I believe design is an expansive discipline with uncharted domains and unmeasured influence. As designers, we reinforce worldviews and provide conditions for forging new ones. We propose strategies for inciting change within diverse contexts, and
plan the steps necessary to achieve it. Designers who think critically, make sound decisions, and develop diverse expertise push the boundaries of design and continue to learn and thrive throughout life.
To prepare students for a thriving career, I create learning conditions that emphasize purpose, autonomy, and versatility. Purpose informs design decisions and sets criteria for success. Autonomy inspires confidence in one’s ability to address complex problems. Versatility fosters inclusive leadership in forging new opportunities. Learning conditions that emphasize purpose, autonomy, and versatility prepare students to address complex issues as well as seize opportunities well into the future.
As designers, we work in the realm of possibilities. The design decisions we make depend on our grasp of purpose — why our actions, our efforts, our projects matter. Purpose provides clarity in the midst of uncertainty and complexity. It is the backbone upon which we build meaningful form.
Contextualized projects enable students to anchor purpose within tangible and situated constraints — i.e. for whom, what, when, where, and why the project is relevant and effective. Students employ context-assessment techniques, which help identify the nuanced relationships among people, objects, and settings involved in the issue. Based on the findings, students propose design leverage points and set explicit design goals. The goals then guide subsequent design decisions for creating effectual form.
Critique discussions are not about personal likes and dislikes, but rather how well the design addresses the stated purpose, given the constraints. Additionally, I frame learning outcomes, assignments, demonstrations, and assessment criteria through purpose—how and why each component is relevant for the current project and transferable to future situations.
It is not enough for students to know how to do something; students should also know why and when one action is more appropriate than another. With the ability to identify purpose and make informed design decisions, students constructively assess complex situations and make informed decisions about how and why to move forward with the design. Designing involves planning the steps necessary to accomplish goals — to transform the current situation into a preferred one.
Building autonomy into the learning environment enables students to take measured risks, while becoming comfortable working with complexity. It offers students the space to negotiate complex problems, where the recognition of what he/she does not know stimulates engaged learning. It instills a sense of ownership, or personal investment, in the process. Furthermore, coordinating individual efforts into a larger plan enables students to experience the collective potential of shared purpose.
Without adequate support, however, autonomy can become misguided and frustrating. In support of autonomy, I make the planning process explicit and vary the scope in which students plan sequences of actions. At the individual level, students investigate different aspects of the same issue, which includes searching for different content, developing different goals, and making autonomous decisions. Students also develop strategic plans and coordinate individual efforts at the group and class level. Additionally, I provide a common set of resources and demonstrations through structured activities and course websites. The course materials enable students to choose appropriate methods, find outside information, and troubleshoot technology in a timely fashion.
With a broad repertoire of skills, students can gauge the appropriateness of design methods by the demands of the project goals, rather than instructional default. Over time, students become confident in developing innovative solutions for situations in which a single answer does not exist. Working autonomously on the same topic creates a sense of community within the class, while producing an equal sense of challenge for students with diverse aptitudes. Learning conditions that foster autonomy encourage students to become confident resourceful designers.
Design is an integrative discipline. We often work with various topics, across multiple media formats, and collaborate with people of diverse backgrounds. The versatility expected of us does not mean we need to know everything, but rather we have the skills to learn and the curiosity to explore new domains. Versatility encourages epistemological modesty — the inquisitiveness to see beyond our own biases and empathize with diverse perspectives. It also becomes the foundation from which we understand systems and anticipate nuanced interactions. Versatility enables us to clarify complexity and find common ground for discussion,
negotiation, and action.
The projects posed for each class, therefore, involve seeking, learning, and designing for non-design topics. Students also engage with pertinent principles from psychology, computer science, and social criticism that directly inform design goals and strategies. To unpack unfamiliar and complex topics and issues, students employ diagramming techniques throughout the design process. Service ecology diagrams, in particular, demonstrate the students’ ability to identify relevant leverage points within a problem and articulate ways in which information coordinates across multiple touchpoints, or media formats. Additionally, varying degrees of group work enable students to develop collaboration skills. Students practice visualization techniques that facilitate dialogue and negotiations within team settings.
Collaboration enables students to integrate different perspectives into one project and develop skills for making group decisions, including managing member roles and resolving conflicts. Furthermore, I invite interdisciplinary design teams from industry to present and participate in class. The teams provide students with role models, demonstrating the value of the designer in a collaborative work environment.
Versatility enables designers to draw from diverse perspectives, develop informed strategies, and recognize the value of design in diverse contexts. It fosters diverse expertise and a community of learners. Designers have the unique privilege of building conditions that affect peoples’ lives on small and large scales. We have a responsibility to respect the rich complexity of the situations for which we design.
As an educator, I prepare students to handle challenging situations. I do more than explain tools and methods and pose portfolio-worthy projects. I help students become expert learners: individuals who love learning and know how to assess situations and find information on their own. I create learning environments where students are eager to put forth new ideas, share what they learn, and design relevant meaningful form.
Purpose gives clarity and direction to a student’s design decisions. Autonomy grants a safe open space to expand personal boundaries and develop innovative solutions. Versatility instills a sense of curiosity and teamwork in the design process. In combination, the three qualities cultivate thoughtful, driven, and informed leaders. I offer myself as a benevolent mentor, reinforcing a sense of possibility, ability, and connection on a daily basis.