Design Thinking and Vocational Exploration

Sometimes we try too hard to make vocational exploration fit into our curriculum. Or we easily assume that it does not have a natural place within our particular discipline. But I would encourage us to look again. For me, the right fit was hiding in plain sight as the solution to a challenging situation.

Several weeks before the end of last year’s fall semester, I found myself with a drastic change to my spring teaching schedule. I would be teaching a course, Social Design, I had never taught before. My colleague on sabbatical had not left any materials for guidance; I would need to start from scratch.

In thinking about how to approach the course, I considered the allotted time frame and my ongoing commitments. I would not have time to over prepare (my usual M.O.). I would need to use a ready-made framework for the semester. I decided upon Design Thinking, a clearly articulated process—empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test, and implement—that identifies a problem and allows for solutions to emerge out of people’s needs and concerns. The framework aligned well with the course, where students develop a significant design project that responds to a social issue. Their finished projects should be a solid addition to their professional portfolios, while incorporating the social justice aspect of the university’s mission and Holy Cross heritage.

Even with the Design Thinking framework for my class, I still had to figure out how students would pick a social issue. In design, the subject area is usually defined by a client, and I easily could have justified assigning students a social issue. However, I knew the student’s engagement would be higher if it was an issue they cared about.

Then it hit me. Vocational exploration would be a natural fit for Social Design, particularly if we looked through the lens of Frederick Buechner’s articulation: “Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” In the class, we assumed that “deep gladness,” in part, included the students’ love of design. But what “deep need” moved them?

Diagram of Design Thinking framework with the added vocational exploration phases. Graphic adapted by author from original, created by Carola Macarilla, under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 license.

I created and inserted an “Identify” phase prior to the Design Thinking process, in which they explored aspects about themselves and the communities or issues they were involved in or challenged by. This discernment process “primed the pump,” leading them to a space where they could determine who they needed to listen to and what they needed to ask in Design Thinking’s “Empathize” phase. For instance, I had students who were deeply involved in interfaith service work, several who connected with the LGBTQIA community, one who felt compelled by food justice, and another who wanted to serve families dealing with drug addiction. Students created online surveys to hear from those communities and also interviewed experts so their work in the “Define” phase was informed by more than their own opinions.

During the “Ideate” phase, students explored multiple creative solutions to the community problems, and they developed one solution more thoroughly in the “Prototype” phase.

In the “Test” phase, they returned to the people with whom they had originally engaged and asked for feedback on their prototypes. The feedback was incorporated into their final products for the “Implement” phase.

To capitalize on the vocational exploration in the “Identify” pre-phase at the beginning, I appended a final “Reflect” phase where I asked students to consider the entire process and to write about what they had learned, both about themselves and how they might be called into the future as a result.

Card sort activity in class where students determined what was important. Image by author.

I have to admit, the reflections were not brilliant. But the projects, in most cases, were powerful. I had several students who took on issues that came from deep personal childhood trauma; the process and end product were redemptive in powerful ways. I had several students who produced work which far exceeded their previous projects in both skill and content. The whole semester was electrifying for me and affirmed my own vocation as a teacher and mentor.

Here are some of the key things I learned which I offer as take-aways. First, sometimes a simple approach to incorporating vocational exploration works. You can: 

  • Take a project where students can choose their own subject matter and use vocational exploration as the way students identify the subject matter.
  • Choose a specialty within your discipline that closely aligns with the themes of vocation and structure learning around the similarities and overlaps with students.
  • Share vocational stories from luminaries in your discipline. You might even share your own vocational journey.

Second: the amount of instruction time devoted to vocation can be minimal and still give significant returns. I spent less than a week total focusing on vocation—my story, a lecture, a few in-class activities, and reflection prompts spread throughout the semester.

Finally, don’t forget to pay attention to your own vocational journey in the midst of challenges. It doesn’t have to be a class you’re called to create at the last minute. I think most of us get thrown at least one major curve-ball each semester. Unexpected challenges can be opportunities for us to hear and live out our own callings on a deeper level.


Kim Garza is an Associate Professor of Graphic Design and the Faculty Director of the Quality Enhancement Plan at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. Her academic interests focus on the intersection of user experience design, digital humanities, and social justice, while her teaching approach, program development, and non-profit engagements center around mentorship and vocational exploration. She was a member of the 2018 cohort of NetVUE’s Teaching Vocational Exploration seminar.

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