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Design Thinking in Adult Education: A method with potential!

In adult education, the development and design of products and services aiming at the needs of  specific target groups and individual learners is becoming increasingly important. The application of Design Thinking enables a deeper understanding of the problems of one's own customers and can contribute to an improvement of adult education offers. The Erasmus+ project D-LEARNING has produced practice-oriented materials for this purpose.

What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is a proven method for the practical and creative solution of problems with the goal of creating a constructive and sustainable outcome for the future. The use of this user-centred method in adult education institutions enables a deeper understanding of the problems of their own clients.

Design Thinking is useful when:

  • You have a problem/challenge to overcome
  • you have a lack of information
  • You are willing to free yourself from assumptions
  • You want to explore needs in their full dimension.

The goal of Design Thinking is to discover and understand existing needs in order to be able to develop innovative solutions. The process includes methods that enable empathy with people. In the individual steps of the process, a balance between analytical and creative thinking is sought.

Szene aus einem Design Thinking Workshop: Das Team und die Challenge

Why is Design Thinking important for adult education institutions?

In adult education, the development and design of products and services that meet the needs of different specific target groups and individual learners is becoming increasingly important. This includes traditional and digital teaching and learning materials, e-learning environments, learning games or material based on virtual reality. The challenge for educators and decision makers in adult education institutions is to meet these expectations by developing and delivering high quality outcomes.Design Thinking can contribute to a better performance of adult education services in terms of usability, learner acceptance, effectiveness and efficiency. In the longer term, this means a higher degree of sustainability through improved investment in the resources of adult education institutions, and improved investment in quality educational provision for adult learners..

Design Thinking Mindset

The success of a Design Thinking process depends on many factors. These include multidisciplinary teams which allow a multifaceted view of the problem to be solved, and variable spaces as ideas are best realized in a free and flexible working environment. However, in order to successfully initiate a Design Thinking process, an open and creative attitude of all participants is also required:


To create solutions for other people, we have to distance ourselves from our personal assumptions and find out what the individual actually needs, physically and emotionally. Empathy means following in other people's footsteps. When we find out how they feel, think and live, we come much closer to creating solutions that matter.

Playful cooperation

Playing is often contrasted with working. In the culture of Design Thinking, playful collaboration is essential to the process. A playful work culture opens up for creativity. It inspires us to take on new perspectives by activating other parts of our brain.

Creative self-confidence

The term "Creative Confidence" was developed by Tom and David Kelley, two of the founding fathers of Design Thinking ( It deals with the myth that people are born creative or uncreative. Design Thinking promotes different perspectives, abilities and weaknesses. Creative self-confidence literally means being sure of one's perspective and learning to benefit from the diversity of the team.

Failure as an opportunity

Design Thinking is an iterative process. It is not only acceptable to fail and learn from mistakes - it is essential. As you go through the Design Thinking process, you will constantly test and iterate what you have found out. Make failure your own - it will only provide you with more relevant information about how to proceed in the end!

Eine typische Brainstorming Methode im Design Thinking: Der Starfish

Materials and resources for the application of Design Thinking in adult education

In the Erasmus+ project D-LEARNING, materials for the implementation of Design Thinking processes in adult education have been developed, which are provided free of charge as Open Educational Resource (OER):

A Design Thinking Manual supports adult education institutions in integrating Design Thinking into their work in order to solve central problems in a user-oriented way. The handbook describes the entire Design Thinking process, suggests methods to go through the various iterative steps of the process, and concludes with examples from the project partners' practice.

The manual is complemented by a workshop guide that enables lecturers and trainers from adult and continuing education institutions to run through an exemplary Design Thinking process with a team and thus implement the method in their own organization or networks.

The manual and the guide are available in German, English, Italian, Danish, Greek and Macedonian language. The guide also gives advice on how to go through Design Thinking processes under the current conditions of the Covid19 pandemic. Manual and guide can be downloaded from the EPALE Resource Centre.


About the project:

In the Erasmus+ project D-LEARNING (Design Thinking in Adult Learning) organisations from 6 European countries are working together to adapt the method of Design Thinking for adult education institutions. This will enable educators and education managers to optimise the development of high quality learning opportunities and products (such as didactic materials, e-learning environments, learning games and more) from the user's perspective. For more information about the project and the materials please visit

D-LEARNING (Design Thinking in Adult Learning) is a strategic partnership funded by the European Commission within the Erasmus+ programme (Strategic Partnerships in Adult Learning, project number 2018-1-DE02-KA204-005030). This publication reflects the views only of the authors, and the European Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

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Tino Boubaris

About the author:

Tino Boubaris, European project coordinator at the Association of Lower-Saxony Education Initiatives (VNB), is involved in numerous European projects and networks in the area of adult and vocational education. Tino volunteers as Chairman of the Bildungslabor e.V. (Education Lab), developing and implementing innovative projects at the interface between art, culture, and education. Since 2017, he is active as German ambassador for the Electronic Platform for Adult Education in Europe (EPALE).



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