How We Used Human-Centered Design While Creating Curriculum

Gleaning theological insights from design thinking principles


Have you read about human-centered design and the ways that ministry leaders incorporate this way of thinking into their work?

Did you know that church publishers (including 1517 Media) have been using design thinking principles and practices for more than a decade? 

In 2009, a group of leaders at Augsburg Fortress (now 1517 Media) gathered together for some “blank page” meetings to explore this question: 

If you were given a blank page of paper, how would you redesign the organization? 

The results of these meetings led to another group that designed what business types would call a “corporate start-up”: a new business within an organization that focused on identifying and solving problems in innovative and creative ways. 

Behold—Sparkhouse was born!

Its core DNA was formed by many design thinking principles: 

Striving to solve wicked problems.

Deep empathy.

Ethnography as a way to observe and learn.

Development and testing of mock-ups and prototypes.

By embracing this new way of designing and developing curriculum, Sparkhouse could position itself to make a big difference for children, youth, and family ministry, not just in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) but with a broader ecumenical reach. Beginning in 2010 with the release of Renew: The Green VBS, Sparkhouse began a decade of curriculum development that stayed deeply rooted in design thinking principles and practices.

  • Re:form confirmation focused on the end user by developing a 40-session curriculum based on the questions we heard confirmation-age youth asking. 
  • Holy Moly Sunday school emerged after our ethnographic research produced a six-word conclusion about the state of Sunday school: Teachers are scared. Kids are bored.
  • The entire line of Frolic Bibles, books, and curriculum resources was rooted in our learnings about busy, burdened parents of young children—creating resources they can weave into daily life.

Other curriculum emerged as well after ethnography, quantitative research, creative summits with collaborators, and exploration of analog resources. Whirl, Collaborate, T.B.D., Animate—each of these brands has an origin story that begins with a focus on the wicked problems we encountered within Sunday school, confirmation, youth group, and Bible study.

The first decade of Sparkhouse led to thousands of individual resources being developed—lesson videos, leader guides, student resources, and more. 

The arrival of the pandemic caused major shifts in our new product development plans. Instead of continuing our work in this area, we pivoted to looking at what congregations were doing in the face of physical separation from the kids, youth, and families in their ministry. We began developing what we called Digital Activity Kits, including printable resources that church leaders could include in the resources they were delivering to families in boxes, buckets, and bags. Outdoor scavenger hunts, nature walks, recipes, prayers, and family time activities to help ministry leaders save time looking for well-designed and theologically sound activities for their families. (We’re finishing up our last set this Advent and Christmas and hope that leaders continue to use the hundreds of activities we developed.)

What have been my major learnings from design thinking?

First, I keep the end user in mind. I am always looking for more ways to stay connected to them, their needs, and their pain points. One way I do this is by reading social media posts by ministry leaders (like you, dear Reader) to better understand what they are facing amidst such a complex time for the church and our world. Whenever I can attend events, I want to talk with those who are working with kids, youth, and families to see what kinds of challenges and triumphs they are experiencing. 

Second, I have experienced “fail fast” during prototype testing. (This principle of “fail fast” encourages you to quickly identify when something is not working so you can move on.) I’ve had to face my own ego when I really, really wanted something to work so I could develop a new product. Moving on is hard but it has always been the right choice. When we have finite resources—time, staffing, budget—we have to make decisions that are going to best serve our customers.

Finally, I believe that we can glean some theological insights from design thinking principles. Trying to solve wicked problems can invite us into being open to how God is at work helping us see things in new and unexpected ways. Focusing on the end user and showing deep empathy helps us love our neighbor. And the collaboration that is necessary for this creative work engages faithful ministry leaders in being the body of Christ together and serving others.

As Sparkhouse faces the years ahead, we’ll have new wicked problems to solve and new ideas for how to do so. We hope and pray that the Holy Spirit continues to show up in our creative work as we collaborate and innovate on this design work—together.

Interested in learning more about human-centered design and how it can be a helpful tool within a faith community context? Check out our Faith+Lead Academy course, Spirit-Led Solutions through Human-Centered Design, available now!

  • Dawn Rundman

    Dawn Rundman holds a doctorate in developmental psychology and is Director of Faith Formation Resource Development at 1517 Media. She is also the series editor for Mouth House books published by Augsburg Fortress and the program director for the Unbridled Presence grant awarded by the Lilly Endowment’s Nurturing Children Through Worship and Prayer Initiative. She lives in the Twin Cities with her family.

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