Our Inspiration

Design ideas

A main domain to look into for inspiration for our thought experiment is the field of design thinking.

Ian Gosher’s blog calledBeyond Design Thinking: An Incomplete Design Taxonomy, on Design Thinking and the many trends that inspired the field is worth a full read.

Design Thinking emerged in the 80’s and gained popularity at the turn of the 21st century. In its most simple formulation, it might be “characterized as the scientific method applied to the creative process” (Ian Gosher). 

  • It is human centered and iterative. 
  • It uses iterative prototyping in its journey “from the abstract to the concrete” (Ian Gosher).

Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby distinguish in their book ‘Speculative Everything’, between affirmative design and critical design (watch an interview with the authors). Affirmative design focuses on problem solving and serves to improve our live as it is now. It “is problem solving, with design framed as a process that provides answers in the service of industry for how the world is” (Ian Gosher). On the other hand, critical design “is characterized as problem finding, with design framed as a medium that asks questions in the service of society for how the world could be” (Ian Gosher). According to Gosher, “if Affirmative Design is problem solving, then Critical Design is problem finding, which is to say, it is a critique of the context and culture in which the designed object exists“.

According to IDEO, one of the first studios to lay the groundwork for design theory, “design thinking is a mindset. It is the confidence that everyone can be part of creating a more desirable future, and a process to take action when faced with a difficult challenge” (IDEO, 2013).

IDEO’s blog on Design Thinking for Educators’ (2013) presents how design thinking is not only useful, but already present and essential in the classroom environment, from designing daily schedules to teacher feedback systems. “The challenges educators are confronted with are real, complex, and varied. And as such, they require new perspectives, new tools, and new approaches. Design thinking is one of them” (IDEO, 2013). IDEO also created the Co-Designing Schools Toolkit, to support “educators to collaboratively create equitable change in schools through a community-led, equity-centered, and design-driven process” (IDEO, 2013).

Human Centered Design

Human Centered Design (or User Centered Design) was popularized by Don Norman’s seminal book, ‘The Design of Everyday Things‘. In the book he “urged designers to consider the user experience throughout the entire design process, rather than employing top down “engineering” strategies, which are often framed around technical solutions and ignore the actual needs of stakeholders. Human Centered Design places a high value on design research methods that cultivate empathy with the user. Methods for visual thinking and storytelling are especially important for this kind of collaborative process. By asking the users you’ll get unexpected answers that are more likely to be taken up and adopted. As long as your ideas are ‘grounded into the desires of the people’ then you’re on the right patch. Human-centered design is bound to lead to ‘solutions that are adopted and embraced’” (Ian Gosher).

Participatory Design

Participatory Design is a close relative to Human Centered Design as it seeks to engage all stakeholders in the design process and has a very explicit political dimension. “It aspires to democratize the design process, blurring the distinction between the designer (or engineer) as expert and the user as expert. Participatory Design attempts to coordinate the experiences and insights of all stakeholders in order to develop outcomes that benefit everyone” (Ian Gosher). 

Critical Design

“Critical Design has its antecedents in Critical Theory, which emerged from the Marxist critiques of the Frankfurt School in the 1930s. Critical Design is a creative strategy that establishes design as a medium for making visible that which is usually obscured in our daily interactions with the quotidian objects of our material culture, including the relationship between the object and the labor that went into its creation (i.e. commodity fetishism). Critical Design creates affordances for awareness, framing how we understand, question, and critique the society and culture around us” (Ian Gosher). 

Discursive Design

According to Ian Gosher, Discursive Design is “closely related, if not synonymous with Critical Design. The term implies that the function of the object – what it does – is secondary to how it makes us think about the context in which it exists. The object is the site of discourse. These kinds of objects tend to be prototypes, resisting commodification and mass production. They often shock the viewer into a new awareness of the social context from which they emerge (Ian Gosher). For examples of discursive design also check out Core77’s Discursive Design channel

For a quick understanding of Discursive Design read Tharp & Tharp’s 2016 blog on Discursive Design as ‘thought catalyst’, “What is Discursive Design”. “While “good design” is often professed to be unobtrusive, intuitive, invisible and something that does not make the user think too much, discursive design instead actually targets the intellect. The primary goal is to prompt self-reflection, ignite the imagination, and foment contemplation—to deliberately make the user think (deeply)” (Tharp & Tharp, 2016). 

In the UK, the Arts and Humanities Research Council funded the ProtoPublics project, “which ultimately aims to get researchers and the community together to craft “new services, experiences, projects and policies that address contemporary issues.” In support of this objective a sub-project, ProtoPolicy was organized to investigate how design fiction “could be used to help politicians and community groups imagine the future implications of policy initiatives in creative ways.” This past summer they looked specifically at the issues of aging in place, loneliness, and isolation with the help of discursive practices. Their 38-page report, Using Design Fiction to Negotiate Political Questions discusses their process and findings. For example: Design fictions appear to be more readily adopted by the civil service rather than politicians because of the shorter timescales usually adopted to take political decisions. However, through additional advocacy and research, the ProtoPolicy team seek to demonstrate that design methods, particularly design fictions, could contribute to a shorter decision-making cycles through rapid problem definition, co-developing solutions with citizens, rapid prototyping and refining concepts before full-scale deployment” (Tharp & Tharp, 2015). For more information on ProtoPublics check out their website

Responsible design

Tharp & Tharp talk about another type of design thinking done in the name of service, to help those in need “where products are helpful, but less commercially-viable, especially due to very small market target. Examples given are the bite-size fork for those less dexterous – Ableware one-handed cutlery set” (Tharp & Tharp, 2009)

Speculative Design  

“Speculative Design is another sibling to Critical Design and Discursive Design. However, Speculative Design is explicitly oriented towards future scenarios. User scenarios are an important method found in many of these design strategies. These kinds of scenarios allow us to imagine things not as they are, but as they might be. They allow us to ask questions. What does the object do? For whom? Where does it do it? When? How does the object do it? And why?” (Ian Gosher). 

The MIT Media Lab are an interdisciplinary research lab working to invent the future of #politics, #archives, #data, etc. Check out some of their publications as good examples of speculative design.  https://www.media.mit.edu/groups/lifelong-kindergarten/publications/ 

Potential implications for our thought experiment

We could draw concepts from design thinking that might be helpful in framing how we think about education as a system, as a service (either public or private) for users and as politics due to its extensive stakeholder groups.

“Innovation with design thinking demands critical thinking because we must understand our assumptions that frame our ideas and shape our design.” (Turnali, 2016)


Gosher, Ian, ‘Beyond Design Thinking: An Incomplete Design Taxonomy’. cd-cf.org website, accessed on 29 Mar 2021 at  http://www.cd-cf.org/articles/beyond-design-thinking/ 

IDEO.org, 2013 ‘Design Thinking for Educators’, Jan, 2013, IDEO Website, accessed on 29 March 2021 at https://www.ideo.com/post/design-thinking-for-educators

IDEO.org, 2015, ‘The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design’. IDEO Website, accessed on 29 March 2021 at https://d1r3w4d5z5a88i.cloudfront.net/assets/guide/Field%20Guide%20to%20Human-Centered%20Design_IDEOorg_English-0f60d33bce6b870e7d80f9cc1642c8e7.pdf 

Turnali, K., 2016, ‘Innovation with Design Thinking Demands Critical Thinking’, Aug, 2016. Forbes Website, accessed online 29 March 2021 https://www.forbes.com/sites/sap/2016/08/25/innovation-with-design-thinking-demands-critical-thinking/?sh=7b2d48486908 

Norman, D., 2013, ‘The Design of Everyday Things Rev. and expanded‘, Boulder: Basic Books. 

Tharp, B. and Tharp, S., 2009, ‘The 4 Fields of Industrial Design: (No, not furniture, trans, consumer electronics, & toys)’, Jan 5, 2009, Core77.com, accessed on 1 Apr 2021 at https://www.core77.com/posts/12232/the-4-fields-of-industrial-design-no-not-furniture-trans-consumer-electronics-toys-by-bruce-m-tharp-and-stephanie-m-tharp-12232 

Tharp, B. and Tharp, S., 2015, ‘Governments Warming up to Discursive Design?’, Dec 9, 2015, Core77.com, accessed on 1 Apr 2021 at “What is Discursive Design” https://www.core77.com/posts/41991/What-is-Discursive-Design 

Tharp, B. and Tharp, S., 2016, ‘Governments Warming up to Discursive Design?’, February 2, 2016, Core77.com, accessed on 1 Apr 2021 at https://www.core77.com/posts/45693/Governments-Warming-up-to-Discursive-Design 

Our Inspiration

Sandbox Exercise

The concept is borrowed from software development where a sandbox “is an isolated testing environment that enables users to run programs or execute files without affecting the application, system or platform on which they run” (Rosencrance, 2018)

In the world of business, a sandbox environment is a space where people from different disciplinary backgrounds are brought together to discuss and test solutions to complex problems in a controlled and risk-free environment (or frame). Check out David Clarke’s blog, ‘The Serious Business of Sandbox Exercise‘ for a full description of the practice.

A related concept is a regulatory sandbox which “is a methodological approach to potential relaxation of regulatory requirements that build in more testing and feedback through a safe innovation zone.” (Hagan, 2019)

Some useful concepts and terminology:

  • Those who manage the sandbox activity need to hold the big picture and should be able to connect the dots between different areas of theory and practice. They often draw upon a diverse network of people from various disciplines to ensure that the right people are in the room when thematic discussions take place. 
  • The approach taken in conversations is usually holistic and applies systems theory. This is to ensure that ideas are not being considered in isolation from the workings of the overall system and that their impact retains a dose of realism. In discussion, Agile project management methodology principles are also applied by building simple models (or straw-men), which are then build upon through constant reiterative testing with users until the model starts holding water.  
  • Testing with users is an essential part of the process.  
  • The framing is the process by which the constraints of the simulated environment are determined and it sets the context within which the exercise is to take place. As part of framing, the controller can choose to ‘switch on or off’ real world constraints such as regulation, funding constraints and human resource capacity to test ideas and foster innovative thinking.  

Potential implications for our thought experiment

When thinking innovatively about wholesome, holistic changes to the filled of education, using a sandbox exercise-type approach may be useful in deconstructing the system to understand its mechanism, dependencies and issues better. It is also helpful in testing ideas independent of ‘real world’ dependencies, such as funding, implementation and change management restrictions. These can often be specific to a certain geography, point in time and legislative configuration.  By purposefully ‘switching off’ some of the systemic dependencies we are able to identify core aspects about education systems that can be critically analysed, their underlying assumptions scrutinised and their value reconsidered.

In our workshops we may choose to apply the sandbox exercise concept to our thought experiment by: 

  • Building the frame (i.e. the assumptions underlying the simulated environment in which the model will be built and solutions tested). That can be set before the exercise begins and the ‘rules of play’ agreed collectively with the participants.   
  • Determining the end-goal, or vision (i.e. defining what the outcome of the exercise is, at the very beginning). This will be agreed in collaboration with the participants and is subject to iteration as the exercise progresses and ideas evolve. The end-goal is also something that needs stress-testing with users.  
  • Identifying and inviting voices from a range of disciplines to participate in building the models and discussing ideas and their respective merits. Seek that participants are from a range of disciplines is essential because systems are complex and draw upon a multitude of disciplines and business areas to run in practice. Also, a mark of creativity is being able to get inspired from ideas from fields outside your own. 
  • Building the model of the existing system based on its component parts (the ones essential as part of the output).
  • Discuss options or ideas of how to achieve the end-goal, with the model of the existing system as a starting point. 
  • Build models of users (or personas) with their user journeys, needs and wants. This is a form of stakeholder mapping that goes into some pragmatic aspects, beyond mere exploration of needs and wants.  
  • Test models and underlying assumptions with users, in a re-iterative way. 
  • Throughout the exercise the vision transforms into a new model of the system, with its underlying assumptions stress-tested with users.  
  • At the end of the exercise, an analysis is done between the starting model and the resulting one. An analysis will also be done on the tensions created in a non-sandbox environment, after restrictions are switched off. The result is a list of areas for further research and actionable recommendations that can be pursued in practice, within the industry. 


Participation in the ‘Designing Education’ project is currently limited to UCL students and faculty. However, if you want to get in touch regarding the project and the content of this webpage check out our Contact Us page.


Clarke, D., 2017, ‘The Serious Business of Sandbox Exercise’. Jan 9, 2017, Strategy+Business Website, Accessed online in Dec 2020 at https://www.strategy-business.com/article/The-Serious-Business-of-Sandboxes?gko=303ae.

Hagan, M (2019) Regulatory Sandboxes for legal services innovation. Nov 2019, Medium.com, available at https://medium.com/legal-design-and-innovation/regulatory-sandboxes-for-legal-services-innovation-7438bb9b658e 

Rosencrance, L., 2018, ‘sandbox (software testing and security)’. Dec 2018, TechTarget Website. Accessed online in Dec 2020 at https://searchsecurity.techtarget.com/definition/sandbox.


Taking part

How to get involved

Get involved as a…

  • WORKSHOP PARTICIPANT – We are inviting UCL students and members of the faculty, from diverse disciplinary backgrounds, to participate in these collaborative and intellectually stimulating workshops. To participate it is mandatory to fill in our consent form (link below) before attending your first workshop.
  • IDEA CONTRIBUTOR – If you can’t attend one or more of our workshops you can also send us your comments or think pieces by emailing stnvtbo@ucl.ac.uk. To take part in this way, you will also need to fill in the consent form (link below) so we can receive your permission to use the content you provided in discussions and publications.
  • SPECTATOR – If you don’t have capacity to attend the workshops or get involved in running the project, but you are interested in its development and findings, make sure to sign up to our newsletter for monthly progress reports, by emailing stnvtbo@ucl.ac.uk.

To participate…

  • Put your name down by registering to attend one of our workshops or ask to take part by emailing stnvtbo@ucl.ac.uk.
  • Fill in the mandatory CONSENT FORM before attending your first workshop. You only need to fill in the form once. Carefully read the information under each section as it is important for you to know how we plan on using your details and the information you provide.

Inspired by our project? Not able to join us for our workshops discussions? Send us your thoughts and comments in a short think piece and we may incorporate them in our discussions and final report. 

Taking part

Project timeline

Schedule of Project and Workshops

**Please note the revised timeline**

Sign up to attend one or more of the following workshops following the respective registration links below. You can also add your comments or think pieces by emailing stnvtbo@ucl.ac.uk.

Remaining Workshops:

  • Fri, 1 Oct, 10am-12pm: 4th WorkshopAims and learning outcomes in education (including a discussion on types of curriculum and role of assessment) – Registration link for the 4th Workshop.
  • Date TBC 5th & FINAL WorkshopRe-designing education, not retrofitting (including the opportunity cost of including or excluding aspects of education and highlighting tensions between system components). This will also be a wrap-up of our project and a short presentation will be included to review all themes covered in the previous sessions – Registration link for the FINAL Workshop (coming soon).

Previous workshops

  • Thu, 3 June, 10am-12pm: LAUNCH WorkshopPresentation of project scope and concepts (including sandbox approach & systems thinking theories).
  • Thu, 24 June, 10am-12pm: 2nd Workshop – ‘Purpose’ in designing an Educational System (including the role of school in contemporary society and stakeholder analysis).
  • Thu, 22 July, 10am-12pm: 3rd WorkshopChild-centrism (their needs; internal & external factors to the learning process, etc), personalised education trends and chaos theory applied to education.

We’ve also prepared an FAQ page with queries raised during our discussions. We will be expanding the list as more queries come in.