Design thinking is the practice of exploring and understanding human behavior and unmet needs in particular contexts to frame problems worth solving, address them systematically and deliver viable new offerings. In considering what design thinking is, it’s useful to point to what design thinking is not. Design thinking is not a recipe. Designers and people who apply design thinking don’t insert problems at one end and have crisp solutions pop out at the other. The path from challenge to solution is messy and usually uncertain. Design thinking is not a problem-solving method. At its heart, it’s about finding the right problems to solve. Design thinking is not learned in quiet isolation. It is a practitioner’s art with a mastery pathway dependent on the interplay among study, reflection, and action.

See how faculty and students use Design Thinking to make important changes on campus. You can use the following pathways to take initiative and start making the changes so crucial to the community of Elon and beyond.

Looking for new design thinking-related academic research? Expand the sections below to find selected works from Elon University faculty about design thinking, collaboration, and community engagement.

Design Thinking Research by Elon Faculty Members
Completing the CiCLE: Assessing longitudinal ecosystems change to improve community-based and design-centric immersive learning.

Dr. Danielle Lake


“This study explores the benefits and challenges of immersive, design thinking, and community-engaged pedagogies for supporting social innovation within higher education; assess the impact of such approaches across stakeholder groups through long-term retrospective analysis of transdisciplinary and cross-stakeholder work; offer an approach to ecosystems design and analysis that accounts for complex system dynamics in higher education partnerships.
This paper identifies how innovative higher education programs are forced to navigate structural, epistemological, and ethical quandaries when engaging in community-involved work. Sustainable innovation requires such programs to work within institutional structures while simultaneously disrupting entrenched structures, practices, and processes within the system.
Social innovation in higher education could benefit from harnessing lessons from collective impact and ecosystem design frameworks. In addition, we argue higher education institutions should commit to studying longitudinal effects of innovative pedagogical environments across multiple stakeholder perspectives and contexts. This study closes these gaps by advancing an ecosystems model for both long-term and longitudinal assessment that captures the impact of such approaches across stakeholder groups and developing an approach to designing and assessing community-involved collaborative learning ecosystems (CiCLE).”

Pedagogies for resilience: Intergroup dialogue, design thinking, and the integral approach

Dr. Danielle Lake


“The essays in Pragmatist and American Philosophical Perspectives on Resilience offer a survey of the ways that “resilience” is becoming a key concept for understanding our world, as well as providing deeper insight about its specific actual and proposed applications. As a concept with multiple theoretical and practical meanings, “resilience” promises considerable explanatory power. At the same time, current uses of the concept can be diverse and at times inconsistent. The American philosophical tradition provides tools uniquely suited for clarifying, extending, and applying emerging concepts in more effective and suggestive ways. This collection explores the usefulness of theoretical work in American philosophy and pragmatism to practices in ecology, community, rurality, and psychology.”

Catalyzing cultural change through engaged department cohorts: Overcoming the one-and-done model

Danielle Lake, Karyn E Rabourn, Gloria Mileva


“This article examines the merits and challenges of catalyzing institution-wide community engagement through onboarding successive engaged department cohorts. Building upon previous findings, it tests the hypothesis that deep and integrated community engagement within departments can be leveraged into pervasive engagement across an institution, exploring critical challenges to fostering collaborative, scaffolded, and sustained community engagement and offering recommendations. Such initiatives have been designed and piloted across the United States as a possible starting point for shifting often temporary, fragmented, and isolated community engagement efforts to collaborative and sustainable engagement opportunities that span programs of study. This cross-institutional and multi-departmental case study analyzes these claims, documenting the lessons learned from two successive initiatives encompassing 10 engaged departments across three institutions of higher education in the Midwest. Research harnesses traditional surveys, faculty, community, and leadership interviews, initiative reporting documents, as well as systemic action research practices. Through a cross-departmental and institutional comparison analysis, the researchers highlight the most challenging barriers and promising interventions to overcome the one-and-done model of previous engagement efforts.”

Design Thinking? A Cross-Course and Cross-Sector Mixed-Methods Examination of Practices and Outcomes

Dr. Danielle Lake


“This mixed method study investigated design thinking (DT) practices and outcomes from across disciplinary frameworks within one institution of higher education. Building upon prior DT studies, it examined three interlocking research questions: What DT practices are being implemented across the curriculum? What kinds of outcomes do faculty observe? What are the significant relationships between particular practices and observed outcomes? Thirty-five courses were examined via a faculty survey adapted from Liedtka and Bahr (2019), and a semi-structured interview created by Lake, Ricco, and Whipps (2018). In alignment with liberal arts educational practices, the most frequently utilized DT practices included working in teams that recognize diverse contributions and engag- ing in active listening in order to find shared meaning. Consistent with expectations for project- and team-based courses, faculty felt such practices yielded valued outcomes, concluding DT practices built trust across teams and increased the quality of solutions. Relationships between practices and outcomes revealed the utilization of more ethno- graphic tools was associated with a lower frequency of expanding relationships and resources, and that a greater focus on design criteria to find an ideal solution hampered efforts towards trust building. These findings suggest DT requires time and trust which can be constrained by the imposed deadlines of semester-based projects. The survey and interviews pointed to both similarities and differences between disciplines in DT prac- tices. Future research investigating design thinking pedagogy should include faculty, students, and stakeholders with multiple touchpoints for assessment to identify learning experiences that build change-making capacities and yield genuinely valuable and viable real world projects.”

Design thinking accelerated leadership:  Transforming self, transforming community

Dr. Danielle Lake


“Higher education institutions are continually seeking to recruit nontraditional adult students yet struggle at the same time to meet their needs effectively. The following case study offers strategies to address this situation by documenting the pedagogical design and initial outcomes of an interdisciplinary, nineteen-month leadershipthemed liberal studies undergraduate degree completion program at Grand Valley State University. As an innovative, accelerated, hybrid cohort model, it incorporates a wide range of high-impact practices focused on developing the skills leaders use and employers require. The curriculum integrates practices from motivational and experiential learning, community-based learning, and design thinking to scaffold students’ learning across their courses. The program thereby encourages students to wrestle with the complexity of social issues in their communities and develop the skills and virtues necessary for addressing those problems. As a case study, this article is particularly relevant for educators and administrators hoping to uncover a means for catalyzing innovative co-participatory engagement projects that engage with the needs of the surrounding community in a format supportive of nontraditional learners.”

Remaking the academy: The potential and the challenge of transdisciplinary collaborative engagement

Danielle L Lake, Amy McFarland, Jessica Jennrich


“Closing the gap between public education and the public, addressing “real” community problems in “real” time, and preparing students to meliorate intractable challenges is–and has been–a consistent challenge within higher education. Increasing tuition costs, shrinking public budgets, instantaneous around-the-clock access to information, and massive open online classes also challenge conventional academic structures. In truth, however, concerns about the role of higher education and it’s disconnect from public needs are not new. A persistent lack of focus on social literacy, local and global policy, public action, and collaboration within higher education impedes the ability to view–let alone effectively address–the complex, interconnected, systemic challenges we are facing across the globe.  Indeed, the dominant structures, processes, and cultures within higher education present serious barriers to our ability to collaboratively address these public problems.

We argue higher education can better respond to these challenges by more fully committing itself to not only (1) collaboratively generating and disseminating knowledge and skills, but also by (2) connecting the production of knowledge to its use (3) fostering the capacity for these practices, and (4) operating as a boundary spanning space, working to train students as boundary-spanners (people who cross worlds, drawing together stakeholders across difference in order to address social challenges). Indeed, we believe this is the purpose of higher education. This essay explicates this philosophic approach to higher education, documents how we have instantiated it at our own institution, and highlights the lessons learned. In particular, we suggest feminist pragmatism, the movement towards public engagement, and the field of transdisciplinarity offer a vision for—and effective approach to—collaborative engagement. When taken together and applied in the academy, these fields offer a vision, path, and set of tools for remaking the academy as a place where collaborative engagement work is not only supported and promoted, but integrated into the very framework and culture of the institution itself.”

Independence in the making: using makerspace experiences to build foundational entrepreneurial competencies

Danielle L Lake, Joel Wendland


“This article extends recent discussions on the practical, epistemological, and ethical challenges of participatory action research (PAR) for community engaged scholars through a cross-disciplinary literature review. It focuses on how practitioners across fields define power, engage with conventional research approval processes, and manage risk. The review demonstrates that PAR can be a valuable research approach for community engaged scholars, but that problematic practices and disparities must be addressed. For instance, while PAR practitioners consistently articulate a commitment to empowering the community and shifting structures of oppression, contradictions around how to define and respond to power, engage with standard IRB practices, and cope with high levels of risk are prevalent. We conclude by offering a set of recommendations, highlighting the need for more transparent and self-reflexive methods, transdisciplinary practices, metrics designed to assess risk, inclusion, and power-sharing, ongoing dialogues across disciplinary and institutional divides, and inclusive authorship and open-access publishing practices.”

Selected Conference Presentations
Participating in the Pluriverse from within the Academy

Changemaker Assessment as Participatory Action Research: Strategies for Cross-Campus Collaboration

Mapping the Terrain of Design Thinking Pedagogies and Outcome: Cross-institutional, Longitudinal Research

Mapping the Terrain of Design Thinking Pedagogies and Outcome: Cross-institutional, longitudinal research


General Design Thinking Resources

Design Method Resources

Design Thinking Toolkits

Elon By Design offers several self-led pathways to design thinking, whether you are brand new to the practice or do it for a living. We have suggested our favorite resources for each practitioner in our paths below. Find the one that best fits your needs!

I’m New to Design Thinking


You’ve heard of design thinking and want to make sure you aren’t missing out on good stuff.

  1. Watch this video about design thinking in practice or this video about one version of the design thinking process.
  2. Attend the Introduction to Design Thinking Workshop. And watch this video.
  3. Review this great Design Thinking toolkit from the Veterans Administration or one of these resources.
  4. Want more? Attend Designing Your Life or jump to the Practitioner Path.

I enjoy Design Thinking

Design Thinking Project Path

You’re facing a challenge or have a tough problem and want to use design thinking to tackle it.

  1. Use the Project Kickstarter to think through where you are, then play with the 6Ps template to think through the challenge you’re tackling.
  2. Attend the Design Thinking 101 workshop and pick up Designing for Growth, This is Service Design Doing or Designing for Veterans: a Toolkit for Human-centered Design. Each of these resources gives you guidance in applying design thinking to your challenge. Elon By Design can also guide you in choosing the right approach to your challenge.
  3. Attend the Design Thinking Facilitation Training to build the skills you’ll need to lead a team during a design thinking project.
  4. Dive into the other workshops and events offered by Elon By Design and explore other resources.

I use Design Thinking professionally

Practitioner Path

You want it all. You’re looking for design thinking fundamentals and the ability to weave it into your learning, work, play and life.

  1. You’re hungry and we like that. Start with the Introduction to Design Thinking Workshop and pick up a copy of This is Service Design Doing.
  2. Next, attend the workshop for each stage of the design thinking process. Read related material in This is Service Design Doing.
  3. Dive in and run your own design thinking project on campus, at work, or with a community partner. Need help? Just ask.
  4. Run another design thinking project. This is where you’ll start to make the design thinking process and methods your own.
Teaching and Learning Path

You want to incorporate design thinking into learning experiences. You have options:

  1. Course Design: Talk to the Director of Design Thinking about your course and learning outcomes. We’ll create the right mix of design methods and experiences for your students.
  2. Program Design: Considering how design thinking might support a degree? We can collaborate with you on new ideas or create a facilitated experience for you and your colleagues.
  3. Professional Development: You’d like training tailored to your challenges. The Center for Design Thinking can help you choose or create the right training for your group.