A Recipe to Exceed your Design Thinking Expectations (a story from Mumbai, India)

Ingredients for Design Thinking with Your School:

  • One teacher “spur/cheerleader”
  • One outside “design guru”
  • One teacher “unstoppable force”
  • A pile of middle school kiddos
  • A well-stocked design studio
  • One and only one main goal
  • A pinch of luck

This is the story about how ASB Mumbai middle school students were able to make a mobile library in only one week. This is how a principal with a vision, a few veteran teachers and I as their guest were just the right mix to complete this unusual and meaningful experience alongside 15 middle school students.

Scott called me a few weeks before I traveled to visit his school in Mumbai, India while I was in the Austrian Alps on a ski week holiday, my legs tired from cross country skiing all day. I had never been to India but happened to be a seasoned traveler to schools all over the world. Experience or not, we both needed to be set and ready to build a mobile library out of an old Mumbai rickshaw.

“Did you read the supply list?” He asked me. Scott is a middle school math teacher and well known as a doer, energizer and someone I’d come to describe as a force of nature. “Yes” I told him and that I could think of nothing else we needed to get. “Well, how about a router for shelving?” I asked. We went back and forth about what to get, brackets, wood, screws, paint. Scott and I had now been in contact for months. I was the design thinking import and he was the teacher/construction manager who volunteered to get the job done.

“I want you to touch, smell and evaluate the rickshaw fully with your eyes. What do you notice, what do you wonder?”

The rickshaw — an old, dented, sun baked, streets-of-Mumbai-veteran rickshaw is to be transformed into a mobile library fit for an indoor home within ASB’s middle school. Cheap flower print laminate and impact dents on the bumper suggest both a humble existence and an eventful one. It most certainly was bathed in dust and diesel motor exhaust along the bumpy roads for many years. Take a rickshaw ride in Mumbai, you might find that experience to be a common one.

Mumbai Rickshaw ride, strictly for research 🙂

A full day after landing, I found myself in front of the 15 students who signed up for this week long experience as part of their annual #ASBstudio6 program. When I asked why they had signed up for this studio, I either received a blank stare or “I don’t know” as a response. This is not to say the decision was light because the other studios were very appealing. In fact, we had the most sign ups and became the largest group. Meaning, moments into the week, students were not yet ready to open up to me.

Students Explore the Design Process

Tepid introductions aside, I began talking about the design process, understanding the problem and talking about “User Experience” or UX. Students began to open up when discussing how people use a rickshaw, how riders and drivers use them. “Have you seen people kissing in a rickshaw?” I asked. Students wore a bit of surprise on their faces while Amber, (music teacher and soon-to-be rickshaw ascetics director and spur to student motivation) first looked up from her laptop to get engaged. “Of course you have! You all know you’ve seen kissing!” Lots of giggles around.

“How about the driver and their use of the rickshaw?” I asked students. The most prominent behavior noted by students was that some drivers nap or sleep in their scooters. One student suggested that, “It wasn’t sleep but a bit of napping and they go home to sleep.” Others noted that many are barefoot drivers and that they may be working homeless. This topic is worth diving into for its own project another time, but the moments we did discuss the drivers proves to be very meaningful.

Soon after, we left the classroom to an adjoining space to visit the rickshaw. To touch, smell, listen and to closely evaluate it with our eyes. Two wood bases were installed already from the school’s workshop and instantly students whet far beyond simply touching or looking the craft over. Two students climbed into the rear where passengers sit and drivers sleep. “We can make our own laying space here for reading, with pillows!” exclaimed students. I might not have gone this way but it was clear that our students found the idea attractive and meaningful. This would become a central theme for their mobile library.

Experienced Designers

Returning to the classroom, we immediately began discussing How we traditionally look for books, as an experience. A library or bookstore is usually very well lit and full of shelving that is shallow, floor level to more than two meters generally. Your body is usually standing upright and moves slowly and slightly. Your eves move around to look over the shelving we discussed. I could quickly see an opportunity for my young design crew, so I dived into user experience with them.

How the rickshaw could change the experience of finding a wonderful book became the focus of our exploration. Groups went to their assigned part of the rickshaw tried out, tested, and measured. They measured book heights and sizes. They measured how far they could reach and they explored how would lean into the rickshaw, bending their bodies this way and that. They climbed in and out, talked, laughed and goofed around just as their peers would soon do with their completed craft.

Their main decisions in this project centered around how the mobile library would be used. The thoughtfulness and “design empathy” as an understanding of their design problem seemed to happen in an hourly cycle of iterations as I dialogued with different groups throughout each day. Their final product does demonstrate a variety of new experiences.

Electric Saws, Drills ans Oil Paint

Motivated teacher leaders are a must. Scott and Amber both had the determination and skill to place trust in the students along with their high expectations. In this way, students were absolutely given a chance to do new and exciting work. When else would these young teens be allowed to cut, drill and hammer their way into a vehicle? This teaching duo was central to all progress made on the project, let alone being responsible for the success. I give 100% credit to these two.

Carefully train and trust students with the tools of your workshop. Watch them and support them carefully. With a few moments of training and a quick demo, individual students were ready to handle skill saws, drills, bandsaws, swing hammers and more. It had the feel of a shop class at times with an unusually large group project. “Keep, your fingers away,” “the drill will grab the wood quickly, be careful,” “you will feel the power the instant you start it.” My nerves get going every time I plug in equipment with students, this project was not an exception.

Objectivity vs. Subjectivity


The objective design process was the seed of their design, considering in their heads and then through sketching. Then the work placed them into the subjective experience while working. Through this subjective experience, these student designers were making micro decisions continuously, rethinking; cuts, colors, spaces and functions out of the view of adults and along with myself and their teachers. The materials at hand made their designs real even as the design was changing because of the learning they did with their materials.


Occasionally standing back for objectivity was needed. Instinctively, students would take a few steps back between every action and silently consider their progress or chat with a teammate. Sometimes, they were pleased with their work, other times they weren’t and sought out help.

One example came when two girls noticed that their shelf wasn’t sturdy through their subjective play and it appeared to be crooked when they stepped back for an objective viewpoint. Sadly, they asked me if they could start over the next day. While I didn’t think starting from scratch was necessary, I pledged my support the following morning to give them a chance to rebuild it. The next morning, the pair was able to make the changes discovered by their carefully considered viewpoints and observations. It’s hard to be more proud than that.

Evaluating our own Objectivity and Subjectivity through the whole process was central to our work.

Subjectively working gave this student and her team perspective to their lighting design as it was installed.

It’s All So Much Hard Work

A sixth grader noted after an hour or so of painting how hard “hard work” actually was. Yes, students, teachers and I left each day that week rather tired. The cooperating teachers and I often exclaimed, “feels good, right?!” along with other bits of praise and encouragement. Students smiled and agreed, proud of their efforts as they headed out each evening for a restorative rest, safe at home.

One of my final interactions with the student crew was with a young boy who proudly told me he would have a friend for a sleepover that night to kick off their spring break. He would be up all night playing video games, he smiled telling me of his plans. “Of course I will spend lots of time telling him about the mobile library and how we changed the experience of finding a good book.”

Jim Ellis is the author of this blog and a school consultant working on design problems and facilitation. @skhooldesign


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