Design Thinking for Vocation-Related Programming

If you want to help others catch the vision for, create a sustainable program about, or build community around vocational exploration, then seriously consider design thinking as a development framework.

Several years ago, I was tasked with co-leading a vocation initiative tied to the university’s reaccreditation. Although it was a high administrative priority, faculty and staff members saw the initiative as a top-down directive distracting from their day-to-day work. Yet my codirector and I needed to make it happen or there would be dire institutional consequences. We both believed deeply in the transformative power of vocational exploration, but our enthusiasm could only take the project so far. 

You might be in a similar position of leading a university-wide initiative with little faculty or staff buy-in. You may have been tasked with writing a NetVUE Vocation Across the Academy Grant proposal. Or maybe you want to start a grassroots movement to scale up vocational exploration beyond your classroom or small group of like-minded colleagues.

How do you create a vocational exploration program that will be meaningful and sustainable?

The Challenge

Begin by taking into account the realities at your institution. What are the existing priorities and demands on faculty and staff members? How is morale? Everyone might be overwhelmed while working through the challenges of shared governance, trying to align with a strategic plan, doing more with less, and/or facing scrutiny from your accreditation body. You will need to find the sweet spot for your program to garner support and find collaborators.

Next, consider taking the temperature. Do your colleagues know what vocational exploration entails, or are there misconceptions and fears that throw up immediate resistance? When I was working on our vocation initiative, we encountered two challenging mindsets. I teach at a Catholic institution, so many of my colleagues assumed the traditional Catholic definition of vocation—entering into a lifelong commitment to religious life within an order. Others jumped to the conclusion that we would become a vo-tech school for specific trades and lose our connection to the liberal arts. Although these were not our meanings, we needed to acknowledge our colleagues’ concerns and discuss what definition of vocation best fit our community.

While you could forge ahead with your vision and a few conversations with your usual campus partners, you could take a radically different approach: employ design thinking to move forward.

Why Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is a framework for approaching complex problems from a posture of curiosity.

First, in the empathize phase, you listen to those in the ecosystem to hear their perspectives and needs. Second, in the define phase, you analyze what you’ve learned and write a problem statement or set of objectives. Third, in the ideate phase, you generate lots of possible solutions. Fourth, in the prototype phase, you build out one of those solutions so it’s tangible. Fifth, in the test phase, you let people use what you made and find out how it’s working for them. Then, the process starts over again to help adjust and refine the objectives and solution(s).

Graphic representing the iterative nature of design thinking. Created by author.

Design thinking involves a larger group of stakeholders. If you are listening and responding in tangible ways, then everyone feels heard and supported. You’re not merely getting buy-in but are collaboratively creating the program. And a co-created program will be more meaningful to the participants and sustainable over time.

For our vocation initiative, the design thinking framework also gave us ample opportunities to document how we involved the community and tracked improvement for our accreditation body.

Round One

During our first round through the design thinking framework, we focused on developing a plan for the initiative.

  • Empathize — We held listening sessions to learn how faculty and staff defined vocation. Our sessions were also designed to surface any perceived barriers or gaps in our mentoring and advising of students on their vocational journeys.
  • Define — We sorted through notes about the listening sessions to find common themes, which in turn influenced our objectives for the initiative. In this phase, we also identified the “why” behind the initiative that would be a hook as we talked with additional stakeholders.
  • Ideate — We pulled together a representative group of faculty and staff members for a sequence of ideation workshops. We explored how we could meet the defined objectives in our context. The workshops aimed to generate a wealth of options, ranging from simple and easily doable to complex and aspirational. 
  • Prototype — Our planning team sorted through the ideas to rate, organize, and create a cohesive plan for the initiative. The prototype was a document with learning objectives, associated activities, assessment rubrics, timelines, and a budget to guide implementation.
  • Test — We put the plan into action, empowering faculty and staff to embed the activities in their classrooms and programming. Once we had artifacts to review, then assessment played a vital role in the testing phase.

Design thinking helped us articulate shared goals and crowdsource solutions that went far beyond what we as codirectors might have dreamed up. Round one started us off in a solid direction.

Round Two

One of the signature aspects of design thinking is its iterative nature. It’s not enough to complete one round and claim completion or success. We approached round two with a focus on the plan’s details.

  • Empathize — We facilitated departmental workshops to determine which courses and programming were well-aligned with our learning objectives and to identify places where there might be remaining gaps. We also held workshops with faculty members already participating in the initiative to learn how the activities were going and what else they needed for support.  
  • Define — We synthesized what we heard from departments to identify additional opportunities for alignment. We met with each department chair and shared a custom roadmap with our recommendations, documentation of existing alignment, and identification of key partners.
  • Ideate — We assembled affinity groups of faculty and staff members associated with each objective to be our experts. In affinity meetings, the groups generated ideas, shared best practices and resources, and provided guidance on next steps.
  • Prototype — We built out assignments and activities to fill the gaps, better support our faculty and staff members, and/or adapt a great resource for a different discipline. Our development of these prototypes eased the time burden on our partners.
  • Test — Once the new materials were in place, we did new rounds of assessment to determine a plan for continuous improvement.
Departmental workshop to identify how the curriculum aligned with the initiative’s objectives. Image by author.

The design thinking framework allowed us to run action-oriented meetings; each participant knew that their experiences and ideas would be incorporated into the next prototypes. Each successive round got tighter and faster.

The Results

By using design thinking, we were able to plan, implement, sustain, and grow the vocation initiative. A much larger percentage of our students experienced different aspects of vocational exploration than before the initiative. Although it has officially concluded, many aspects remain embedded across the university.

I won’t pretend that design thinking is easy. It is a time-consuming process. Developing and facilitating tailored workshops, creating department-level analyses, writing custom assignments and activities, and assessing initiative artifacts takes an immense amount of time. But our dedication to the design thinking framework opened doors, built trust, and prompted valuable collaborations that have brought lasting value. 

If you want to help others catch the vision for, create a sustainable program about, or build community around vocational exploration, then seriously consider design thinking as a development framework.

If you’re interested in using design thinking in the classroom, check out Design Thinking and Vocational Exploration.

Kim Garza is a professor of design and director of the User Experience Design 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 nonprofit engagements center around mentorship and vocational exploration. She is a NetVUE Faculty Fellow, and was a member of the 2018 cohort of the Faculty Seminar on Teaching Vocational Exploration. For other posts by Kim, click here.

Author: Kim Garza

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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