Introduction to Design Abilities Suite

How can students discover and reflect on different approaches to creative problem solving?

Kelly Schmutte
Tried and Tested
Activity, Worksheet
No items found.
Purpose for Students
Get Equipped
Date Added: 
May 2019

Relationship to Ambiguity

A lot of people have already experienced an introductory design thinking workshop in the form of "redesign the _______." (Example: redesign the wallet, or redesign your partner's morning routine)  Such workshops usually rely on rapidly working through a basic, linear 5-step process (empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test) over the course of a 90-minute period.  

In 2016, the started to articulate a higher-order set of design abilities that represent creative competencies that span any one version of process.  We set out to design an introductory experience (similar in length) to the linear-based ones, but that exposed learners to design abilities in a nonlinear way.

During the 2017-18 academic year, we collaborated on this challenge, and came up with a suite of activities, including a 2.5 hour design challenge workshop paired with some fun new take-aways.  

This introductory experience highlights navigating ambiguity as one of the 8 core design abilities. It also is a more ambiguous type of challenge in and of itself.




This activity is music themed because we think learning design abilities is a lot like learning to make music -- you can learn the basic tools (notes), and combine them in an infinite number of ways. Improvisation and collaboration are also both a part of music.

This challenge is not about coming up with a solution; it's about starting a challenge 3 different ways, each exercising different design abilities. (For this activity, we used the messy challenge of redesigning suburbia, but we designed the tools so that any design challenge is possible.)  

After each round, students reflect on how both they and their partner showed up. (This part is called "Take Note").  Students do get a chance to share what they and their partner came up with after each round, but the emphasis is less on coming up with solutions, as it is about self-awareness.  

That's why we have the main toolkit booklet open with a moment of reflection about a past flow experience, and conclude with an activity called "Know Your Notes."  In this activity, students map how they feel about different design abilities -- whether they're naturally in their range, more of something they like to riff on with others, or that is more of a reach.  

At the end, they get to keep a set of note cards as reference, along with a sleeve that has a "Sound Check" tool to continue reflecting on how you're exercising different abilities and when.

We also made 2 other bonus tools as part of this suite:

  • A "Design Abilities Activity Book" that could either be used as pre-work or a follow-on enrichment activity to go deeper.  It allows learners to explore the abilities in a fun way, individually, and at their own pace.
  • A worksheet called "You And!" that prompts learners to think about how their abilities can combine with others.




Learners appreciate experiencing ambiguity, but being guided through it with tools, and getting to wrestle with the discomfort of it.

The music metaphor is a really powerful way to introduce design abilities.  We show photos and clips from the "Do Re Mi" part of The Sound of Music to emphasize the value of learning the building blocks.

This is a more thoughtful and introspective introductory design activity than a linear process-based one.  It doesn't have the satisfaction of designing a shiny new thing for your partner; the take-aways are a little more subtle and individual (but just as powerful).

It really does take (at least!) a full 2.5 hours to get through the main booklet and note cards!  

NOTE:  The sleeve for the "note" cards is designed to be printed on 11x17 paper, and then folded in half lengthwise (hot-dog style), then in half again, then gate-folded.  The cards can then be stored inside with a mini binder clip or a rubber band.

Design Abilities Used

The whole activity relies heavily on synthesis -- both along the concept generation thread, but also primarily on the self-awareness/assessment thread. In the first round of the challenge, learners exercise the ability of Moving between Concrete and Abstract by using a tool called Zoom In / Zoom Out. In the second round of the challenge, learners get out of the classroom to Learn from Others using an activity called Wallflower. In the third and final round of the challenge, learners Experiment Rapidly by using a fun tool to "shape shift" their idea in unexpected ways.


Submitted by:

Kelly Schmutte
Kelly Schmutte
Curriculum Designer and Lecturer, Stanford + Founder, PerfectFit Pointe
Jess Munro
Jess Munro
Stanford Design Educator & Founder of Entrepreneurs by Design
Emily Callaghan
Emily Callaghan
Owner, DESIGN+ Labs, Lecturer, Stanford

Design Abilities Used

Synthesize Information
Move Between Concrete + Abstract
Learn from Others (People and Contexts)
Experiment Rapidly
Learn More about Design Abilities 


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