Let the Light In and Prototype (Originally posted in @leadanddesign newsletter)
Mary Cantwell, Educator, DEEP Design Thinker
The American Heritage definition of prototype is “a first, typical or preliminary model of something from which other forms are developed or copied.”What a definition! It is one I have never used in my practice of DEEP design thinking. A prototype to me is, well, Everything…  I tend to be in prototyping mode most of the time.  I choose to use a prototyping lens because it allows me to be open to possibilities, opportunities to change, and to find cracks in my world. It also keeps me from being rigid and closed off with my ideas/creations and, more importantly, with others’ ideas/creations. To prototype means to take the intangible and put it into some type of tangible form.  My design colleague, Jill Gough, Director of Teaching and Learning at Trinity School (Atlanta), thankfully reminds me often that when we prototype, our thinking becomes visible to others. We learn from our creation and from the feedback of others.  We illuminate our thinking and offer others a path to learn with us.

I often share this quotation when I talk with others about finding design challenges.

“Find the crack. In the darkness, that’s how the light gets in.”


I believe the power of this statement is in the simplicity and directness of the words. It is the light that leads the designer. The light is People (Users).  Cracks can be found everywhere.  Yet, if we don’t let the light in, decisions, products, and visions are created with the mindset that the process is final, complete, absolute.  People see the product as an end result instead of a milestone on the learning journey.  Leaving room to prototype and iterate allows students to truly demonstrate transfer of knowledge. Emphasis is balanced between product and process. It’s a journey, not a finite endpoint.

Your approach – work, learning, doing, and living – can make all the difference.   I say treat everything you create as a prototype, unless you want Sacred Cows lying all around your feet.  I bet you find yourself tripping on them more times than not.

If we treat things as sacred cows, are we truly meeting the needs of an ever-changing world, let alone ever-changing human population?  A sacred cow becomes this untouchable thing that is looked upon as set in stone and protected from change or tossing.

Redesign Solutions to Avoid Tripping on Sacred Cows

What if we reframe our view?  How might we utilize a prototyping lens to see mission statements, pedagogical approaches, and traditional “thats how its always been” things in our spaces as fluid, ready for a next iteration?  What if we treat these as opportunities to refine and iterate them as if they were prototypes? This would shift perspectives to be more user-centered as the delivery of initiatives, assessments, and units of study are works in process vs. products that stay as is, no matter who is on the receiving end.

Prototyping ideas allow users to demonstrate learning and put learning into action. It’s during these actions that more learning occurs as we uncover how it’s received and where the idea takes the learner and those it impacts.

  • Prototype to do
  • Prototype to learn
  • Prototype to uncover rather than solve
  • Prototype to move closer to the needs of others