XXIII.1 January + February 2016
Page: 58
Digital Citation

Future designers: A rollercoaster for the mind

Dimitris Grammenos

P21 is an education advocacy group that focuses on developing appropriate skills in children for 21st-century life. The organization’s Framework for 21st Century Learning states that “a focus on creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration is essential to prepare students for the future” [1]. Additionally, the outcomes of several research efforts worldwide provide evidence that teaching design (thinking) to children has several benefits. Among them: It can leverage their creativity and help them to think in new ways and take risks; it has a positive impact on the ways in which they engage in the learning process; and it boosts their self-confidence.

The Future Designers concept was conceived a year ago, amid the Greek debt crisis, as an “antidote” to its detrimental effects on the minds and souls of young children. The key motivation was to introduce them to an alternative way of thinking, as well as to skills that may enhance their everyday lives and potentially increase their future employment prospects, and consequently their ability to produce economic value. The underlying ambition was to help children discover and acknowledge their capacity to imagine, to create, and to have valuable ideas of their own—not just those taught to them by their teachers—through a memorable, fun intellectual and emotional experience. The title is purposefully ambiguous, as it can be interpreted as both “those who will become designers in the future” and “those who will design the future.” To further reinforce the key concepts and messages, a theatrical play called The Thieves of Dreams was created for the course participants to act out.

Future Designers is a four-hour interactive crash course that aims to introduce primary school children to the concepts and practice of creativity, design, and design thinking. Most existing related efforts follow a project-based approach, where participants are asked to design and prototype a solution to a given problem description. Future Designers takes a more holistic approach, where children are introduced to the broader context of design and its impact on our everyday lives, as well as to the notion and practices of design thinking. The course mixes multiple learning styles and intelligences through diverse teaching and learning approaches and multimodal digital material.

During the past year, the course has been tested and validated in Greece through four pilots: (i) at the facilities of ICS-FORTH, with eight primary school teachers, four post-graduate students and two children; (ii) in a real classroom with 22 children 10 to 12 years old; (iii) in a classroom environment with 25 primary school teachers assuming the role of children; (iv) in a classroom with 17 children (10 years old) and their parents (15 people). Observation and questionnaire evaluation data converge on the fact that the course achieves its original goals and constitutes an engaging and enjoyable experience, as well as a successful means of introducing and provoking creativity and (design) thinking. Despite its length and high mental and physical demands, when it ends, participants report feeling happy, motivated, and full of positive energy. The participating children’s average evaluation score for the course was 9.7/10, while their parent’s was 8.8/10, and both groups unanimously agree that Future Designers works as an effective communication tool and a compelling topic of discussion among children and their parents and friends.


Due to the high success rate and appeal of the course, we are currently planning to introduce it to a much broader audience (also beyond Greece) while “add-on” creative activities are being devised to aid teachers and parents build upon and extend the Future Designers experience.

Future Designers, Step by Step: Approach and Rationale

The course is structured as follows (see Figure 1):

* Introductions

Goal: Create a warm and informal atmosphere.

Approach: Everyone stands in a circle. A ball is tossed around. Receivers have to state their name and favorite food—a piece of information that requires no thinking, is personal but not intimidating, often produces laughter, and can instantly create group connections. Subsequently, children are split into two groups.

* Overview

Goal: Introduce the activity and set some ground rules.

Approach: Children are informed that their active participation, opinions, and ideas are important for successfully running the course. An outline is presented: We will play, travel to the future, dream and imagine, design and create, and—most of all—have fun.

* Team quiz game

Goal: Engage children through game competitiveness.

Approach: Each team receives a bucket. During the session, questions are asked that do not require prior knowledge—just creative and critical thinking. The reward for correct answers is a rubber ball. It’s an effective game for getting the undivided attention of large groups. If it’s handled correctly, during the first 20 to 30 minutes, children are very interested in it, closely following the score, but as they get involved in other activities, they gradually pay less attention, until they totally forget about it.

* Travel to the future (past and present)

Goal: Introduce the notion of the future and the act of envisioning it, but also the fact that anyone is able to do it and that most predictions are far off.

Approach: A discussion starts around the question: What is the future? Subsequently, it is noted that what we now consider to be the present at some point in time was considered the distant future. Images and videos depict how people in the early 1900s envisioned life in 2000. Children are prompted to guess what is shown and express their opinions. After that, they imagine what the year 2050 will be like. When there are no more predictions, images and videos of various state-of-the-art, emerging, and futuristic technologies are presented. This part concludes with the question: Who shapes the future?

* Design and designers

Goal: Introduce the notions of design and designer (as an umbrella term encompassing all creative, innovative persons).

Approach: An agreement is reached through discussion to use the term designers for all people who have the ability to imagine new things and turn them into reality. Everything that exists around us—that was not created by nature—has been designed by someone. Examples of designed items (e.g., chairs, tables, homes) are presented. We emphasize that beyond physical objects, digital applications and services also come from design. Examples of designers from various domains throughout history are introduced, including Daedalus, Archimedes, Gutenberg, da Vinci, Scappi, Shakespeare, Bach, Levi Strauss, Gaudi, Tesla, the Wright brothers, Coco Chanel, the Beatles, and Steve Jobs. The section concludes with the question: Who can become a designer? (The answer is, obviously, everyone!)

* Activity 1 (individual): Designer for a while (The spoon)

Goal: Perform a conscious act of (iterative) design through an easy first step, which is close to the children’s “zone of proximal development”; introduce the concepts of design requirements and design decisions; prove to the children they all have the ability to innovate.

Approach: Children are invited to design a very simple object—a spoon—using colored pens or plasticine (Figure 2). No explicit time limit is set; the facilitator emphasizes that there will be no judgment. When everyone has finished, the facilitator (using his absentmindedness as a playful excuse) introduces, step by step, a number of design requirements (e.g., it was meant to be a teaspoon, cheap but environmentally friendly, for Tinker Bell the tiny fairy). At each step, children are asked to change their design or make a new one. In the end, the facilitator notes the pieces of information used (who, what, why, where, preferences, cost), each yielding a different design decision. He also points out that each child has designed a unique object—although millions of spoons already exist—thus rightfully meriting the title of “designer.”

* Imagination and creativity

Goal: Explain different creativity skills and make children aware of their potential as designers.

Approach: Children discover through question and answer the secret powers of a designer (ability to dream, imagine, create, solve problems, etc.). The concept of creativity is presented and explained, highlighting that creativity is at its peak level at their age and then starts to decline. This is confirmed through “imagination experiments,” For example, strange and funny things are described that children must visualize in their heads.

* Activity 2 (individual): What makes me dream?

Goal: Reinforce the fact that children have the power to dream/imagine; reflect about what may trigger this process and discover additional triggers from peers.

Approach: Children use colored pens and Post-it notes to write and/or paint what makes them dream and imagine. Then, one by one, they stick their note on a cardboard cloud while also reading (or describing) its content (Figure 3).

* Design errors and assessment

Goal: Stress the fact that designs often have faults; introduce the act and mentality of positive critique and constructive assessment.

Approach: Children reform into two groups and are asked to comment on the design flaws of (mainly funny) projected images, also suggesting potential improvements.

* Imagination and fun

Goal: Exercise children’s imagination through stimulating images; provoke creative and humorous ideas; have fun.

Approach: Children are asked to use their imagination to discover the use of strange inventions from the early 1900s through photos and sketches of weird but real patents.

* Prototyping

Goal: Explain that design is an iterative process; introduce the philosophy, approach, and tools for learning through experimentation and (early) failure.

Approach: The concept and process of (rapid) prototyping are introduced, focusing on the importance and gains of “taking ideas out of the head and bringing them into the real world” and showing how this can be achieved with very simple everyday materials. The positive contribution of mistakes in the design process is co-discovered through question and answer.

* Activity 3 (team): The marshmallow challenge

Goal: Collaborate, communicate, and employ creative thinking to solve a predefined problem; practice learning through experimentation, failure, and iterative design.

Approach: The Marshmallow Challenge [2] is used. Children are assigned to teams of three. In 18 minutes, each team must build the tallest freestanding structure out of 20 sticks of spaghetti, two meters of paper tape, 10 pieces of string, and one marshmallow (Figure 4). At the end of the challenge, the facilitator communicates that winning is not as important as thinking creatively and having fun. Each time a team’s structure is measured, everyone applauds—even in the case of failure, as failures should also be celebrated in design.

* Two magical phrases

Goal: Reinforce key values of design thinking.

Approach: Two “magical” phrases that can greatly help a designer get through any difficulty are presented: “I don’t know!” (acknowledging one’s limited knowledge) and “I may be wrong!” (being open-minded and valuing the opinion of others). Children are encouraged to get up and repeatedly shout them in a choir.

* The five uses of a designer’s pillow

Goal: Introduce the iterative design process and provide a related mnemonic aid.

Approach: The facilitator reveals the secret weapon of every designer—his/her pillow—and depicts its five different uses (Figure 5), while children play along with their own pillows:

  1. The designer puts the pillow behind his/her head so that s/he feels comfortable while dreaming and imagining what s/he will create.
  2. When s/he has come up with an idea, s/he puts the pillow behind his/her back and starts looking for related insights and information. This also helps him/her make sure that his/her idea has not already been realized by someone else.
  3. Once enough information is available, the designer puts the pillow on his/her chair and starts specifying how the idea could be transferred from his/her head to the real world.
  4. If s/he manages to come up with one or more designs, s/he strongly hugs the pillow, for: (a) protection, as prototypes sometimes blow up in their creator’s face, (b) comfort, as one may easily become despaired by early failures, and (c) remembering to never giving up on his/her dream. Then s/he creates prototypes and starts testing them. After this phase, usually the designer goes back to phase 2 or 3 to retrieve more information and revisit his/her designs (maybe his/her idea too). Better results are achieved if more than one designer collaborates.
  5. Typically a designer goes through phases 2 to 4 several times, until (if s/he ever) succeeds. Quite often, s/he might let his/her idea go, or put it on hold. But if s/he succeeds, then s/he drops the pillow on the floor, so that it becomes a step that will help him/her reach and realize his/her next dream.

* Activity 4 (team): Inventing for my school

Goal: Collaborate, communicate, and employ creative thinking to select a problem to be solved; devise an innovative solution; present it to peers; constructively assess the work of others.

Approach: This activity is based on the Ready, Set, Design activity [3] of the Smithsonian Design Museum, with two key additions: children are asked to define the problem they want to solve; and the evaluation of the inventions is done by the children—not the facilitator—to allow them reflect on the outcomes of design.

New teams of three or four members are formed (Figure 6). Their first task is to ideate a new invention for their school, according to the following requirements: (i) the invention can be used for any purpose; (ii) it has to be used in their school (it can also be portable); (iii) it may use any kind of existing, future, or imaginative technology; (iv) nothing similar should already exist.

In the first 15 minutes, teams have to fill in an “Invention Declaration Form” comprising five fields: (i) invention name, (ii) role/target use, (iii) users, (iv) place of use, and (v) team members. Then each team receives various simple materials, such as paper plates and cups, balloons, aluminum foil, and rubber bands, but not glue, tape, or scissors. Teams have 25 minutes to build an experimental prototype of their invention (Figure 7). When time is up, each team briefly presents its invention. All other teams evaluate it according to five criteria: name, originality, usefulness, ease of use, and desirability. Evaluation is rated using cardboard sheets depicting one to three light bulbs to stress that even if an idea scores low, it still remains an idea. Evaluators are challenged to justify their score and provide constructive feedback, while the team being evaluated can rebut.

* Future Designer Diplomas award ceremony

Goal: Provide a conclusion to the experience and offer children a tangible reward: (a) empowering their self-confidence, (b) reminding them of the experience and philosophy, and (c) acting as a common reference for forming supporting communities.

Approach: A personal Future Designer Diploma (Figure 8) is awarded to every participant while music plays and children applaud, cheer, and dance. At the end, children toss their pillows in the air.


Future Designers aims to be an experience that broadens one’s thinking—not a lesson. The presented material is not meant to be learned or remembered. Like the fifth use of the designer’s pillow, it is intended as a step to move further ahead. Probably the best short description of the course comes from one of the participating teachers, who exclaimed that “it feels like a rollercoaster for the mind!” The underlying philosophy behind Future Designers can be summed up this way: If at some point in your life you realize that you cannot change the world, the next best thing that you can do is to try to change those who one day may change it—the Future Designers.


I would like to thank Constantine Stephanidis, director of ICS-FORTH and head of the HCI Lab; my colleagues Vanessa, Margherita, Eirini, Eleni, Maria, and Asterios from the HCI Lab for their invaluable help in running the pilots; the participating children, teachers, and parents; and Siddhartha Saravia for giving me permission to use his wonderful illustration.


1. Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21). Framework for 21st Century Learning; http://www.p21.org/our-work/p21-framework

2. The Marshmallow Challenge as originally introduced by Tom Wujec; http://marshmallowchallenge.com

3. Ready, Set, Design activity of the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, Design Museum; http://www.cooperhewitt.org/education/school-programs


Dimitris Grammenos is a principal researcher at the Institute of Computer Science of the Foundation for Research and Technology—Hellas (FORTH). He is the lead interaction designer of the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory. gramenos@ics.forth.gr


F1Figure 1. Course outline.

F2Figure 2. Crafting the spoon.

F3Figure 3. What makes me dream?

F4Figure 4. The marshmallow challenge.

F5Figure 5. The five different uses of a designer’s pillow.

F6Figure 6. Inventing for my school.

F7Figure 7. Some of the children’s inventions.

F8Figure 8. Future Designer Diploma (translated into English). The background illustration, entitled “Childhood Dream,” was created by Siddhartha Saravia and is used with his permission (http://thesong.deviantart.com).

Copyright held by author. Publication rights licensed to ACM.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2016 ACM, Inc.

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