Design Thinkng 1

Unmasking Design Thinking

When does a prototype look like a sparkly silver fuzz ball? When it has been designed by one Mack teacher for her colleague as a brilliant reminder to appreciate the little things.

These past few months, Mackintosh Academy teachers and parents have been design thinking all sorts of things – from masks to morning routines to the future of Mackintosh itself. We’ve been doing this with Design Thinking Master and one of the movement’s founders (and wonderful Mackintosh Parent!), George Kembel. George’s mission at the Stanford D-School, which he co-founded, is to “unleash the creative potential of innovators.” With him at Mackintosh Boulder, we are learning to unleash the creative potential of our community – students, teachers, parents and leaders alike.

Talk about Design Thinking can bring up images of pipe cleaners and toilet paper rolls. But actually, according to George, design thinking is a process that helps unleash natural creativity. Where most people rush in to solve a problem, design thinking asks us to step back and truly understand the problem, explore its many potential solutions and begin to find easy, quick ways to experiment and test ideas. Design thinking can, therefore, be used to solve any number of different challenges we might face – as parents or in the classroom. George confessed the Kembels even have rapid-fire design meetings at their own house when their family hits a challenge.

Here are three major takeaways from our design thinking workshops including examples and tips that might inspire new thinking in your home or classroom:

  • Start with Empathy – Often when we hear design thinking we think we need to be “creative” first and foremost. Yet design thinking starts with empathy – that natural human ability to understand another person’s needs. Empathy can reframe a problem and act as a catalyst for new creative solutions.

 An Example: After our design thinking workshop, an issue came up in our own family around media (sound familiar?). We’ve been struggling with sticking to our rules. For many years as parents we’ve acted as enforcers, but it always seems to turn into a struggle. So, I started to empathize. First, I watched my children for a few days. I saw media was the default option when kids were tired or bored (or I was busy) and couldn’t think of anything else to do. Then, I empathized with myself. I asked myself why it matters so much to me. I thought of the moments when it seemed to be the biggest struggle. Beyond parental guilt, I realized that I personally was worried that media was crowding out all of the other things we need, want or love to do as a family. So, as a family we spent time creating an “activity bank” that reminded our children of things they “need, want and love to do.” Now, when boredom hits and I ask them to “find something else to do” they have a ready-made list of options. It was an eye-opening experience for all of us. Miraculously, media hasn’t been such a struggle since!


Try it at home: When a complaint hits or a problem comes up, try having your child or spouse tell you a specific story. Specific stories often reveal unexpected truths about a situation. Listen for their underlying needs, emotions or even elements that surprise. It might bring you to a new solution.

  • Rapid Prototyping = An Experimental Mindset – Don’t just put your thinking caps on. The best thing to do is try something new and learn from it. Our world is far too complex for us to predict what might be the “right” answer. George pushed us throughout our workshops to “finish before you are ready.” Unfinished products leave space for new ideas and opportunities for others to give feedback.

Example: In our teacher workshop, Matty Miller worked with Jim Parker to “unmask” part of his personality he normally keeps hidden but is important to him. The job was then to literally design a “mask” that would unveil that part of himself to his colleagues. Storytelling revealed that Jim had an introverted side that needed nourishment during the hectic school days. After experimenting with a few design solutions, Matty created a wristband for Jim that would be a reminder to “make time and space for himself.”

Try it at home: Homework nook not working? Morning routine out of whack?   Don’t be afraid to just try something new. Simple tests can teach you a lot – about the real problem and its solution. The important piece: when you try your new experiment, be sure to ask for feedback and observe how/if it’s working!


  • Generative Feedback and a Growth Mindset – Finally, learning and feedback is perhaps the most important part of this equation. Feedback doesn’t mean that we’ve failed; it gives us a chance to learn and grow towards better solutions. For people giving feedback, George suggests using “I like…” or “I wish…” statements to help designers know what you do want (not just what you don’t!), which can foster the learning process. Often the person giving feedback gains as much insight into their own needs as the designer.


Example: Mackintosh has been in the process of re-designing our own programs in ways that work better for students. Whether it’s making more time for passion projects or shifting schedules to ease transitions, we’ll be trying out some new ideas. Please let us know your feedback.

Try it at home: Language can be important to encourage a growth mindset. Next time you give feedback to a family member, try using “I like… ” and “I wish… ” language. See if pointing towards positive ideas for progress might put you on the right path to a new solution.


In my humble opinion, the best part of these Design Thinking workshops has been experiencing the power of the creative process and learning how it can contribute to many areas of our lives. If you spend a few hours at school on any given day, you can see how every day can be a creative design challenge for our teachers.

In fact, for all of us as parents, teachers, leaders and community members, creativity is a required response to how our children show up every day – filled with questions, thoughts, ideas, passions, their own needs, desires, gifts and ways to serve. Their creativity forces us to empathize with their needs and experiment with their learning in mind.

With our children and this Design Thinking skill set in mind, we are better prepared to tackle the fundamental challenges that underpin all that we do here at Mack: What can we do better? How do we best serve children? How do we prepare them to be leaders of what’s next?

Join our community as we extend this conversation into our homes and classrooms.  Our next parent education session is on Wednesday January 28 at 6:30 pm on the Boulder Campus. Our panel of experts will help us explore “Unleashing Creativity.”  We’ll then have a hands on learning experience to help us bring ideas into our homes and lives.


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