Abilities-Focused Design Syllabus

How can we use design abilities, and navigating ambiguity as a superpower, to entice and excite students?

Kelly Schmutte
Active Experiments
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Purpose for Students
Experience It
Date Added: 
May 2019

Relationship to Ambiguity

This syllabus represents one piece of a much larger, two-quarter-long teaching experiment centered around more deeply integrating design abilities into d.school classes.  

A key part of our experiment was the decision to position navigating ambiguity as the designer's superpower, and a hugely valuable and transferable skill to take into future work and one's personal life. This syllabus represents our attempt to explain that value in the context of the course experiences in the d.school class "Design Thinking Studio" (winter 2019).  

It also seeks to illustrate how the other skills and abilities taught in the class support this overarching meta-ability.




In years past, we've often featured a process diagram prominently in the syllabus, but we intentionally did not do so here. Instead, we featured a new illustration that shows navigating ambiguity as a meta-ability that is strengthened by 7 other core design abilities. We sought to connect class topics, activities and lectures to these design abilities via small amorphous colored shapes that we used as a type of legend.

Overall, our intent with the syllabus was to create just enough of a scaffold around expectations and experiences in a class that is highly experiential and full of ambiguity.




Small moments of certainty help build trust in an otherwise ambiguous class context that's filled with unexpected and unfamiliar types of activities and challenges (like when we asked them to take off one shoe and hand it over to us on Day 2 of class, without explanation, and keep it for the duration of class -- we were using them for team formation, but students didn't know that!)

We didn't really go back and reference the Syllabus very often after the first week of class. Perhaps this was a missed opportunity. We could have revisited it later on in the quarter so as to create reminders of where we've been, what we've done, and how it all is in service of building design abilities.

Design Abilities Used

They are all abilities that support the overarching super-ability of navigating ambiguity.


This syllabus was inspired by the syllabus that has been used for the undergraduate Product Design course ME115a: Introduction to Human Values in Design that we co-teach with David Kelley. Credit also goes to Jess Munro (a former ME115a instructor) for the development and evolution of this content.

Designed by:

Kelly Schmutte
Kelly Schmutte
Curriculum Designer and Lecturer, Stanford d.school + Founder, PerfectFit Pointe
Seamus Yu Harte
Seamus Yu Harte
Story Designer + Lecturer, Stanford d.school

Design Abilities Used

Learn from Others (People and Contexts)
Experiment Rapidly
Synthesize Information
Build + Craft Intentionally
Move Between Concrete + Abstract
Communicate Deliberately
Design Your Design Work
Learn More about Design Abilities 


This resource is the original work of the Designer(s). I/we give permission for it to be licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution- Noncommercial-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

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