Ever since Harvard Graduate School of Design professor Peter Rowe published Design Thinking in 1987, the concept of design thinking has been gaining momentum. With the establishment of the D. School at Stanford University in 2005, design thinking received a new surge of attention (and no small amount of critical skepticism) from an array of professionals ranging from slick designers and entrepreneurially minded businesspeople to savvy artists and innovation-driven educators. In the documentary film Design and Thinking, director Mu-Ming Tsai weaves together insights from some of design thinking's most highly respected luminaries, up-and-comers, and outsiders to provide viewers with an engaging portrait of this relatively young approach to thinking, making, and inventing.

Though not specifically geared toward educators, Design and Thinking does a good job at illustrating both the learning and doing of design thinking and serves as an excellent primer for schools or afterschool programs interested in establishing design thinking curricula. Structured around a series of talking heads interlaced with action shots of students and professionals working in a variety of design environments, the film begins with an exploration of design thinking's meaning, origins, and purposes in our contemporary economy. Many big names in the field take stabs at defining design thinking for the viewer, including IDEO's Tim Brown, who defines the term as “applying the methodologies and approaches of design and designers to a broader set of issues and problems in business and society.” Peter Pangaro of cyberneticlifestyles.com describes it as “seeing something we want to be better, and the act of making it better.” Pangaro goes on to illustrate the process behind design thinking: understanding the human needs of the user, brainstorming, prototyping, and then improving on prototypes through constant iteration. John Pittman, VP of corporate strategy at Autodesk, notes “how designers work, think, and are educated … to think … about systems and how systems relate.” Stanford D. School founder David Kelley further emphasizes the importance of actively collaborating with individuals from multiple disciplines to solve problems that do not neatly fall into one or another discipline.

The iterative nature of rapid prototyping is referenced repeatedly through- out the film. In this regard, Alex Osterwalder, coauthor of Business Model Generation (Wiley, 2010), highlights the importance of “prototyping, testing, failing all the time, but failing quickly and cheaply in order to succeed.” This, Osterwalder and others note, is much different from the traditional business model of putting a lot of resources into one rigidly structured idea. Jennifer Palhka, the founder of Code for America, likewise emphasizes the importance of going live with beta products that become consistently improved by user feedback. Palhka and others note that the put-it-out-there-and-see-what-happens nature of design thinking is scary for many corporations and governmental organizations. It is this fear that limits the impact of traditionally minded individuals and institutions—who become quickly outfoxed by innovative designers comfortable with launching beta versions of nascent ideas.

Despite pushing back on big business by poking fun at rigid and risk-averse traditional approaches to product development, Design and Thinking (like design thinking itself) can often feel too slick and uncomfortably corporate in its focus on product-driven innovation—especially for educators, who may be more interested in the potential to leverage design thinking to enhance teaching and learning. To attend to this, the filmmakers attempt to humanize the many faces and places of design thinking by bringing an aspect of quirkiness and playful humor to the documentary. A standout moment in the film is a segment at New Deal Design wherein founder Gadi Amit, wearing a purple T-shirt with the words “I Make Stuff Up,” casually holds what appears to be a Big Foot action figure and leads a team of young design students through the process of redesigning a parking meter. Viewers are carried through the design thinking experience, starting with a lively up-on-your-feet brainstorming session and ending with a prototyping activity where the fledgling designers use band saws and other woodworking tools to make Styrofoam models of their ideas.

Another highlight of the film that educators may find potentially useful is seeing a variety of design thinking spaces in action. These include workshop spaces at the D. School as well as a host of Bay Area organizations that range from custom bicycle shops and experimental kitchens to film sets and social entrepreneurship coworking environments. Perhaps the most interesting design thinking space the film explores is the office of Jump Associates, which cofounder Udaya Patnaik describes as an organization dedicated to helping clients “solve ambiguous problems around growth.” Within this space Patnaik introduces viewers to several themed rooms where designers frequently meet to hash out ideas. Among them is the “Zen room,” a space designed to look like a private dining room in the back of a Japanese restaurant. In the Zen room, pillows are arranged around a low-lying table that features a neat stack of Post-it Notes and highlighters where one would expect a bottle of soy sauce to be. Another curious Jump Associates space features a row of retro diner booths. Here designers can reach out and grab napkins to write down their ideas in the midst of heated brainstorming discussions. Throughout the tour of his organization, Patnaik emphasizes the relationship between seating and one's perspective, concluding the segment while holding a fitness ball in a conference room: “It's hard to take yourself too seriously when you're sitting on a big purple ball,” he says, “and so much of coming up with great ideas is really about giving yourself the freedom to think crazy. To think wild, to not be constrained by what exists.”

Although Design and Thinking successfully provides an inside view of design thinking, it does have some shortcomings. The opening of the film, which starts with shots of Occupy Wall Street and chants of “we are the 99 percent,” immediately sets an off-putting political tone. The political vibe quickly falls into the background, but it does leave an activist-oriented impression that is both confusing and unnecessary for the film's purposes. Additionally, though the filmmakers provide headings as signposts that alert the viewer to narrative transitions, many of these headings—such as “Referred Pain,” “The Twilight Zone,” and “The Platypus”—are not clear in how they group content. And while it is enlightening to hear from so many design thinking professionals, fewer talking heads and more design thinking in action would have had greater impact for viewers—such as educators—seeking more concrete examples of the design thinking process.

Ultimately, Design and Thinking helps to shed a new ray of light on design thinking for those interested in bringing the concept into their classrooms. While the film excels at outlining the core principles of design thinking—as well as the wide range of environments where design thinking education and practice take place—establishing structured design thinking curricula for students remains a challenge viewers will have to invent for themselves.