England.  Change location

Design thinking: creativity for the 21st century

Qualification dates
Start End

This module will change your way of seeing and solving complex problems – it looks at common principles of design and thinking that lead to creative ideas and solutions in all design disciplines. Through academic and practical work, you’ll develop an understanding of design, acquire new design skills, and build a portfolio of design projects as a strong foundation for future study or work experience. You’ll complete your practical activities and interact with tutors and other students in a specially created online design studio.

What you will study

The module is presented online in four blocks. Each block corresponds to different levels at which design thinking can have an impact on our lives: at the individual, group, social and global level. You’ll have practical activities, skills development and academic coursework to do each week, and the freedom to manage your own learning.

Central to the module is an online virtual design studio, OpenDesignStudio, where you’ll upload your work – using images you’ve created – to discuss with other students and your tutor. Learning to use the expertise of others is a vital part of design thinking and something that is encouraged in the design studio environment. Throughout the module, you’ll be encouraged to engage with the world around you; formulate and solve design problems that are relevant to your own life; and participate in the U101 community of design thinkers.

Block 1: Design and the individual
The first part of the module introduces some basic skills to begin your creative work: taking and uploading digital photographs, composition, basic drawing and observation. It will introduce you to Compendium, a software tool with which you can record and link together different types of information in a digital map. It will also introduce you to the OpenDesignStudio environment, where you’ll upload your work and be able to see the work of others as you work through the course. Along with your skill development, there is academic study: introducing you to the world of design and design thinking through text, audio, video and multimedia. You’ll see interviews with design practitioners, and case studies of their work. As you work through the block, you’ll carry out a sequence of activities that lead up to your first assessed design project: the design of a T-shirt.

Block 2: Designing for others and with others
In the second block, the focus shifts to designing for other people. You’ll investigate what types of design make other people happy, as well as trying ways to feel and simulate what it’s like to experience what other people do. You’ll practise skills of making and presenting prototypes – crucial in design thinking – and learn about how to ‘frame’ a problem, and how to recognise a good solution. This block is not only about designing for others but also about designing with others. Knowing how and when to use the knowledge of others is extremely useful in designing and, as part of your assessed design project for this block, you’ll use other people to help you explore a problem and generate creative ideas in response. For your project in this block, you’ll propose a modified or new product and communicate your idea through a prototype of the product.

Block 3: Design in society
Block 3 looks at how design can have an impact in society through services and systems such as housing, planning, health, transport and recycling. You’ll gain an understanding of the factors influencing change in a society and of how they apply to your local context. And you’ll learn how to search for information, observe, map, and analyse complex environments. In your online study, you’ll see a number of case studies where design has made a significant impact at the societal level. For your design project, you’ll design, produce, and test a game based on a service you’ve studied.

Block 4: The global impact of design
When the full context of design is taken into account, we have to consider how design thinking can have a global impact. This final part of the module brings together all the skills you’ve learned in previous blocks to teach you about how to integrate them all – balancing people, processes and materials – through the process of design. You’ll look at the global context of design and consider the ethical implications of what design thinking can achieve. In the final design project assessment, you’ll pursue your own design thinking inquiry around a specific global theme, leading to you designing a way to communicate the results of your inquiry.

You will learn

At the end of the module, you’ll be able to identify the characteristics of design thinking and how it is different from other types of thinking. You’ll have an awareness of the value of design thinking and how it can be applied in a wide range of contexts from the personal to the global.

On a more practical level, you’ll learn how to investigate and think creatively about design problems and opportunities; integrate different styles of thinking in a design process; and explore, evaluate and critique the design thinking of others. You’ll also discover how an attitude of playfulness can aid design thinking and assist in addressing complex real-world problems and challenges.

The module has a large online element and, in exploring the different environments it offers, you’ll learn about the creative possibilities of working online. You’ll also learn how to identify and use expertise through social networking.

Entry requirements

There are no formal entry requirements to study this module.

However, it would be useful to have some experience of using the internet and a playful, creative attitude to life.

If you’re not sure you’re ready, talk to an adviser.

Preparatory work

When you register for the module, you’ll receive a specially designed U101 Creative Welcome Pack with design thinking challenges to be used during the module.

What's included

You’ll receive a U101 Creative Welcome Pack; this is a specially designed box containing materials you need to begin your creative journey including a reader of some of the module’s content.

You’ll have access to a module website, which includes:

  • a week-by-week study planner
  • course-specific module materials
  • audio and video content
  • assessment details and submission section
  • online tutorial access
  • all software required to complete the module, including OpenDesignStudio (the virtual design studio for the module) and CompendiumDS (concept mapping software).

You will need

  • A digital camera – to take photos of your creative work
  • Access to a printer – to print out your work

Although not essential, you might find it desirable to have access to the following:

  • A scanner – to bring your doodles and sketches onto your computer
  • A graphics tablet – to help you interact with your computer with a pen instead of a mouse

Computing requirements

You’ll need broadband internet access and a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of Windows (10 or 11) or macOS Ventura or higher.

Any additional software will be provided or is generally freely available.

To join in spoken conversations in tutorials, we recommend a wired headset (headphones/earphones with a built-in microphone).

Our module websites comply with web standards, and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.

Our OU Study mobile app will operate on all current, supported versions of Android and iOS. It’s not available on Kindle.

It’s also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook. However, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you’ll also require a desktop or laptop, as described above.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

Throughout your module studies, you’ll get help and support from your assigned module tutor. They’ll help you by:

  • Marking your assignments (TMAs) and providing detailed feedback for you to improve.
  • Guiding you to additional learning resources.
  • Providing individual guidance, whether that’s for general study skills or specific module content.
  • Facilitating online discussions between your fellow students, in the dedicated module and tutor group forums.

Module tutors also run online tutorials throughout the module. Where possible, recordings of online tutorials will be made available to students. While these tutorials won’t be compulsory for you to complete the module, you’re strongly encouraged to take part.


You can find the assessment details for this module in the facts box.

Each assignment is a design project communicated using concept-mapping software developed at The Open University specifically for U101.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying U101 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

Future availability

Design thinking: creativity for the 21st century (U101) starts twice a year – in January/February and October.

This page describes the module that will start in October 2024 and January 2025.

We expect it to start for the last time in January 2027.

Course work includes:

5 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
End-of-module assessment

Student Reviews

See what other students thought.