Rethinking a design thinking workshop for good

Design the Future is a two-week long summer program that immerses high school students in design thinking, encouraging them to use design to solve real world problems. By building products that solve challenges for people living with disabilities, students get hands-on design experience while making a positive impact.

For the past six years, program creator Durrell Coleman has partnered with institutions like the Stanford and Boston University to run in-person workshops across the U.S. During each session, four high school students pair up with a university coach and a project partner—someone who shares the unique challenges they face living with a disability. In turn, the students design solutions to those obstacles through the lens of their project partner’s perspective.

Over the last two summers, the in-person format wasn’t an option. So, Coleman and the Design the Future team set out to rethink the approach for an all-remote environment.

Finding the right collaborative tool

Knowing that the program would require eight hours of online collaboration each day, avoiding Zoom fatigue was top of mind. For this to work, the Design the Future team had to find a tool that was easy, intuitive, and one that students genuinely enjoyed using.

First, the team tested Figma because it had all of the features Coleman needed to create workspaces for student activities. But, it would be tough for the students to spin up on Figma, given the short duration of the workshop. Instead, they transitioned to Figma’s online whiteboard, FigJam. FigJam was quick for students to pick up, allowed for interactivity in the file, and Coleman could copy and paste the templates he already made in Figma straight into FigJam.

“FigJam was a game changer for us. We were able to get over 100 students working collaboratively as a group and in small teams to share ideas and design apps that truly made a difference for people with disabilities.”

Durrell Coleman

Organizing with team whiteboards

The program is centered on the design process, from start (gathering requirements, gaining empathy for their user) to finish (a shippable app that solves their user’s needs). There are a number of steps in the design process that require different altitudes of feedback; learning how to manage and incorporate input along the way is central to the program’s teachings.

That’s why Coleman created one ultimate FigJam team whiteboard to guide students through the process. After building designs in Figma, he migrated them into FigJam to serve as templates. These designs acted as an activity worksheet for every step in the process, offering structure for students, while still giving them an open space for freeform iteration and collaboration.

FigJam was the single source of truth for the students and their teams

Creating community

Beyond learning valuable skills, Coleman wanted students to have fun and connect with one another. To that end, he turned FigJam into a shared activity space. Between project work, students got to know each other in larger groups through various icebreakers and collaborative activities. From sharing their hometown on a map to the "30 circles" challenge popularized by IDEO, these activities enabled FigJam to become a virtual lunchroom.

A snapshot of the "30 circles" challenge the team did in FigJam

The greatest lesson? Empathy.

While Coleman was initially concerned about adjusting to a remote format, the virtual-first approach resulted in a more open and inclusive workshop—the team welcomed more students, allowing participants to join from anywhere in the country. As tenth-grader Analisa put it, “I really like that we get to use something that we are passionate about or interested in (STEM) to help make a change in someone's life… I got to work with people from different backgrounds and perspectives…” While the program was rooted in design, the students, coaches, and project partners ultimately learned something more important—a greater understanding for each other.

Learn more about Design the Future and check out the students' final presentations!