Design Thinking In and Out of Prison


2021; David Smith
'Design Thinking In and Out of Prison'
15th International Conference on Design Principles & Practice, University of Monterrey, Mexico; Presented virtually due to Covid-19.

2021; David Smith
'Perceptual Boundaries Based on Role and Social Context: A Collaboration between Prison Students and University Students'
98th Annual Meeting of the Alabama Academy of Sciences, University of South Alabama; Presented virtually due to Covid-19.


Opportunity to work with Staton students provided by the Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project; Auburn University students that participated are Amelia Bandy, Hailey Boutelle, Bailey Matthews, Anaaft Brown Sakyi-Addo, Natalie Walker and Allie Wright.

Staton Correctional Facility and Auburn University

This case study is about a collaboration between two student groups. One group is in prison, while the other group is on a college campus. The purpose of the collaboration was to use design thinking to solve a communication problem. An important aim of the project was to engage the two student groups with each other.

Pictures of Staton student ideas.

Three examples of Staton Correctional Facility student work developing promotional messages about Alabama Prison Arts and their courses. While some students were not comfortable sketching, everyone was encouraged to submit ideas. The Staon students were limited to using pen and paper for tools.

Picture of Auburn University student's interpretation of Staton student ideas.

Three examples of Auburn graphic design student work interpreting and producing Staton student concepts. The Staton residents were tough critics, but they expressed their true reactions to the Auburn student's interpretations. This collaborative process eventually surfaced several meaningful responses.

Quote:"Having a reinforced grasp of prospective students trepidations and concerns about class usefulness is incredibly helpful."

Quote from Prison Arts Program Coordinator Robert Hitt about outcomes from our Design Thinking class at Staton. While no true innovation was made, results from empathy exercises and flyer testing provided data that Prison Arts will use to continue to improve how they work with prison populations.

Quote:"This class has shown me an alternate way of approaching problems and a different way  to solve them. Not only in the professional world but personal."

Quote from a Staton student about the Design Thinking course. Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project is a national leader in providing quality educational opportunities for people incarcerated in Alabama prisons. Since 2002, APAEP has offered a wide range of continuing education courses in the arts and sciences.

In Spring of 2019, through the Prison Arts and Education Project (APAEP), I taught a Design Thinking course at the Staton Correction Facility in Elmore, AL. In addition to learning about design thinking in general, the students were tasked with solving a communication problem. For some reason, only a small percentage of Alabama correctional facility residents would sign-up for APAEP courses. Residents that did take the courses were overwhelmingly happy with them. The challenge was, “How could we better communicate with their fellow residents about the classes?”

To help the Staton students, who had no way to create and display their concepts in a finished manner, I enlisted the help of six Auburn graphic design students.  The Auburn students were to interpret and produce the Staton students’ ideas. This created a collaborative relationship between the two student groups.

As in most cases when one is trying to make innovations, budgetary and institutional constraints get in the way. Such was our case. But while no true innovation was made, we did discover many insights for APAEP and created a set of flyer templates they can use for future class promotions.


Auburn University
207 Wallace Hall, Auburn, AL 36849
David Smith
Assistant Professor of Graphic Design