Design Education 3.0: challenges and learnings

Last month I travelled all the way to Patras, Greece to attend the 7th International Conference on Typography & Visual Communication (ICTVC) at the University of Patras. To address this year’s theme focused on challenging design paths, I presented an analysis of how design education and, specifically, information design instruction have changed in the last ten years based on my experience teaching design at both design and non-design schools and universities. My talk also built on the Education 3.0 model I discussed three years ago.

My recent experience teaching information design at Princeton University through Design for Understanding (EGR381) and other courses has helped me examine the specific changes that are occurring in the design education sphere. Here a summary of my learnings and assumptions challenged.

Towards a new model of design education

One important assumption I had was that my previous teaching experience was directly transferrable to this one. After all, teaching design is the same in all contexts, right? I quickly realized this wasn’t true.

Teaching design in a non-design environment brings new and different challenges from the ones encountered in design schools. This important learning helped me identify core aspects of design education that need attention.

Traditionally, design fields have been taught in Art and Design schools, where design professionals acting as teachers were in charge of passing on the skills and creating projects to help students learn the material. Students pursuing this type of education are deeply motivated and interested in design, following this journey as a career path.

Today this picture has broadened. 

200-designEvolution

Overview of design education past and current states. As the design education picture broadens, more diversity and options are added to each dimension. Working closely with content experts is already explored in some design courses to help students gain a better understand of complex domains involved in each project.

Design skills are being taught beyond Art and Design schools, inviting a much more diverse type of students. Unlike traditional design students, these students have different needs. For example, not all students enrolled in a design course or program want to become designers. Some of them want to learn the skills to improve their current career choice while others just want to learn how to develop a strong aesthetic understanding. I refer to this type as the “non-design students”, as they are a very distinct crowd from novice design students. These are some important distinctions*:

Non-design students have a different sensibility, ask different types of questions, look at information design from a different lens, and struggle with different parts of the process. They focus more on the reasoning and thinking, and understanding the why behind the work, rather than on learning the how of tools and technology. While some questions they pose are a genuine reflection of design inexperience, others touch upon core aspects of information design practice that need more attention.

From my experiencing teaching to non-design students, I have identified three core ingredients that designers need to have, learn and develop to effectively do their job:

200-designIngredients

Three core ingredients that designers need to learn and practice. In this context, Design Thinking is not related to IDEO’s DT process or other similar ones; here it is literally referring to the way designers think.

Although each Art and Design school teaches design with a different approach, it is very rare for these three ingredients to be explicitly taught in an independent manner. However, non-design schools do tend to teach them in a more explicit way as the majority of the students start with a much lower baseline, and some basic concepts need to be taught from scratch. Often, design related programs taught in these schools put the emphasis on one ingredient more than on the others. For example, some programs are highly theoretical with little hands-on practice (focus on design thinking) while others emphasize the execution of ideas and creation of artifacts with little attention to process (focus on design doing) .

In short: As design education changes and expands, new needs and challenges emerge.  These are five design education areas that need to be revised:

  1. The students: who are the students and what do they need?
  2. The goal: what are design programs and courses focus on?
  3. The pedagogical approach: how is design taught?
  4. The professors: how much professional design and pedagogical experience teachers need?
  5. The class experience: who should be involved in the learning journey?

Yes, teaching design in a Liberal Arts education has been challenging for me, but it has also been illuminating: students develop (information) design awareness, and I’m becoming a better-equipped educator and practitioner. Reflecting on my own practice to gain a deeper understanding of how we (Designers) work and why we do what we do, is truly helping me be able to better articulate each step in the process to others.

*Excerpt from my abstract.

This post is based on my talk: Breaking Assumptions in Design Education: Reflections on teaching information design to non-designers, presented at 7th ICTVC, published in the proceedings book.

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