Peter Aeschbacher draws a diagram online

A Way of Engaging with the World: Design Thinking with Peter Aeschbacher

Online education is undoubtedly changing the ways in which students learn. Through his online course, Arts and Architecture 121: Design, Design Thinking, and Creativity, Peter Aeschbacher is helping change the way students think. As course designer and instructor for the College of Arts and Architecture e-Learning Institute, Aeschbacher, an associate professor of landscape architecture and architecture in the Stuckeman School, is developing a comprehensive language for design thinking.

“Design thinking spans disciplines,” said Aeschbacher. “It’s a mindset – a way of engaging with the world. Everyone experiences and practices design in their daily lives whether they realize it or not, and everyone has creative ability. The course simply tries to elevate and connect these two things that people already do.”

Aeschbacher offers design thinking as another way of understanding the world alongside the sciences, and the arts and humanities. “The sciences emphasize truth in the world about what exists. The arts and humanities focus on how we experience that world. Design thinking looks at how the world ought to be and attempts to offer design solutions. It’s about the future,” he explained.

Design thinkers of the future will need a diverse set of problem-finding and problem-solving skills, which Aeschbacher hopes to provide through course exercises that engage with complex, dynamic systems. Within the first half-hour of the current course footage, he suggests students ask the question “why” in iteration, delving deeper and deeper with each “why” toward a solution. Between this exercise and a project in which students invent new uses for ordinary objects, Aeschbacher leads his students to creative breakthroughs via unconventional thinking.

“Sometimes you have to make a mess to create a new solution,” he admitted.

In taking his own advice, Aeschbacher revolutionized the concept of the online course by parting with the format of the forty-five-minute lecture, opting instead for a series of short videos that mirror the way in which individuals consume information online. This framework allows him to rearrange the segments based on student learning styles.

“It’s like producing a television show because of the serial nature of it,” added Aeschbacher. “There is an overarching theme that links the parts to the whole. And just like a T.V. show, you can watch one episode at a time, or you can binge-watch ten. It gives the students the freedom to choose how they learn best.”

Another way in which Aeschbacher’s course is similar to television recording is that he uses live editing to produce the videos. Streamlining the production process allows him to spend more time focusing on how to transform a studio course, which usually includes about fifteen students and is dependent upon one-on-one interaction with a faculty member, into a course for upwards of 100 per semester in a digital environment.

“At first I was skeptical about teaching online, but I like to find the hardest possible thing to do and challenge myself to do it well,” he laughed. “In this case, the challenge was to recreate those personal studio interactions and connections in a different way.”  

One of the ways in which Aeschbacher has transformed his teaching style is by embracing the internet as a teaching tool. Students provide feedback and submit links with content that they find interesting and relevant to the course, which he can then incorporate into his teaching material, constantly refreshing his online course with online content.

“The material links out to the rest of the world because the content is there. It’s about building one’s ability to be creative. The course is an open system,” acknowledges Aeschbacher.

Design thinking for Aeschbacher goes beyond teaching, as the course is a way for him to combine three types of design thinkers – champions, practitioners, and scholars.

“Champions are advocates for design thinking but are often not capable of explaining how or why it works. Practitioners apply design thinking in what they do but are not necessarily able to communicate how they do it. Scholars can tell you why it works but not with the language of the champions,” said Aeschbacher, dividing them into separate spaces with his hands and then bringing his hands together. “I want to connect them.” 

For more information about the e-Learning Institute, visit the website: