Design Thinking: Why does it matter to instructional design?

“Sketchnotes – Design Thinking Drinks 2011” by Ben Crothers is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

As our cohort embarks on the design thinking process and orienting ourselves with the concept of co-designing, I reflect on my work environment and the challenges of trying to apply the design-thinking process in my world. As I pause to understand my apprehension, my curiousity kicked in. Why am I falling into the trap of “this is not possible” rather than assert the “this is possible” notion?  I am curious if my initial reaction is shared by most of my colleagues in the instructional design field?

In my blog on orienting myself to the field of instructional design, I stated the opportunities and challenges that the instructional designers faced in 21st-century learning (Ambata-Villanueva, 2019, para.1). Learners need to make sense of their world to create new knowledge. The ubiquity of digital tools and online social network have made learning more social. Thus, collaboration to solve novel problems are crucial to learning. Bates (2019) and Merrill (2002) asserted that learners should be at the center of the learning design. Crichton & Carter (2017) and Mattelmäki, Vaajakallio, & Koskinen (2014), highlights the importance of empathic design, in which learning designers co-design the program with the learners utilizing the principles of the design thinking process. This humbling and mind-enriching activity has profoundly shifted how I view instructional design.

As our team prepare for assignment one- design thinking process, we recognized that learning design and co-designing a learning program can be challenging because it is a paradigm shift to what is familiar to each of our organization. I have experienced co-design events at my workplace and being part of it can be inspiring, uplifting, and motivating. It can also be demanding on everyone’s time; hence, striking a balance between time, effort, and other priorities at work can be difficult. To mitigate these risks, addressing the potential barriers to participation in a co-design and seeking support from the leaders of the organization are critical factors to consider when embarking on a design thinking process. Another area to consider is the skills and competencies of the instructional designers leading this change. Similar to our team’s experience in assignment one, we need to shift our mindset that we are learning designers- change agents and leaders in the “learning enterprise” (Kenny, Zhang, Schwier, & Campbell, 2005). Hence, it is vital that we self-educate ourselves on the tools and emerging technologies so we can effectively advocate for what is best for the learners and lead the learning evolution.



Ambata-Villanueva, S. (2019, November 17). Re: Activity 1 – Orienting myself to the field of instructional design and designing instruction [Blog comment]. Retrieved from

Bates, Tony. 2019, September 16. Chapter 11.4 Open Pedagogy [Blog Post]. Retrieved from

Crichton, S., & Carter, D. (2017). Section two. Making the connection: designing, making, and a new culture of learning. Taking Making Into Classrooms. Retrieved from

Kenny, R., Zhang, Z., Schwier, R., & Campbell, K. (2005). A review of what instructional designers do: Questions answered and questions not asked [HTML page]. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology 31(1).

Mattelmäki, T., Vaajakallio, K., & Koskinen, I. (2014). What happened to empathic design. Design Issues, 30(1), 67-77. Retrieved from

Merrill, M. D. (2002). First principles of instructionEducational Technology Research and Development, 50(3), 43-59. Retrieved from




2 thoughts on “Design Thinking: Why does it matter to instructional design?

  1. The fact that so many digital tools are available today seems to allow instructors to think by using one or two even with a modicum of skill that they are making their teaching digital. I believe the reality of online/digital learning is much more than the use of tools, but takes a great deal of planning to make it successful for both students and instructors. You mention that Merrill (2002) posits that learners should be at the centre of learning. I agree with your statement and would like to add that the instructional designer can create the pillars to ensure the learners are the focus of the design if they embrace empathic design. Mattelmäki, Vaajakallio, & Koskinen (2014) suggest that the use of open-ended inquiry can help designers see what the end-user (the students) sees (p. 71). As you stated, going through the design thinking process allows us to learn how do see what the students will see and not simply applying theoretical concepts because the literature says it should work.

    Mattelmäki, T., Vaajakallio, K., & Koskinen, I. (2014). What happened to empathic design?. Design Issues, 30(1), 67-77.

    Merrill, M. (2002). First principles of instruction. Educational Technology Research and Development, 50(3), 43-59.

    1. Hi Kathy,

      Thank you for your thoughts. I agree that skills and competencies in developing online learning are essential to make the learning experience powerful. I have experienced and no doubt you, too, on the danger of the “shovelware” effect. Even now, I still have to educate our SMEs that directly converting a F2F into online learning does not make it useful learning. The more we progress into this course, I have a deeper appreciation of the design thinking process. Going through this process provides a platform for everyone that has a stake in the learning program to design it in a way that will accommodate all learners and make it a valuable program.

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