Degree Type


Date of Award


Degree Name

Master of Fine Arts


Art and Design

First Advisor

Roger E. Baer


The upcoming generations of college graduates will be inheriting the most complex world of opportunities and challenges that has ever existed. Professionals in many design, engineering, and other related fields will be forced to adapt to rapid change in our environment and resource constraints, and presumably in our social structures as well. We need to give the builders of the future the tools to address emerging problems effectively and collaboratively, without preconceived frames of the problems to be solved or the limits of their expertise in solving them.

Design thinking, a term that was coined only in recent decades, has been gaining increased attention as a definable process that allows rapid, innovative, and user-centric problem solving, much in tune with the rapid pace of change in a technology-driven world. Numerous designers and theorists have weighed in on this concept, and programs such as Stanford University's graduate-level d.School have developed it as a practical curriculum that has immediate impacts on a world much in need of "out-of-the-box" thinkers; i.e., designers.

At Iowa State University (ISU), classes that touch on design thinking have been offered in several fields of design such as industrial design or architecture, but not specifically for visual or interaction design--and indeed, not in a context that encourages transdisciplinary innovation or that harness the creativity and ideas of disciplines outside design. Nationwide, there is a gap in curriculum development at the undergraduate level--both for teaching undergraduate design students and for introducing design thinking to our future entrepreneurs and engineers who will be shaping our physical world.

My goal has been to capture insights on design thinking education, practice, and on the design students for which an undergraduate class could be offered. In Appendix A, I present such a prototype syllabus as a starting point for a full curriculum. This product, albeit only a beginning, was only possible after a prolonged and recursive research and ideation process, which constitutes the body of my thesis. As a practitioner of design thinking, I needed to understand at a deep level the challenges and benefits of such a class, through empathy with both undergraduate design students and those experienced design thinkers who teach or lead groups of designers. On the most basic level, I needed to discern, "What would such a class teach?" and "Is such a class necessary?"

My guiding questions were as follows:

Q1: What commonalities exist between the various design thinking process models that can be synthesized into a generalized theory of design thinking?

Q2: What does experience say are the basic tools and challenges in the practice of design thinking and therefore the most important educational tools of the practice to introduce to students?

Q3: Do undergraduate design students think in a way that is consistent with a general theory of design thinking?

In Chapter 2, I review the literature written about design thinking, including that which predates the exact term, but laid the groundwork for the explosion of conceptualization that followed. In Chapter 3, I describe my three basic lines of research: 1) What do professional designers say about design thinking and teaching design thinking? 2) How do students "naturally" design, when given a design assignment? 3) What have I learned in my own career as a designer? In Chapter 4, the results of this research are presented. Chapter 5 analyzes the results and presents the next steps to take.

Specifically, I read extensively in the design literature, interviewed 8 professional designers and/or design teachers, and observed and interviewed 7 art and design students approaching a creative assignment, which I also participated in. These observations provided insights that will guide my future work. Overall, I learned that the design thinking model can be generalized, despite the multiple forms of its articulation in the literature. I summarized the process as occupying three stages: Discover, Create, and Build.

Other assumptions and precepts of design thinking, that do not fit into this visual, were also collected in my model. These include the need for collaboration, optimistic thinking, etc.

The second important thing I learned is that students do need explicit training in the design thinking process and related methods. While certain aspects of the process, such as its recursive nature, come naturally to them, the key elements of empathy and user validation were missing from my observations. Design is still a personal expression to these students. Unfortunately, I was not able to examine collaborative work in the research I did, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that undergraduate students do not know how to collaborate effectively across disciplines. My job, of course, is only 2/3rds done. I have arrived at a prototype syllabus and guidance for teaching such a class, but I have not validated or deployed it with apropos lessons or rubrics. In future research, I hope to extend the research of this thesis into the design thinking classroom, observing transdisciplinary student teams collaborating on a project, and possibly further into their student and professional careers.

Copyright Owner

Edward Joseph Cupps



File Format


File Size

271 pages