World Geography, English, and Foundations of Innovation and Design (a language arts elective course focused on research, empathy, and writing). As an entry event, the students went out into the community and created scaled maps of the neighborhood, paying close attention to the local businesses, residential areas, and services available. As they returned to school and embarked on the Gather phase, they created scaled maps of the area and learned relevant concepts relating to community and social justice. They defined terms such as community, social justice, spatial justice, and cyclical poverty. We conducted whole group discussions about the potential needs and barriers to success in our area. Each team of students learned interview techniques and practiced writing effective interview questions. Once armed with interview questions and a plan of action, the students revisited their community and interviewed business owners, patrons, pedestrians, workers, and the occasional loiterer.

As students moved into the Glean phase, they thought critically to synthesize the information they had gathered. They coded their interview transcriptions and observations to identify possible themes and define potential users. “Composite Character Profiles” (Stanford, 2010) were created to define and generalize the population of the International Corridor. Students generated “Empathy Maps” (Stanford, 2010) that demonstrated a deep understanding of their users as well as exposed deficient areas that needed to be further investigated. Taking a large amount of data and reducing it to one user was a challenge for groups of four to six students. They had to stretch themselves to collaborate in a way they had not done previously by making concessions, compromising, and offering real insights. From a wealth of information, the students identified community issues and crafted a driving question that would be the catalyst for their self-directed learning as the challenge continued.

Perhaps the most challenging part of this process occurred when each design team wrote a “Point-of-View Madlib” (Stanford, 2010) for their user, which we referred to as the driving question. Students created a variety of user-centered driving questions:

  • How might we help cashiers in our community feel safer while at work?
  • How might we help Asian shop owners better connect with store patrons?
  • How might we help improve the image of Hispanic-American youths in our neighborhood?
  • How might we make our school food and clothing pantry more appealing to community members in need?

While by no means an exhaustive list, this represents the variety of users and needs identified by ninth grade students using the design process. Equipped with a unique user and challenge, each group moved to the Generate phase, which pushed them to brainstorm multiple possible solutions for their community issues. After several rounds of brainstorming, clear front-runners emerged. Students created proposals that highlighted their most feasible, desirable, and viable ideas.

The Gauge phase of this design challenge was where self-directed student work became critical. Each team was responsible for prototyping their best ideas. The prototypes were unique to each group based on the desired end product or service. Teams created storyboards, cardboard models, blueprint drawings, sketches, among other low-resolution prototypes. From a classroom management perspective, we had to trust students to carefully plan their daily activities. This was done through a weekly calendar that contained a daily list of activities and materials needed. Each team maintained a daily journal that compared each day’s projected activities with the actual activities completed for the day. These documents were shared with the instructors using Google Apps, allowing us real-time management.

After careful planning, testing, feedback, critique and revision, each team decided on a final product to address their driving question. The class instructors conducted team meetings where each team presented their prototypes and a detailed proposal of their product that included a rationale for how it would address the needs of the chosen users. Finally, it was time to GO! We secured the necessary supplies for each team and they began working to make an impact on the International Corridor. The products ranged from a self-defense DVD to be distributed to local workers to a full size display case to make our food and clothing pantry aesthetically pleasing. The design challenge culminated with each team presenting their solutions to community stakeholders.


Discovering design thinking became our watershed moment. It removed our “product tunnel vision” and reminded us to value the process of learning. And it was precisely the process that empowered our students to learn with autonomy and solve complex problems. The products and experiences were real and impactful—and now breathe life into the community. Our students made us realize just how trivial some of our previous “refrigerator projects” really were. It makes us wonder what else they’re capable of teaching us.

Our journey began with a student who asked a clear, concise, and uncomfortable question. Thank you Destiny for speaking up when we needed to hear you most. You did more than start a revolution; you caused a revelation.


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