Design Emergency

Object: Australian Design Centre
Member Organisation:

About the project

Creating a generation of design thinkers

Design Emergency is an outreach-learning program that introduces students of all ages to design, and design thinking skills. The program helps students understand the way designers work and equips them with the same tools to help them improve the lives of their family, school and wider community. The program provides opportunities to work with designers and for students to engage with challenges that are relevant and exciting to them.

Design Emergency is a program that demonstrates how design can effect positive change in the world. By equipping children with creative problem solving skills, giving them confidence to take risks and enabling them to seize opportunities, Design Emergency draws on children’s extraordinary capabilities for innovation.

Design Emergency online supports learning in the classroom and at home by offering information about Australian and international designers and a selection of stories about design suitable for children as young as kindergarten. Teachers will find notes, units of work and other resources to assist in running the program.

In order to achieve ‘a generation of design thinkers’, our main goal for Design Emergency is to expand the reach of the program through greater school participation across Australia. Our ‘blue-sky’ dream is to see every child equipped with design thinking skills, in the same way that they are taught to read and write.

Why it works

Since 2011, Design Emergency has been taken through a rigorous and experimental pilot phase. The most important aspect of the pilots has been learning how to improve the program. Our plan for ‘next steps’ responds to this feedback, which includes the need for teacher training; creation of different modes and platforms of delivery (in particular digital/online); increased incorporation of current teaching methodology; and more direct contact with designers.

It has been proven effective due to the fact that it uses real-life learning to develop higher-order thinking skills. It fosters a deep engagement with students’ worlds by helping them to identify relevant issues.

The program uses an optimistic human centred approach that engages students in empathetic research and it encourages them to grasp opportunities and take risks. Having professional designers involved, brings a deep understanding of design methodology and an opportunity for students to explore career paths and imagine the life of a designer. Design Emergency gives students an understanding of what design is; how it relates to the lives of individuals, their community and the larger world.

It also works because it is a program that relates to the entire school curriculum, assisting with learning outcomes in literacy, numeracy, science, technology, environment, society and culture, and arts. The program develops key aspects of the Quality Teaching framework and covers a broad range of syllabus outcomes.


The success of the pilots has provided us with evidence for the need and demand in the community for such a program. Teachers have reported many students showing a greater engagement in learning; schools have gained ‘real solutions’ to issues at their school.

Throughout the pilot phase of testing with school groups, it was found that the program is successful in:

  • Breeding optimism – The discovery section of the program is about focusing on what you have, not what you haven’t got, design is ultimately an optimistic pursuit.
  • Designing with Empathy – Activities such as creating personas, observation and working with others improves children’s ability to empathise and ‘imagine’ other experiences outside of their own.
  • Empowering students – In Design Emergency students are asking the questions and defining the task. They express their own ideas, which are all considered valid. Throughout our pilots, Design Emergency made the children feel safe and their opinions valued. It showed children that they can effect change, and there is a process to help them do it.
  • Motivating Engagement – Design Emergency is about real issues that relate to the student’s lives ensuring that learning tasks are authentic and meaningful for the students
  • Ensuring Inclusiveness – Design thinking needs and values teams of people with different skill sets. In the classroom this translates into groups of students from diverse cultural and social backgrounds and abilities, providing important input in identifying problems and working towards solutions. Students experience first hand the importance of valuing all ideas and insights.
  • Developing Confidence – Design Emergency creates time and space for taking risks, making mistakes, ‘failing fast’, not things usually encouraged or even permitted within the formal school program.
  • Stimulating Creativity – The Design Emergency program offers time to make things, ‘thinking through ideas by making’, the sparking of ideas that develops ones brain’s ability to think creatively.
  • Enriching learning – Design Emergency builds on what children are learning, complements the formal curriculum and enriches what is already being done.
  • Language building – The Design Emergency program requires children to articulate and communicate, especially important in communities with a high number of children from LOTE (Languages Other than English) backgrounds.
  • Transforming teaching – Design Emergency provides teachers with a different methodology for teaching that creates connections between disciplines and gives them an expanded view of the world. Much to our delight, in the process they are learning alongside the children, creating a genuine ‘learning environment’.

Further information

Contact Annette Mauer, Head of Learning, at