Design Tapas

How can you "taste" what design feels like in a fun, non-linear way that reflects the ambiguity inherent in design work?

Photo by Maddi Bazzocco on Unsplash
Active Experiments
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Purpose for Students
Experience It
Date Added: 
May 2019

Relationship to Ambiguity

Tapas are small Spanish savory dishes, typically served with drinks at a bar. Design Tapas are small activities, insights & anecdotes served in a non-linear order to give students a taste of how different mindsets, methods and modes might feel during design work.

In contrast to a “prix fixe” menu used in an introductory design project (at the, we often call it a Design Project 0, or "DP0"), where each course has been carefully planned and sequenced (ex: via the storied hexagon diagram), Design Tapas has a more organic feel and flavor — the goal is to sample, not promise to give a complete experience.

This ‘Design Tapas’ experiment is something we used to introduce students to design in both ME115a (Introduction to Human Values in Design) and Design Thinking Studio instead of a more traditional DP0 like the wallet exercised. Our intent was both to establish a precedent that design doesn't usually follow a linear process (although we are very intentional about our process and the tools we use), and to allow students to experience the genuine sense of ambiguity that open-ended design brings.




We composed our Tapas menu by curating a handful of our favorite activities, insights & anecdotes that we felt could deliver both a fun and quick experience to students.  We allowed the students to randomly choose one at a time, and we did this for about an hour.

Some of the things we included were old favorites, like: Ta-Da!, the improv game many people use to expose how people react to failure; and new twists, like: The Hills, a short video clip from The Sound of Music we used to show how learning design abilities for designers is similar to learning Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do for musicians.

The key part of serving each dish was the debrief -- the unpacking of how that little experience or activity reflects a mindset or tool in design.


We printed menus on 8.5” x 11” cardstock paper and had one available for every student at the tables. Printing 2 menus per 8.5” x 11” piece of paper and then cutting them helped create a more slender look and feel.

We created a keynote that simply had a title card for each menu item and one animated GIF to go with each menu item to keep the slide deck simple and yet lively. We controlled Keynote with an iPhone app allowing us to navigate the slide deck in a non-linear way so the students wouldn’t see us jump through slides them may have or have not seen. It helps add a bit of theatrical flair to the experience.

We purchased meat, cheese and crackers from Trader Joe’s and had the tapas ready for the students right when they walked in the door. (Feeding people is always a great safety net when you’re asking them to engage in an experimental experience.)

We played music during the beginning, middle and end of the class to help create the feel of being at a tapas bar. We found a Cocktails & Tapas playlist on Spotify by searching for “Tapas.” By raising the volume higher and lower upon the students arrival and departure we created ‘bookends’ with audio to create a more theatrical experience.




You will need to improvise the sequence of dishes.
Because the Design Tapas experience is non-linear and driven by the students' selection, it is possible to have 2-3 selections in a row that are low-energy and create a lull in the room and you will have to improvise to fix it. When we noticed this happening to us, we improvised by selecting an activity we knew would be high energy (e.g., Strong & Light—which was our version of the Rock. Paper. Scissors Tournament activity). We introduced it as a “house dish” that we thought everyone needed to try. They tried it. And liked it. And energy was restored.

Allowing the activity to be non-linear and driven by students will create unanticipated sequences that you will have to improvise out of as a teaching team.

You will walk away from the class feeling unsure.
Because the Design Tapas experience is non-linear and driven by the students' selection, it is difficult to gauge how the students are feeling about the class in general. Teaching a more traditional, linear curriculum (i.e. hexagon process) gives you the comfort of knowing where the students will experience “ahas” or “oh no's!” For example, you know they might struggle and be frustrated learning how to form a How Might We statement for the first time, and you know they will get a rush rapidly prototyping and sharing their work with a partner.

To introduce navigating ambiguity and other design abilities to your students, you have to be comfortable with navigating ambiguity yourself as an instructor.

You might want to infuse more stories.
Humans are wired for arcs. Because this activity doesn't have a natural "arc" to it by virtue of its format, we think building in more arcs in the form of stories will help it feel more grounded.  With a linear, process-based intro, students get a sense of how design works -- where it starts, where it ends, and how it is capable of impact.  We believe you can still demonstrate the impact of design in Design Tapas, but that we need to be intentional about injecting stories of impact into the menu.  We'll try this next time.

Design Abilities Used

Each Tapas item on the menu maps to one of the design abilities, and is pulled out during the debrief. For example, when we analyze a single image of a crowded shopping scene at Trader Joe's, it leads to a discussing about Learning from Others, and the challenging and also immeasurably valuable practice of needfinding.


David Kelley helped us brainstorm many different Tapas menu (activity) ideas.

Designed by:

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

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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