Design Thinking and Storytelling

Design Thinking and Storytelling

Design thinking is a methodology for solving problems that focuses on asking questions and listening, with empathy, to the needs of individuals and groups. Storytelling is an “essential human activity” for sharing experiences, explaining values, and deciding on solutions through vivid verbal and visual accounts. Can design thinking and storytelling contribute to the research on first generation/low-income students? I believe so and want to share some thoughts that combine these two approaches.

Storytelling helps explain the interconnections among people in situations and settings, teaching broad lessons that engage real human beings. Listening engages people; and  empathy is an essential and fundamental component in the process.

Storytelling is the essential human activity. The harder the situation, the more essential it is. –Tim O”Brien, writer

Stories generate questions and questions expand the breadth and depth of stories, leading to lots of innovative thoughts and ideas. Storytelling becomes an important tool for feedback, which is the basis of the iterative process of prototyping that lead to solutions. Stories and prototypes are intertwined, explaining and repositioning experiences through a multitude of potential interpretations, which allow researchers to test new solutions before committing exclusively to a particular policy, program, or service.

Stories engage, allowing for multiple interpretations

Stories engage people and aid researchers in identifying patterns and trends

Stories take on a variety of forms: digital storytelling, visual storytelling, storyboards, scenario generation, storytelling through videos, skits or plays, animation, talk and image, text or image. These forms open up possibilities for many analytical approaches including, thematic, content, discourse (use of language), and structural. The trends and patterns derived from these analyses, in turn, form the bases of additional qualitative and quantitative data collection that value human needs as the authentic foundation of research-based challenges, opportunities and solutions.

Storytelling provides content for the design thinking approach

Storytelling provides content for the design thinking approach

I have already applied design thinking methodology to understand elements that lead to success in higher education among first generation and low-income students. Listening to and empathizing with their needs, I gained enormous insights into the types of support services and mentoring first gens feel will help them navigate the academic and social challenges they face from the time they complete high school throughout college. Anxiety and bewilderment are patterns of behavior I found among first generation low-income students when they share stories about their first encounter with campus culture. Many feel like outsiders, confused by the academy’s social and academic expectations.

The social isolation, low self-confidence, and academic paralysis generated by these feelings seem to melt away among first generation/low-income students who study abroad. Why? What happens when they and their middle- and upper-middle class peers travel to countries and experience unfamiliar cultures and languages? Reports document changes in behavior among first generation/low-income students: an increase in confidence, self-efficacy, openness, perceptual acuity, resilience — general effectiveness in cross-cultural situations.

Are these trends anecdotal or are we really on to something? Does study abroad add value to the college experience of first generation/low-income students in ways that are fundamentally different from their middle- and upper-middle class peers? I will interview first generation/low-income students who have studied abroad and capture their stories. I believe that listening with empathy is the first step toward explaining these unexplained transformations.







Karen Collias

My name is Karen Collias and I founded Knowledge Without Borders™ to infuse creativity and innovation into the most salient educational issues affecting global contemporary society. I attribute my enthusiasm to cross the borders of traditional knowledge domains to the multi-disciplinary nature of my education and professional experience. The first in my family to go to college, I have a Ph.D. from Columbia University. My professional experience focuses on interdisciplinary research, teaching, and strategic thinking at a variety of institutions, including Princeton University, the Smithsonian Institution, and the U.S. Department of State. I currently am crossing borders to write about creativity and innovation in education and philanthropy.



  • Anna April 11, at 14:31

    I believe that studying abroad has enormous benefits for all students, however it seems that many first generation students have less opportunities to be exposed to cross-cultural experiences such as study abroad, and that therefore not only could it have a more penetrating impact, but they may value the experience to a larger degree than other students, and be more mindful and reflective on what they are experiencing. Using storytelling as a tool for reflection is also important, since mindfulness and conscientiousness of the meaning of an experience allows an individual to gain more insight from that experience.


Post Reply