How to Incorporate Design Thinking in Higher Ed

Environments are able to shape us in a profound ways. They can encourage or discourage certain behaviors, they can be welcoming or deterring, they can be accessible to all people, or leave those with different ability statuses feeling left out.

As higher ed professionals, we must work to make our campuses (both the tangible and intangible spaces) as equitable as possible all while achieving strategic goals we have. These spaces could take the form of student centers, residence halls, lounges, offices, classrooms, websites, and social media pages.

Design thinking is a solution that entails creating something (a program or practice) with the user at the forefront of your mind and making choices that support thoughtful goals. In regards to higher education, this would mean making sure we support student success, engagement, and development through the creation of purposeful environments wherever we can.

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to solving complex problems.

When solving complex problems, more and more institutions are bringing challenges to their students and other stakeholders to understand needs before designing a holistic solution. This can be achieved a few different ways, which we’ll delve deeper into below.

Including Students in Design Process

When creating change at an institution, it’s critical to include students you’ll be serving with these changes to get their perspective and obtain a deeper understanding of how it impacts them. The first steps in the design thinking process is empathizing and defining problems with students on campus.


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One of the mysteries that higher education professionals need to tackle includes meeting the needs of all types of students: off-campus, on-campus, traditional, and non-traditional, while figuring out how to make this support both affordable and sustainable.


In Saby Labor and Kayley Robsham’s post titled Why The First Generation Mindset Is Crucial to College Student Retention, they review many challenges and obstacles first-gen students face. First-gen college students and professionals describe their life experiences of what it’s like to navigate campuses around the country, helping to relay to administrators how to better support them. Applying design thinking in how first-gen students utilize resource centers (i.e. financial aid) is motivating administrators, faculty, staff, and students who are not first-gen to listen, empathize, and understand first-gen stories to come up with possible solutions to better support them.

Current students will be able to tell you a lot about what you should do and ideas on how you should do it. They live every day interacting with the campus environment and will know what is missing and how to make it better overall. While you don’t have to bend to their will, their insight will be very valuable to know how things look first hand versus a higher up view depending on who is at the table already.

A number of institutions have a student representative on their board of trustees and also have things like open town halls or focus groups to obtain precious input from anyone willing to come and share. Provide as many options as you can to get students to give their thoughts and feedback. As much as you might want to earnestly do well by your students, you shouldn’t assume what they want or need.

Teaching Design Thinking as a Skill

For both professionals and students, design thinking is an increasingly important skill to have. It must be fostered and nurtured so that we can create environments and organizations that are welcoming to all. While engaging students through discussions and listening to their stories, think of creating ALL possible solutions- and I mean all solutions– no matter how far of reach they may be (you never truly know until you try).


Use the “how might we?” question to ask students or administrators all the possible ways you problem solve the situation at hand and better support students.

In continuing our first-generation example from the previous section, we could ask:

“How might we educate administrators at all levels on how to relate to first-generation college students?”

Environments matter as much if not more than anything else we do as professionals to support our students. They foster the capacity for development, interaction, engagement, and learning. If we’re creating spaces that deter students from entering, then we’re not maximizing the potential of our efforts.

Design for Universal Access

Campus designs embody institutional values: looking closely at how your values align with the needs of students will be crucial to potential admission applicants in how they choose which institution to attend.

Today’s college students come from all over the world as well as have varied and unique needs. We need to do whatever we can to build out structures and services that allow all students to access them. Every barrier that exists that a student has to overcome will discourage them from trying to get involved, engaged, and truly succeeding during their college experience.

Technology, like Presence, helps in removing obstacles surrounding engagement students may face. Whether it is providing transcripts of audio, descriptive audio, or other online resources. Also, physical pieces like ramps, automatic doors, or elevators are crucial to make campuses more welcoming to all. These can all help all students feel like they’re not missing out.

There are groups out there spreading the good word about design thinking, as well as some podcasts I’ve hosted recently with Grant Schroll and Kathleen Delaski on what to consider with design thinking and environments (Part I & Part II) through the Student Affairs Collective.

While the concept of design thinking has been around for a little while, it hasn’t really gone fully mainstream yet so there is potential for many professionals to adopt this skill. Overall, design thinking is less about making ‘things’ and more about the way you see the world. Combining this mindset with a commitment to continuous improvement, you and your students can both work towards always making things better to maximize their potential while in college.

What ideas do you have when you think of design thinking?

In what ways have you been more intentional about the spaces you provide students?

Tweet us @HelloPresence and @HigherEd_Geek to continue the conversation.



Dustin Ramsdell

About the author: Dustin is a graduate of the Rutgers University College Student Affairs Ed.M Program. He is a proud nerd and self-affirmed "Higher Ed Geek" who is excited to connect with folks who share his love of deep conversations! Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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