DPA: Design Project Abilities

How do you practice design work?

Kelly Schmutte
Active Experiments
Project, Book
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Purpose for Students
Get Equipped
Date Added: 
May 2019

Relationship to Ambiguity

What if we could help our students identify and internalize a portfolio of personal stories to share how, when and why they practice design? How do we help students tune into the abilities they flex to help them navigate ambiguity when doing design work?  

A few years ago, Carissa Carter wrote an article on Medium sharing her thoughts on a shift from teaching a design process to teaching design abilities. In fall 2018, we made a reference booklet to share those 8 essential abilities with design students in ME115a. We added some new language to help our students identify when an ability is being exercised and what fields tend to exercise those abilities.

And in winter 2019, we asked students in Design Thinking Studio to go one step further by reflecting on the notes in the booklet and writing personal stories from their own experience of when, how and why they exercised an ability. By making this a required reflective exercise, and the final class project, we emphasized personal transformation (over other design project outcomes).




We created a quarter-long project with 3 main threads. A visual timeline of how the project unfolded can be found in the last spread of the main Design Abilities Book.

1. Inspiration + Exploration

Goal:  Uncover examples of how design abilities abound in the world around us.  
Assignment:  Students brought inspirational examples into class via library resource cards.

2. Reflection

Goal:  Connect your project work with your individual growth.
Assignment:  Three times over the quarter, we provided a specific prompt and asked for students to submit a short (1-2 paragraph) written reflection related to growing and stretching in the development of design abilities.  

3. Synthesis and Storytelling

Goal:  Bring it all together and synthesize your take-aways in the form of specific stories.
Final Assignment:  We started workshopping this in class with a mad-libs style workbook we created, and then asked students to select a few key stories to submit (via Google Form) for our final class artifact.

On the last day of class, we surprised every student with a beautifully formatted book of stories containing a page for each student in the class.  Each book was also pinned with the d.school pin, a nod to a traditional ceremony that honors the transformative work that happens in d.school classes.




Students confidently articulated their transformations and take-aways using our final reflection template. The "I used to think / Now I think" prompt was the especially powerful, and we asked students share those aloud with the whole class.  

It's cathartic and affirming for students to realize that many of their peers experienced similar types of transformation. It also enhances their own appreciation when hearing different types of transformation.

Our time capsule day towards the end of class definitely helped students workshop their final stories and see their transformation. A few of the artifacts that we handed back from the beginning of class included a mindmap of what design meant to them, and their ambiguity metaphor worksheet.  

Ceremoniously giving every student a beautifully printed book that was about their growth really underscored our class goals, and helped us end on a high note.

Making the class book was ultimately a LOT of design & formatting work (involving copying/pasting spreadsheet entries into an InDesign template), but we thought it was well worth it.

Design Abilities Used

The act of reflecting on a quarter's worth of experiences, and elegantly boiling them down into a few statements and stories to tell going forward really exercises all 3 of these abilities.


Carissa Carter crafted the original set of desciptions for the design abilities, which we built upon for these DPA resources. Jason Munn illustrated all of the amazing graphic art for each ability.

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

Communicate Deliberately
Synthesize Information
Move Between Concrete + Abstract
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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