This post was originally published in October 2016 and was updated in July 2019.

Design Thinking is a powerful tool for helping educators design curriculum and develop units, and it can also be a helpful methodology for teaching students skills such as empathy, perseverance, and focus. We recently featured several ways that teachers were able to bring Design Thinking into their classrooms, and what that looks like in Atlas. We asked Peter Wallis, an art teacher at  Sierra Canyon School in California, to share more about one of his Design Thinking units, which has student design and build a “camera obscura”. Below, Peter explains what this process looks like in the classroom, how you can do this activity in your classroom, and what role Design Thinking plays in art.

How do you bring Design Thinking into your classroom?

The Design Thinking process is a rich mindset and practice that students can apply to all aspects of their learning, branching out throughout different subjects and beyond the classroom.  There are several steps to this process—empathy, definition, ideation, prototyping, and testing—that empower students to experiment and explore a design challenge in depth.

One example of Design Thinking is the Camera Obscura, a design-thinking process that is a great way for students to fail forward and follow the iterations, development and history of Camera Obscura.  This is a chance for students to appreciate the shoulders upon which we have stood to develop the modern digital camera.  Providing the concept and only the basic materials, this challenge gives students the chance to collaborate and design a Camera Obscura.

Materials you will need for this activity:

Students learn that by poking a hole in a can, and then magnifying the image with a lens, the image is projected onto a piece of tracing paper on the opposite side of the can (you can see an image demonstrating the process here!).  It is an exciting moment to see this work come together by trying different ideas, and conceptualizing the design of how this will work in stages.

Throughout this challenge there were many iterations and failed designs that did not work.  There is a lot of value in reworking and reconsidering failed designs. Students persevered to create a strong design that worked well and captured the projected image with their phones.  Through those trials and iterations, students were able to build off of what did not work, and then reassess their designs and make changes.  It is the collaborative element that encourages students to look at the work through different perspectives and angles.  To empathize, and to begin to see new ideas through another student’s perspective, are all part of a building process in which the teacher presents the challenge, provides materials and guidance, and lets students determine the outcome of their overall design.

Teachers new to the Design Thinking process should embrace the experimental nature of this work.  It is the growth from mistakes that leads to the strength of a final design, allowing students to take ownership over their work.  It is an opportunity to empower students to be self-directed, and to develop ways of deconstructing a design challenge.  It gives students the tools to navigate their vision.

What does this activity look like in Atlas?

Curious what this unit actually looks like in Atlas? Click on the image below to see Peter’s full camera obscura unit in Atlas!

 Upper School (9-12)
Course: Visual and Preforming Arts, Photography II
Unit: Camera Obscura Design Thinking Challenge

How do your students engage with Design Thinking in art?

Design Thinking is inherently a part of any creative process.   Having students Collaborate, Ideate, Prototype, and test ideas allows students the space and environment to take risks.  It galvanizes a process that can be applied to other aspects of student’s learning.

The Design Thinking process works in small break out groups where ideas are thrown out and discussed. This is the critical step to create a flowchart of sticky note ideas and quick sketches to illuminate thoughts visually. It moves next to prototyping the idea or drawing several different concepts to refine the concept from broad thoughts to specifics. The conceptual work transitions into the step where students generate a material list for elements and ingredients needed for the design. This is an equal collaboration where each student’s voice in the process is valued and built upon. This is the step where students can share the leadership role at different times and play to one another’s talents and strengths during the design-thinking process.

The culmination of all the student’s hard conceptual work is building steam and well considered. The making-step is a rich reward and well-executed process to follow.  When the conceptual phase is well thought out the construction of the work is enjoyed and celebrated.  This is a chance to guess and check work as it comes and continue to as critical questions as the process unfolds. Presenting and testing the work is the final stage and is an opportunity to celebrate the journey with something physical, functional and aesthetic. Refining the design, testing and building upon that process strengthens conceptual skills and approaches in the future.

These steps are the building blocks for all strong work in Art class.  I see student’s growth as critical thinkers as they celebrate the work created.  This process gives students the ability to create disciplined, well considered creative work and develop their own discourse with the steps of design thinking.  It paves the road for students to be successful and raise the bar on projects themselves.


FariaPD supports teachers and leaders around the world with hands-on, active and creative professional development experiences. Join one of our online or in-person professional development events, each designed to support the unique goals of your school or district. FariaPD is part of Faria Education Group, an international education company that provides services and systems for schools around the world including ManageBac, a curriculum-first learning platform, OpenApply, an online admissions service, and Atlas, a tailored curriculum management solution for schools.

Share This