The Design Process

tools for innovation

National Professional Standard for Principals
Leadership requirements
1. Vision and values

Professional Practice
3. Leading improvement, innovation and change

The Design Process

A tool to facilitate innovation.

So what is the Design Process?

The Design Process is a flexible and adaptable tool that utilises a systematic approach…or process (hence the name!)…to collaboratively generate ideas and formulate a plan of action.

Widely used in the corporate and design world, the Design Process provides an objective formula to apply to any situation. It enables innovative approaches to a range of situations in your school and can be adapted to suit any group of participants – both staff and students.

The value of the process is that it applies objectivity to problem-solving at any level. The ‘empathising stage’ is a vital step in the process. It ensures that the needs of the end-user are identified and are carefully considered in the development of the prototype further along in the process.

The Design Process

Steps in the Design Process

1. Brain Dump

brain dump On large sheets of paper, all members of the team record any thoughts that they have about the question or issue (this can be done with each member having a small post-it note pad to record their thoughts). There are no limitations to what can be recorded. At this stage, the team are not trying to offer solutions, rather, it is a gathering of thoughts, possible resources or references that may be helpful later. It may be random thoughts, research ideas, articles, references, websites…There are no “wrong ideas”. During this step, observer looks for key themes that are emerging and begins to collate responses as such.

2. Empathise

empathise This is a very important step in the process. This is where the team empathises with the “end-user”. It works best if your team actually draws a stick figure and describes the type of person including their context, attitudes, beliefs, values, motivations and frustrations. There could be more than one end-user but it is best to limit this step to a maximum of three. The end-user could be staff, student, parent or it could be a type of student, a type of teacher etc. The facilitator and observer assist in developing the detail and depth to the characteristics of the end-user.

3. Ideate

ideate This step is essentially a more focused and targeted version of the brain dump. It is where the team begin to formulate and list ideas that could be used to resolve the issue or address the key question. Again, ideas are listed on large sheets of paper and there are no “wrong ideas”. (The large sheets of paper are helpful for the voting process which follows). All team members should feel free to record their ideas, no matter how unusual.

4. The Vote

vote The voting process allows the distilling of the most viable ideas. Each team member gets three votes (or three ticks next to ideas listed on large sheets of paper). The idea that receives the most votes is taken through to the next stage. It is important not to discard the list of ideas that are not being taken forward to prototyping. These ideas may still be valid and can be used at another time. The facilitator and observer need to address any conflicts of opinion or disagreements by asking appropriate questions which assist the team to come to a decision.

5. Develop Prototype

prototype The agreed upon idea is developed further. The actual details of the solution are mapped out down to actual steps for implementation, time frames for implementation, names of people responsible for certain actions etc. It is important to refer back to the identified end-user throughout this process.

6. Critique

critique The action plan is tested through sharing with others, tested against the end-user identified in the empathising step. The plan is shaped, tweaked and refined to ensure successful implementation.


  • It is important to note that after critiquing the plan, the team may recognise that the plan that they have developed is not going to work at this stage. This is where you can return to the other ideas listed at the ideate stage and develop a prototype around another idea which may be a more effective solution.
  • If you are planning to implement this process with a group larger than 6- 8 people, it is worthwhile to split the group into two and have them develop two prototypes around the same idea. They would then come together and have the opportunity to justify their thinking in order to amalgamate the ideas into a single prototype/plan.

    Alternatively, the two groups could develop prototypes for two DIFFERENT ideas. Both may be viable and could be implemented concurrently.

A note on timing

timing It is possible to go through the design process in a two hour professional learning session, however, the process could take place over an extended period. What is most important is that the team feels that each step of the process is completed before moving on to the next. This can take various amounts of time. Despite this, it may be helpful to place time limits on each step to move the process on in a timely fashion.

Click here to download our Step-by-Step Guide.

When would I use the Design Process?

The Design Process is completely flexible and can be used in any situation in which you want to develop an innovative solution or idea. Working through the process step by step allows the collaborative formulation of ideas or projects with a clear plan of action at the end of the process. While it can be used to create a physical product, the Design Process is much more powerful in an educational setting when used to facilitate the design of innovative processes, projects and practices within or between schools.

What do I need to know in order to use the Design Process?

The success of the Design Process relies on the use of a confident facilitator to run the process and an observer to guide discussion within groups and work with the facilitator to determine when to move to the next step in the process. Our Step-by-Step Guide outlines each step and walks facilitators and observers through the process.

empathise empathise
drawings from the Empathise stage

Ideally, the Process works best with groups of between five to ten people. After all, collaborative development of ideas is the key to the process and larger groups than this means that not everyone has an opportunity to have equal input into the process.

That’s not to say that the Process can’t be used with larger groups! Larger groups can be split up into smaller groups to work through the first few stages of the process and can come together to decide on the final ‘prototype’ as a collective whole.