Design institutions
2 June 2021

Top 8 Design for Defence & Security Purposes: Remote Learning Resources

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Nadine Olafson, Philippe Beaulieu-Brossard & Philippe Dufort

For several defence & security professionals, recent COVID-19 and climate change driven challenges are confirming that new methodologies are required for augmenting traditional problem-solving capabilities. Among these, design for defence & security purposes (also known as military design) is gaining traction across NATO members, partners and beyond. By design, we mean the philosophy & tools that a leader and his team can mobilize to create something needed but that does not yet exist in order to re-imagine a situation and ultimately change it into a better one. Yet, developing design capabilities to gain a cognitive advantage is not easy apart for the few who have access to a graduate military education programme. This blog seeks to compensate for this by sharing a review of eight online self-learning resources that are accessible in terms of both content and price.

Among these eight resources, we distinguish between resources considering Design as a tool versus those considering Design holistically, that is, closer to a way of life. While the former suggests that design can simply be external to who we are, the latter suggests that we need to change who we are — especially our mindset — to design properly. We also distinguish between resources where either the instructor or the student drives the learning process. By the former, we mean that the resource is didactic as it provides content including examples aligned with what the instructor is attempting to convey. By the latter, we mean that the resource is more experiential by engaging students with activities to develop their own design skills and mindset.

We structured this review by following these quadrants starting with resources tailored for defence & security professionals. We did not structure this review in order of preference since, as we will see, we suggest that the key is for each professional to find the best fit for their learning style and particular context.

1. Think JSOU YouTube Channel

The Think JSOU Youtube channel of the Joint Special Operations University offers the most comprehensive repository of video series on design. Dr. Ben Zweibelson and

Nathan Schwagler, two leading design theorists and educators not only in the US but across NATO are curating these series. For Zweibelson and Schwagler, Design is more than the sum of its cognitive tools. Designers must fully consider the underlying philosophy and psychology driving cognition if they hope to master the tools.

So far, the channel specialized on advanced design expert and practitioner’s recorded content such as lectures or podcast conversations. However, the channel is moving towards a hybrid instructor/student driven learning form with “autonomous modules” from April 2021 onwards. For instance, the “Master Class: Military Design 101” signals this transition on Youtube by offering a 2 hours long self-paced and slide based learning video on military design fundamentals for executive military leaders. Compared to the reviewed resources, this Master Class is keenly focused on design for defence purposes as it touches questions of: why design matters for militaries, how might external design concepts be applied in a complex security context, and how might we advance design methodologies within a more rigid organization? Overall, the Think JSOU Master Class is a holistic course that carves out fundamentals for the participants to become military designers and mobilize design within their organisation.

This channel has some entry level resources as well such as a video on Military design 101. Yet, providing content for those looking for advanced content is where it excels. For instance, the channel includes a series to appreciate the art of design facilitation from behind the scenes as practiced by JSOU. Likewise, the channel offers a “Legend of Design” series including unique interviews with Dr. Ofra Graicer and Dr. Shimon Naveh, the seminal design theorists and instructors who initiated this turn towards design in defence organisations. Overall, ThinkJSOU offers a semi-structured comprehensive repository of design materials for curious minds to wander in a Youtube expression of the state-of-the-art.      

Source: Think JSOU. (2012). Joint Special Operations University: Youtube.

2. Dr. Tino Perez’s Arguing the OE Youtube Channel

“Arguing the OE” offered the first Youtube channel including a video series on military design as well as episodes on systems thinking 8 years ago. With this channel, Colonel Dr. Celestino “Tino” Perez delivers a sample of his popular course including design delivered at the US Army Command and Staff College (CGSC) in Fort Leavenworth circa 2008-2014. Perez excels in making design accessible to defence & security professionals by using a “doctrinally faithful” language closer to Joint Forces Doctrine & the US Army Design methodology (ADM). In so doing, Perez offers a bridge to professionals who might then be interested in further developing their design capabilities with more advanced content and courses as those proposed by Think JSOU above. Nonetheless, the cost of teaching design in a language that is already familiar to professionals lies in inconsistencies with design theory, thus leaving the full potential of design untapped.

Rather than just tools, Perez understands design more as a philosophy that each commander should become familiar with, whether they call it design or not. He summarizes this philosophy into four (design) questions aligned with doctrine: 1. What’s going on (the environment)? 2. What do we want the environment to look like? 3. What is the problem that is preventing us from getting to this environment (end state)? 4.  What is the operational approach? According to Perez, only then can a commander give good planning guidance and commander’s intent.

While students are not involved in their learning process due to a traditional instructor led lecture form, the informal lecturing style is engaging. Unfortunately, the content is now dated. Likewise, Perez would benefit from better recording quality, especially audio, to match current standards. Overall, Perez’s channel offers an entry point to design for defence & security purposes but cannot stand on its own in comparison to design resources that are more consistent and comprehensive with design theory in both content and learning form.

Source: Perez, C. (2013). Arguing the OE. Youtube. Episodes 1-5. Retrieved from:

3. IBM Enterprise Design Thinking

With Enterprise Design Thinking, IBM offers the cutting edge in terms of student driven e-learning platform. While tailored for business professionals, the aim is to make Design accessible to any learner. Defence and security professionals can therefore rely on this platform both as an initiation as well as to become familiar with civilian applications that may be inspiring for addressing organisational challenges.

The key advantage of the “practitioner course” is to expose the learner to the reflexive practice of design. For instance, the platform does so by sharing more creative deliverables produced by other participants taking part to the same course. These individual exercises are quite powerful as they make individuals become aware of their own constraints in ideal conditions for creative freedom. Lastly, the platform is visually engaging and minimalistic.    

Nonetheless, accessibility remains an issue. IBM offered their platform resources for free during the COVID-19 pandemic but it is unclear if this will remain the case as restrictions wane later this year. The usual annual fee is USD$300 plus applicable local taxes per year. Likewise, the subsequent courses — co-creator and coach — are less accessible as they cannot be undertaken on an individual basis. Co-creator requires a team and Coach is reserved to IBM employees and enterprises. Further references are also unavailable for professionals who would be interested in diving deeper in the design fundamentals sustaining the IBM model.

Sources: IBM. (2016). IBM Design Thinking Courses. Online platform.

4. Stanford Design

The Stanford Design School (d.School) offers one of the most influential design models for civilian purposes which is also taught at the US Naval Postgraduate School and offered as a model in courses covering several methodologies such as at Canadian Forces College. Additionally, the d. School turned to e-learning by making accessible a Virtual Crash course. With a strong focus on empathy as driving the design process, this crash course would be more suited to professionals addressing organizational challenges such as recruitment, harmful & inappropriate behaviour, or health issues for instance.

The crash course echoes this focus on empathy with a student driven experience ideally self-organized with a team. Self-facilitating inward empathy exercises might, however, be a bridge too far for security & defense professionals, especially when conducted online. Expressing feelings and emotions towards a particular challenge can be extremely rewarding, up to the point of triggering a change of mindset making new options available. Yet, as this is not something internal to the organisational culture, we recommend relying on a professional facilitator with a background in defense organisations, human-centric design or psychology/emotional intelligence.

For those undeterred by this, the virtual crash course is an innovative tool to learn Design thinking in a group setting of 20-40 individuals by providing a PowerPoint presentation with detailed instructions for facilitators. You will need a group of about 3 individuals, including yourself, to help you run a workshop on design, but it is very well designed and contains video clips by design experts to teach the theoretical aspect, which leaves you as the facilitator with running the exercise portions. This is a free option and is great if you are looking to learn design as a group with a handful facilitating.

Hasso Plattner Institute for Design. (d.School Starter Kit. Stanford University.

5. Delft

Product Design: The Delft Design Approach is a course offered by the University of Delft that will resonate with defense & security professionals with a background in engineering. The objective of this course is to prepare students for dealing with uncertainty and an ever-changing environment. TU Delft’s philosophy sees design as changing existing situations into preferred ones and we therefore would categorize it as promoting an holistic understanding of Design rather than strictly a tool. The course walks you through all stages of designing a product, and by the end, you are expected to have developed and present your own. The course is available for free online through the University website. The course can be done at your own pace but beware that you must sign up for this 7-week course at specific dates. If you wish to receive a copy of your certificate at the end of the course, a payment of CAN$100 can be made in order to receive a copy.

Sources: Delft University of Technology. (2020). Product Design: The Delft Design Approach.


The Foundations in Design Thinking Certificate offered by IDEO is another option from the Private Industry that is well suited for defence & security professionals of any background. We would describe it somewhere between understanding Design as a tool to be used and understanding design holistically. The learning is student-driven, which also makes it more engaging than other resources reviewed. What should be highlighted here is the application and teaching of “immersive techniques” intended to change perspectives, which is a highly effective instrument in creating new behaviours and achieving social change. Another advantage here, is that students are encouraged to interact with their instructors via video conferences, and calls and to join learning circles with their peers to add a human element to the learning process. As with many private industry options, there are no readings required or even offered, which makes it less appealing to those looking for a deep-dive.

This certificate includes two courses that can be taken in interchangeable order: (1) Insights for Innovation and (2) From Ideas to Action. The first course “Insights for Innovation is broken down into 7 modules of 5 lessons including introduction and conclusion. The first lesson focuses on practicing observing, the second lesson on identifying extremes, the third on interviewing, the fourth on empathy, and the fifth on insights. The objective of the course is to identify what matters to users, solve challenges with design thinking methods, apply immersive techniques to change the perspectives of end-users, and to synthesize what has been learned into actionable insights.

The second course “From Ideas to Action” is divided into 5 modules of 3 lessons plus introduction and conclusion. The first lesson focuses on the art of ideating, the second on rapid prototyping, and the third on iterating your way forward. The objective of this course is to apply ideation methods in order to generate new and useful ideas, identify which parts of the idea to test, build quick and early prototypes solutions, and refine ideas by sharing them and gathering feedback. The cost point for each of the two courses offered by IDEO is $599.

Source: IDEO (2021). Foundations in Design Thinking Certificate.

7. University of Virginia – Darden School of Business

With the “Design Thinking for Innovation” course on Coursera, the University of Virginia offers a human centric design equivalent to Tino Perez’s video series, that is, an accessible introduction offering a bridge to more substantial learning materials for those interested. Instructors drive the course echoing the understanding of design as a tool. This approach is less consistent with design theory but might be more familiar to some defence & security professionals in general. The key benefits are in exposing the students to “real-life stories” that, while being civilian instances, still provide concrete processes and strategies that are concrete and inspiring. Nonetheless, the presentation of the model may give the impression of providing a silver-lining process that remains linear in contrast to the ideal of unstructured emergent design processes in military design.

Overall, “Design Thinking for Innovation” is a basic course that gives you an idea of what Design is – but by no means exhausts it. This course would therefore not be appropriate for those who already have a basic understanding of what design is. The philosophy taken here is that Design is “a problem-solving approach that asks four questions and that is human-centred, possibility-driven, option-focused, and iterative in its approach”. The course itself is divided into five parts: the first four parts consist of classes, while the fifth one consists of the final assignment. Pre-recorded video lectures allow for some feeling of connectivity with the instructor, but beware it is a far cry from a synchronous class online. The course format lacks an interactive component, where students could continuously test themselves throughout as provided by the IBM platform reviewed above. This is a free option to audit on Coursera so no need to wait to unlock any funds to get started on the learning journey.

Source: Liedtka, J.M. (2020). Design Thinking for Innovation. Darden School of Business, University of Virginia. Coursera.

8. University of Sydney – School of Architecture

“Innovation Through Design: Think, Make, Break, Repeat” is an online course offered through Coursera by the University of Sydney. This resource is tailored for an Australian audience, and more especially in Architecture, but should nonetheless resonate with Australian defence & security professionals. This is especially so since course developers took special care in making their design approach as intelligible and straightforward as possible beyond their initial target audience.

Nonetheless, the course understands Design as a tool rather than a way of life, thus limiting the development of a more holistic mindset. Learning remains substantially instructor driven, combining theory and case studies, from pre-recorded video lectures and interviews with experts. The authors use various tools to engage students, including clips of interviews with leading Australian industry experts, as well as additional readings and several quizzes to allow students to learn independently. The combination of lectures, readings and quizzes for each module add a sense of a university environment and allows students to further engage with the course material. This is a free resource on Coursera.

Source: Tomitsch, M.; Wrigley, C. (2020). Innovation Through Design: Think, Make, Break, Repeat. School of Architecture, Design, and Planning: University of Sidney. Coursera.

The Way Forward

Overall, these eight resources triumph in tearing down barriers to access design education for any defense & security professional with the will to seize this opportunity and enhance their capabilities. These resources are catered to be especially beneficial for those who are just about to begin their journey. For those who have already mastered the basics, ThinkJSOU and the Archipelago of Design network will take you to the next level of materials to learn on your own. Indeed, these resources still do not match courses or programmes including in-person interactions in a team with a design facilitator.

Moreover, most resources do not seize the potential of the virtual world. Instead, they attempt at mirroring design education in the classroom and at best, in the design studio. With Project Albatross, however, the Archipelago of design will attempt to radically re-imagine online design education towards the next innovation curve by finding inspiration in the state of the art in video games. Not only will the experience be designed on the terms of this medium, but it will invite instructors to redesign themselves as designers of transformative virtual learning experiences. In the meantime, however, these resources will take you and your team a long way!

Thanks for sharing with us any significant accessible online learning resource we may have missed.

Acknowledgement: Marie-Christine Brault, Jonas Groesmeyer, Sylvie Plante, Mathieu Primeau, and Nathan Schwagler contributed with comments, additional testing and perspectives.

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