Culture Matters in Design Education


Key factors that have an influence in how cultures approach the design process (Top), and key tools design educators can use to be better prepared to help learners of different cultures (Bottom).

Increasingly, designers are investing a greater effort to get familiar with their intended-users by learning their needs and motivations. This understanding helps designers make more informed decisions, and consequently create solutions more directly targeted to specific and real user needs. Although with less intensity, culture plays also a key role in the design process, particularly when working for another country, in multicultural teams or in intercultural collaboration. In the same way that empathy and culture have become key ingredients of design, these same ingredients should be considered in design education, as educators are to some extent designing experiences and learning journeys for learners.

Looking back to 2016, I had the opportunity to interact with and teach groups of people from very different cultures: The Netherlands, US, Finland, and Spain. While in the past I had taught in different countries, this was the first time I did it in a short period of time. This is why I could not help comparing similarities and differences between the experiences with each of the groups, but mostly how each of them responded to the learning experience. Retrospectively, I realised that each group of learners had remarkably different needs and learning styles, and that I should have baked these differences into the planning of the workshops and classes.

In this post, I will particularly reflect on how important it is to actually get to know who your learners will be (regardless of age or background) before designing the learning experience either for teaching a class or a workshop.

Cultural Influencing Factors of Design Education

While culture has been studied and considered in relation to what characteristics a product should have to maximise users positive response, cultural influencing factors on the design process have not been studied as much. That is, how the process needs to change when performed in a different culture or by people with different values, habits and preferences. These cultural preferences can unconsciously influenced design activity (Razzaghi and Ramirez, 2006). Gaining a better understanding of the impact of these cultural influencing factors is particularly relevant for design education as when teaching research techniques, methods, and design thinking process is at the core of all them.

Understand and speak learners’ languages

The first step of teaching is to determine the content that should be taught—the what—and design the flow—how it will be taught. For this to be successful, it is important to take into account some of the following cultural factors.

Problem-solving. According to Vivek and Luciënne (2007), the way assignments are understood and completed may respond to cultures’ approaches to solve problems. People from some cultures solve problems with a sequential approach (e.g. Western cultures): first break a problem into sub-problems and then find solutions for each part. And people from other countries use a parallel approach (e.g. Asian cultures): focus on using holistic problem-solving strategies and executing sub-problems in parallel. Knowing in advance how each culture operates and solves problems would help design more effective assignments and also explain them in clear ways. For example, when teaching in cultures in which the former approach seems to be more common, breaking down an assignment into mini-assignments or parts, and asking to generate solutions for each part first could be a good strategy to help learners maximise their approach.

Words. Some learners would prefer open and constraint-free exercises and feel comfortable with more vague briefs, while for others working with this same type of exercises may feel scary and overwhelming. This latter type of learner would prefer to work with more prescriptive briefs in which they are told what to do. Carefully choosing words to introduce new concepts and explain exercises is as important as designing the exercises. Preferably, words should resonate with cultural habits, mascots or well-known TV shows. On the other hand, learners from some cultures tend to take educators’ words and mere examples as “THE thing to do”. Finding the right balance between what and how to say it is to me the key to successful communication and understanding.

Flexibility and improvising are as important as planning

Timing. Preparing and thinking ahead the flow of a class or a workshop is as important as selecting the content. However, while learners from some cultures will follow a schedule like a Swiss watch, learners from other cultures may need the creation of a new flow on the spot. So, yes, while educators should be in control of a class, teaching in some cultures requires flexibility and improvisation more than in others. Similarly, cultures conceive time differently, affecting the type and sequence of activities performed to complete an assignment. These different responses to time translate into some learners feeling extremely comfortable working with specific and more rigid timings (e.g. starting times, coming back from breaks, finishing assignments, discussions, presentations) and others needing much more organic and flexible schedules (e.g. extra cushion of time between assignments, number and length of breaks).
When things don’t go as originally planned, educators need to make judgement calls in the spot to decide the way forward. These decisions involve from whether to stick with the original plan or make major changes to determine what content is most appropriate to keep and what needs to be cut out.

Motivation. Regardless of age or nationality, some learners are inheritably more motivated than others. Personal characteristics (e.g. emotional stress, behaviour) but also cultural preferences (e.g. have longer breaks to accommodate siestas) have an impact on learners’ motivation. Finding ways to increase motivation and build trust has become also an essential part of education. For example, some educators use technology as an ally: rather than banning devices in class, they use them as tools to engage learners and complete assignments. Games and warm-up exercises are pretty successful tools too to increase motivation.

To effectively deal with any cultural factor that may impact the learning journey, creative thinking should be the must-have skill of all educators.

Culture, Education and Globalisation

We live in a globalised world. Working with people from diverse backgrounds and travelling to other cultures has become commonplace. In this context, it is imperative that our work as designers focuses first on understanding who we are designing for (e.g. learners) and what they need (e.g. cultural preferences). And only then, our work should focus on finding the most appropriate way to design whatever experience they need (e.g. learning journey). In the same way that a same design solution won’t address everyone’s needs, a same syllabus or set of exercises will most certainly not work as planned across the globe or help all learners.

While it may remain unclear how culture fully influences the design process, if we, designers, want to truly practice a human-centred approach, we must put people first in everything we do. Including education.

– Razzaghi, M., & Ramirez Jr, M. (2006). The influence of the designers’ own culture on the design aspects of products [Framework]. Munich, Germany.
– Vivek, G., & Luciënne, B. (2007). Cultural Influences on the Design Process. Guidelines for a Decision Support Method Adapted to NPD Processes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: