Design Thinking: Providing Opportunity for Underserved Communities within the Design Discipline

Presented by: Jessica Walton

Motivation A study published by the Southern Education Foundation in January 2015 found 39 percent of Virginia public school students in 2013 came from low income families. A policy brief from The Working Poor Families Project states that of the 24 million children from low income families across the country, over half are of racial or ethnic minorities. Additionally, research complied by the Americans for the Arts, found that these underserved communities are provided less access to arts education. In 2008, African American and Hispanic students who had received any level of arts education was 26.2 and 28.2 percent, respectively. Comparatively, white students received arts instruction at more than double the rate, 57.9 percent. Problem Arts education has been shown to help at-risk communities develop more engaged students (Creedon, 2011). Through in school or community based programs, urban youth in low income communities are taught to be more aware of their social, political and community impact when they engage with the arts. (Lin, 2013). Arts programs serve as an important stepping stone for exploring careers in design, which typically lack diversity. Students of color enroll in art and design school in lower numbers than their white peers, while they enroll in high numbers across other disciplines. The 2014-2015 Common Data Set from the Pratt Institute reveals 18 black students and 229 white first-time first year students. Additionally, the Rhode Island School of Design’s 2014 Fact Book lists 129 white faculty and 4 black and Hispanic faculty. Design should address multiple experiences, yet it draws primarily from the dominant culture. Much like arts education, design thinking teaches key skills that transfer to a variety of situations beyond design. These skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, interpersonal relationships, risk-taking and the ability to communicate with peers and laymen, are critical to navigating the real world. Programs that aim to teach design thinking to low income communities of color will provide student’s skills that will benefit them in many careers and aid them in complex problem solving. Additionally, these programs will expose underserved communities to new opportunities, potentially answering the need for greater diversity in design. Methods Numerous case studies and literature reviews make an argument supporting the belief that students benefit in many ways from arts education and design thinking. Reviewing statistics on the availability of arts programs in public schools further proves the importance of these programs. Interviews and peer reviewed writings address the importance of diversity within design and the means of achieving greater representation for marginalized designers. Results “African-Americans are approximately 13.5% of the nation’s population…The number of black registered architects who are members of the American Institute of Architects currently is barely 1%” (Travis, 2010). Architects, designers and educators such as Jack Travis explain that within design there is a lack of representation which creates tension between white peers who struggle to engage in conversations of representation. There are very few initiatives within the design community to engage in this topic or encourage different voices to join the profession. The implementation of arts education and design thinking gives students critical skills for navigating complex problems, managing stress and anxiety as well as developing interpersonal skills. Students with these skills are more engaged in the learning process (Razzouk & Shute, 2012). Conclusions Students who develop design thinking skills become more engaged in the education and creative processes. They have more positive conflict management and communication skills, which influence their interactions in other situations outside these programs.


  • Creedon, D. (2011, March 1). Fight the Stress of Urban Education with the Arts. Kappan Magazine, 34-36.
  • Lin, C., & Bruce, B. (2013). Engaging Youth in Underserved Communities Through Digital Mediated Arts Learning Experiences for Community Inquiry. Studies in Art Education: A Journal of Issues and Research, 54(4), 335-348.
  • Razzouk, R., & Shute, V. (2012). What Is Design Thinking and Why Is It Important? Review of Educational Research, 82(3), 330-348. doi:10.3102/0034654312457429
  • Travis, J. (2010). Black Culture in Interior Design- Hidden in Plain View: Ten Principles of Black Space Design for Creating Interiors. In The State of the Interior Design Profession (pp. 317-325). New York: Fairchild Books.
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