'Design thinking' is being fostered in children

Organisations in Singapore and around the world are increasingly offering workshops to nurture design thinking in children and encourage creative solutions to global problems

At a workshop last year, 30 children were asked how they would get people to exercise more.

Make home owners run on treadmills to power up the television. Build narrower lift doors so those with wider girths are forced to slim down to get in.

These suggestions, wacky or politically incorrect as they are, came from participants aged eight to 14, who had brainstormed in smaller groups and interviewed people to find out what stopped them from exercising.

The session was run by Thinkroom, a Singapore company that hopes to inculcate design thinking in children. Its process follows these steps: address a problem starting with empathy; create and consider various options; pick a solution and refine it; and then execute it.

Design thinking, a phrase which was popularised in the 1990s to sum up the creative strategies designers use, has now grown into a global movement.

Often, design is still associated as a downstream step in innovation - that is, a product has already been been created and designers are brought on to make it more aesthetically pleasing or more marketable by good advertising.


In Singapore, companies with design-related workshops for children include Thinkroom, Happiness Makers and As Many Minds (above). PHOTO: AS MANY MINDS 

But proponents of design thinking believe that it is better to think like a designer at the idea stage. So, from the start, people figure out creative solutions which meet people's needs in an empathetic and technologically feasible way.

Design thinking has gone mainstream, being applied in various sectors such as education, business and healthcare.

In Singapore, inculcating design thinking is one of the broad directives in the Design 2025 Masterplan released last year. This comprises 15 recommendations by a government-appointed committee to promote the country as a "thriving innovation-driven economy and a lovable city by design".

An outline was included for developing design-thinking skills in the young. For example, the committee suggested that pre-schoolers get a headstart learning about good design through hands-on play and exploring their environment.

Various companies, some before the masterplan was released, have been holding design-related workshops for children. These include Thinkroom, As Many Minds and Happiness Makers, which introduce children to techniques such as self- directed inquiry and brainstorming with a team.

The National Design Centre in Middle Road, the headquarters of DesignSingapore Council, the national agency for design, has hosted several programmes for children, including a Junior Maker Programme, where they engaged in activities such as leather-crafting and making a lightsaber.


In Singapore, companies with design-related workshops for children include Thinkroom, Happiness Makers (above) and As Many Minds. PHOTO: HAPPINESS MAKERS 

The council's executive director Agnes Kwek says: "Problem-solving in a complex world calls for empathy, innovation and collaboration - attributes that cannot be automated."

These providers say design thinking is not just an extracurricular activity, but a critical skill for the future.

Ms Sindu Sreebhavan, 42, who founded As Many Minds in 2012 and has a background in management consulting, says the movement will pick up steam in the near future, especially as more people lose their jobs to robots and computers.

"In the past, the industrial economy needed people who are good at doing routine factory work. It's a different era now, where the number of jobs and opportunities is limited," she says. "To solve the world's existing problems, we need people who can come up with out-of-the-box ideas, work collaboratively and act with initiative."

Since the 1960s, architects, designers, engineers and academics have conducted studies about the methods and processes of innovation commonplace in the design field.

In the 1990s, Ideo, a global design firm in California founded in 1991, began pushing the idea that thinking like a designer changes the way organisations develop products and strategies. It is behind the design of some of the most iconic products of the last two decades, including the first Apple mouse.

But even as design thinking makes its way into common parlance, many still assume it means creating beautiful objects.

Mr Felix Fong, 46, chief executive at APT811 Design and Innovation Agency, which started Thinkroom about three years ago, says: "Design is not only just art and aesthetics. For decades now, designers have been using design thinking to come up with solutions to problems."

APT811's operations director Seow Zhi Hao, 28, adds that because the concepts in design thinking are structured clearly, even non-designers can understand how designers work.

Thinkroom, which conducts workshops for children aged eight to 14 and charges $150 for a full-day session, holds about four sessions a year. Each can have up to 60 local children - a change from three years ago when the workshops were conducted for visiting children from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Thinkroom is the Singapore partner of another design thinking business in China.

Happiness Makers, which holds ad-hoc classes, had seven workshops last year, including a class for 100 pupils from a primary school here.

Owner Ryan Han, 34, who works full time as a customer experience specialist and designer as part of the innovation group at a bank, says business has picked up via word-of-mouth. He adds: "Children are taught in schools that there's only one right answer. But with design thinking, they learn that there are multiple ways to solve a problem."

Mrs Charu Mehrotra, 38, director of a start-up company, sent her son Param to a "Make and Speak" camp by As Many Minds about two years ago and still sees the benefits.

The theme of the two-day session at the Science Centre Singapore was about the environment. Param and his group wanted to find a solution to water pollution. They even built a robot prototype to pick up rubbish.

Mrs Mehrotra says Param, now 12, has picked up a sense of initiative. For example, he created a website to share ideas on various projects. She adds: "I didn't know what design thinking was when I signed him up. I expected the kids to be watching science experiments, but the camp was serious about teaching them to solve problems creatively."


Building on collaboration in Finland


Arkki School of Architecture for Children and Youth (above) offers architectural and environmental education for the young. One of its co-founders is architect Pihla Meskanen and architecture educator Niina Hunmelin works with her. PHOTO: ARKKI, GIN TAY FOR THE STRAITS TIMES 

In Finland, children get to be little architects.

In a workshop called Sweet Architecture, they use candy and cocktail sticks to build 3D geometric shapes.

The class is run by Arkki School of Architecture for Children and Youth, which was founded by three architects in 1993.

They set up the school to provide architectural and environmental education for children and youth aged between four and 19.

Today, Arkki has more than 30 modules and 300 projects and works with schools to conduct workshops and to create after-school and summer programmes.

The courses are centred on architecture, a discipline which "blends science, technology, engineering, mathematics and arts", says Ms Pihla Meskanen, 47, one of Arkki's founding members and its director.


Arkki School of Architecture for Children and Youth offers architectural and environmental education for the young. One of its co-founders is architect Pihla Meskanen (left) and architecture educator Niina Hunmelin (right) works with her. PHOTO: ARKKI, GIN TAY FOR THE STRAITS TIMES 

For example, Hut Building courses take children to the outskirts of Helsinki to learn about people from different cultures who live in huts and use tools to erect shelters which they have designed.

She says: "Learning about architecture helps children understand that everything (from creativity to solving problems) is related."

It is important to start young to tap the children's imagination before they go to school.

"School systems suppress creativity," she says. "As children grow up, the challenge is to keep that creative nature in them."

She is in Singapore this week for a series of events. She made a speech on Thursday at the Designing Future Education 2017, an education seminar, and conducted Sweet Architecture workshops for children yesterday.

In Finland, Arkki's programmes have become prominent enough for urban planners to involve their students in city plans for Hernesaari, a 32ha area in the south of Helsinki.

Their students submitted their proposal, which went up against concepts by three architecture consultants and one by local residents.

Ms Niina Hunmelin, 51, an architecture educator with Arkki, says: "Working on these projects, the children learn that architecture is always a collaboration and nothing can be designed without other partners."


Kids have free rein in Swedish design lab


The adults at Design Lab S in Sweden help children realise their ideas. PHOTO: EMILIA BERGMARK-JIMENEZ

Businesses that hire Design Lab S for a project might find a nine-year-old calling the shots. The Swedish design studio in Skarholmen, a suburban district in south-western Stockholm, is helmed by children aged between nine and 15.

Run as a free after-school programme out of an old school building, it sees about 40 children regularly popping into the studio weekly to work on projects. These include building a pushcart with slot holders for items or constructing a flag pole with flags that can be folded into a bag.

There are six to eight classes each week. While the programmes are run by professional designers, the children decide how the classes go. Parents are not allowed in the studio.

Design Lab S was started in 2013 by Mr Samir Alj Falt, who wanted to work with children in the neighbourhood that he grew up in.

The 43-year-old, who is artistic director of Design Lab S and a well-known designer with his own practice, says: "The design process here is much closer to the way children play. It's not focused on results and they don't think too much about what they are making. They go with whatever they are feeling."

Projects are never specifically defined and the word "design" is taboo, says Mr Samir, so children will not design a product that is similar to what they know.

When The Straits Times visited Design Lab S earlier this year, the space was filled with art materials, building tools and paint-streaked work tables. Creations by the kids, such as a wooden human head with foam ears and eyes, and table lamps with colourful yarn wrapped around the frames, are on proud display.

Last year, the children were tasked with setting up a pop-up shop at a mall. There, they sold things such as anxiety, life, love and disappointment. Those who wanted to buy something could not pay for it with money. Instead, a transaction was made by sharing a secret, an idea or a feeling to the store's staff.

Mr Samir says: "The children came up with the ideas themselves. Our role as adults in the studio is not to give them the answers or lecture them. We are their assistants."

Design Lab S is not a hothouse to produce the next star designer, says its managing director Alicia Donat-Magnin, 31. The children learn values such as perseverance and how to sell their ideas. They also become more confident.

Ms Donat-Magnin says: "Design Lab S was not meant to be a social project, but we've seen how it has affected the children. They become stronger individuals, knowing that their ideas can be real things."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 23, 2017, with the headline 'Design for kids'. Print Edition | Subscribe