One of my favourite activities when I was an art teacher involved free styling  design thinking activity with cardboard boxes.

Let me explain

Firstly, the kids I was teaching weren’t cut from the same cloth as everyone else. They were all primary school students who had been expelled from their normal school. Due to a whole range of background and family issues they just couldn’t manage to achieve success in a normal school environment.

How did I end up at this school?

Due to a practical joke gone that missed it’s target and impacted a group of visiting missionaries, I was also expelled from the Christian University I had been attending. To fill this time off University, I did two great things that changed my life. I took off solo overseas for 7 months and to pay for it, I was a house parent with kids with severe emotional and behavioural disorders in the 6 months preceding it.

I continued with the house parent role in my last year of University (I was let back in on probation….) and the next year, the centre created a job for me as the creative arts teacher in the school that they ran. So straight out of Uni,i I was at the coalface with some serious behaviour.

The kids

The kids all had very, very low self esteem and feelings of self worth. Unusually for kids, they had terrible, terrible creative confidence. They were like most adults I now work with. The kids thought they were the most uncreative people around. As such, they were unwilling to try and fail at anything.

My aim

My big, big game with the art classes was to boost the kids self esteem. This was through getting them to create things they were proud of and didn’t think that they could do. I wanted them to be passionate about the art of making, inventing and creating and relight the creative spark that was missing. The by product was that the aesthetic qualities of what they produced went through the roof and all the other educational boxes that needed to be ticked were ticked. There were only 6 kids in the classroom at any one time with myself and a teacher’s aide so if students was in a good mood, we could do some really great, hands on things.

Where do the cardboard boxes fit in?

The classes I ran were very structured. Not to constrain creativity but to help kids to stay on task, focused and ensure success. This process worked very well. Over the two years I was in this role, what lit the biggest creative fire for the kids was a lot more free flow.

I would collect every type and size of cardboard box, plastic container, toilet roll and yoghurt tub that you can imagine. This provided a mountain of stimulus for them to work with. The other materials I provided were scissors, string, magic markers and LOTS of tape.

Their instruction would be, “today we are going to make…….”

And off they would go and this would be at pace. The level of activity was through the roof. I had absolutely no behavior issues and the kids were experimenting non stop. They would try things, fix it, change it, play with it and just build and create. They would ask for help when needed but were never scared to just try it themselves.

The results were the funkiest creations that you can imagine and a huge sense of pride at the end of it.

How does this relate to the design thinking process?


Define the challenge

We would always define the challenge up front. As in

  • We would create a robot
  • This would be a gift
  • This would be for XXXX
  • We would create a make believe animal that linked to another subject being studied


Defining the challenge and then applying constraints around what they had to create worked really well. The kids had a specific end in mind and knew what the goal was.

When I had run this activity as ‘create what you like’, the enthusiasm was never quite as high and there was a little more frustration. It definitely wasn’t a failure but when I refined the lesson to include some parameters, an end user and the goal up front, the results went through the roof.

IDEO call it developing a POV (Point of View) so essentially you know where you are going, the definitions of your challenge and who you are designing it for.


This was the space where we generated ideas as to how the creations would look. This was very much an action oriented ideation process, rather than the ‘let’s use some sticky notes’ type of ideation!

Because there was so much physical stimulus and inspiring materials on the tables and floors, the ideas came thick and fast.

  • Would that yoghurt tub work as a head?
  • Could I join these tubes together to form legs?
  • Can I make antenna from these?
  • Does my creature need to stand up?


As decided, new ideas jumped out.


  • Could I create a half snake, half robot that doesn’t need to stand?
  • What if I gave my creature wings?
  • What would two heads look like?


There were no set ideas on how these creations should look so there was no judgement at all from the kids. They weren’t putting any ideas down or killing them off. They were just letting the ideas flow and building on the ideas as they happened.


This could also be called ‘creating it’ or ‘making stuff happen’ or ‘mega action’ time. Ideas are great but unless you actually create something with them, they are just ideas.

The action started. The string came out, The tape unrolled at speed. Things started to form. Things started to fall over. Changes were made. Things were added and taken away. Structures started to grow. Pens were making details. Most importantly, a huge amount of fun was had as the kids found themselves in their creative flow. Decisions were made really quickly and prototyped straight away. It was a great mix of both analytical/logical and divergent/linear thinking giving each other a huge high five.

A prototype is something that a team can interact with. It’s physical. It’s how you get instant feedback. I feel that this part is sooooo often missed in the ideation process. I often see a huge effort put into the ideation process/brainstorm process and lots of words produced. What’s missing is teams don’t get physical with the idea. it just remains as a word phase. Getting physical with your idea and mocking something up gives your brain instant feedback and engages all of your senses.


This was the final stage of the awesomeness of prototyping. The creations had to fulfill the function that they were designed for.

Our lesson times were an hour long and we would always spend the last 10 minutes talking about how everything went (and if everyone earned their behaviour points…) For this lesson, we always spent a little extra time getting everyone to talk about their creation. We would test if it worked as they wanted and get feedback from the rest of the 5 kids in the class.

The tape would reappear and changes were made as needed. There was some really great creative collaboration to finish off.

The results were that:

  • The kids left with something they were massively proud of
  • They used both sides of their brain in a cross between mini engineers and designers
  • They had suspended judgement through the ideation process
  • They left with a great self esteem
  • Their creative confidence was sky high

Sum Up

What do I take from all this and apply to innovation sessions? Or more importantly, what could you apply to your team at your next innovation workshop?


  • Be really clear on where you are going and what you are trying to solve. At work it’s not about creativity for creativity’s sake. There needs to be an end goal.
  • Innovation involves more that just using text to explore around with ideas. It’s a live process and requires more than just talking. Bring in as much physical stimulus as possible for the ideation process. Senses need to be put into overdrive. When you play around with different stimulus you are generally moving which is a huge help in the unleashing of creative ideas.
  • When you prototype and build something with your hands, no matter how rough, you open up a huge amount of new possibilities. Mock up something physical that represents your idea. This engages multiple senses and different parts of your brain. A team can easily engage with the idea and collaborate as they build on what’s working and get instant feedback around what doesn’t look and feel right.
  • Testing, experimenting and building on initial ideas and any imperfections is what it’s all about. Don’t think of it as failure, just think of it as experimenting fast.
  • Give yourself some permission to have some fun. Great things happen when we enjoy ourselves.

Last Word

I would love to hear about your favourite design thinking activities or anything that you have used to make innovation happen. What are your thoughts? Let me know at


Simon Banks

About the Author

Simon Banks is an Author. International Keynote speaker and Podcaster on creativity and innovation and recovering Artist. He’s delivered over 1400+ events across the globe and is known for running innovation workshops, conferences and design sprints to brew fresh thinking and solve wicked problems. His book A Thousand Little Lightbulbs: How to kickstart a culture of Innovation in your Organisation is out now.

Get in touch here

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