Four Domains of Design in Higher Education

photo of blueprint

CC: Todd Ehlers

Design is happening informally and intentionally at a variety of levels in higher education institutions. Richard Buchanan (1995) identified four domains of design that are helpful for framing areas of design work. His areas of design are:

  1. Symbolic & Visual Communications
  2. Material Objects
  3. Activities & Organized Services
  4. Complex Systems or Environments for Living, Working, Playing & Learning

Buchanan notes that professional designers and people who might not consider themselves designers work to create solutions to problems in each of these areas. While we might commonly associate design with the design of some new technological gadget or the graphic design of a poster, design includes these other domains as well. Higher education systems usually contain work all four of these domains.

Symbolic & Visual Communications
This domain includes the disciplines of graphic design, typography, or digital interfaces and is often the work of graphic designers, web designers, interaction designers or professionals in other areas of visual communication such as film or animation. Higher education institutions are regularly engaging in this domain of design. This might be in admissions, marketing, or branding of the school but it also includes the digital interfaces of online learning systems and the design of faculty hand-outs and presentations. This can also include signage and way finding systems to help students and guests navigate the campus or find the exit of a building.

Material Objects
This domain includes the designed material objects we encounter on a daily basis. This might be a kitchen utensil, clothing, tools of various complexity, furniture, or a car. These objects are designed by industrial designers, furniture designers, clothing designers, and engineers. The design of material objects has a big impact in higher education institutions. Consider the differences in classroom chairs from the traditional style tablet-arm chair in a fixed seating lecture hall to the mobile re-configurable furniture now being designed for active learning classrooms.

Activities & Organized Services
For Buchanan, this domain includes “traditional management concerns for logistics, combining physical resources, instrumentalities, and human beings in efficient sequences and schedules to reach specified objectives” (p.7). This is work that is now being done by service designers or business designers but is also a concern of instructional designers, faculty, and higher education leaders. Courses, curricula, registration, advising, and enrollment management are all organized activities and services that are designed in higher education.

Complex Systems or Environments for Living, Working, Playing & Learning
Architects, urban planners, and systems engineers are traditional design roles that work to design these complex systems. College and universities often contract with architects, and planning organizations to design buildings their campuses. But this includes so much more than just the buildings and or the campus grounds, it includes the design of the organization itself—the design of the school and its subsequent systems. In their recent book, Designing the New American University, Michael Crow and William Dabars (2015) discuss the work that Arizona State University has done to intentionally design the knowledge production systems that make up a major research university.

Integrating Design Domains
Design work is happening within each of these domains in higher education. As Buchanan points out, the people doing the design work in these areas may not consider themselves designers. But what if they did? What if people who were designing the structures and systems of a college thought of themselves as designers. Rather than design happening implicitly as a matter of course within a change project, what if leaders worked to learn from the practices of professional designers in a similar domain? Could faculty and instructional designers learn from the graphic designers on how to effectively communicate visually? Could deans or program chairs learn from architects about practices that are beneficial in creating complex systems?

Some large organizations, such as 3M or Pepsi are creating the role of Chief Design Officer as a way to strategically integrate design processes throughout the organization. Might colleges and universities also benefit from a CDO that could help to align design work and capacity across each of these domains? Rather than being fragmented activities that are done within pockets of the organization, what if design was a core competency of a college or university?

Buchanan, R. (1995). Wicked problems in design thinking. In Margolin, V., & Buchanan, R., (Eds.), The idea of design (7-20). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Cross, M. M., & Dabars, W. M. (2015). Designing the new american university. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

John Nash on Design Thinking and Education

This week, I had the good fortune to meet Dr. John Nash, founding director of the dlab at the University of Kentucky. He is working on how design thinking methods can be used to support innovation in learning in K-12 and higher education contexts. You can hear him talk about it here.

You might also be interested in his TEDx presentation.

Program Design Documentation

Program Documentation Cover - Crop

We are in the process of redesigning the Graphic Design & Visual Communication major at Trinity Lutheran College. In order for the redesigns to be approved, the redesign plan needed to be presented to the faculty for discussion and vote. The redesign proposal is a significant document that outlines program purpose, audience, learning outcomes, assessment strategies, competitive analysis, program market distinctiveness, and curricular structure. In other program redesign processes that I have been a part of, this documentation is usually presented in a long slog of badly formatted Word documents and PowerPoint slides. In contrast, in major web design projects, the design documents that are provided to clients by web design firms are often clear, beautiful, easy to read documents. They use good typography and images to communicate key design concepts and ideas for the clients.

For the redesign documentation for our program at Trinity, I designed the program proposal as though it were a client-facing design document. I worked to use good images and collaborated with our marketing team keep the proposal design on-brand, using official typefaces for the school and following appropriate logo use. This is a redesign of a graphic design program after all, the proposal should look good and why should the web designers have all the fun? Dan Brown’s book Communicating Design: Developing Web Site Documentation for Design & Planning is an excellent resource and greatly informed the design of the program proposal documentation. While I can’t show the whole proposal, here are a few screen shots of how the document turned out.

Program Documentation Cover Program Documentation Interior

I circulated initial drafts with key opinion leaders for feedback and then distributed the documentation to faculty prior to meeting so that everyone would have a chance to read through it and bring questions to the meeting. The design of the proposal was a fantastic hit. Faculty found it engaging and easy to read and I think the design significantly helped build credibility for the design proposal. We had a great discussion about the goals and the direction of the program and our design was approved and we are on our way. I will certainly be paying attention to the design of the documentation for future projects.

Design Thinking for Strategic Planning

markers, sticky notes, scissors, etc.

I recently led a Design Thinking Crash Course at Trinity Lutheran College as a part of our strategic planning process. Through the training, we wanted to help leaders in our strategic planning process to experience and learn more about design thinking. The crash course introduced primary concepts in human centered design such as:

  • Developing empathy for users through interviews.
  • Using divergent thinking before moving to convergent thinking.
  • Sketching to develop and communicate ideas.
  • Developing prototypes.
  • User Testing.

For the crash course, we used the structure and materials developed by Stanford’s This enabled us to complete the crash course and have a debrief discussion in about 2 hours. The toolkit is well developed and easy to use.

Space was a major consideration in planning the crash course. We didn’t want the course to take place in a regular conference room or classroom; we wanted to provide a space where people felt free to interact and work differently than they normally might in a work meeting. We chose an open gathering space with great window views for our event. In the space we set up groups of small tables filled with sticky notes, pens, markers, colored pencils, and craft paper. We also had music playing in the background. For the music we used a Pandora jazz station, however the commercial interruptions were very distracting, next time we will play music from a device to eliminate the commercials. The space worked well and people got into the creative spirit of the work.

In a happy last minute addition, we invited our project management class to join the crash course, since their class was meeting at the same time as our event. Having students and school leaders work together in the crash course worked really well. The student and staff interactions brought great energy and multiple perspectives to the conversation. We are planning to invite both students and staff to our next crash course.

The event was a success; participants were excited about design thinking and had a several ideas on how the framework could be used to support work in the strategic planning process. One of the big ideas that came out of the discussion was an idea to develop personas, brief biographies of aggregate student groups, to help us better understand who our prospective students are now and who they might be in 2020. The crash course succeeded in launching a discussion on design thinking as a part of our strategic plan and we are planning another crash course for others who want to know more about the process.

Syllabus Redesign


Course syllabi are often policy documents describing course policies, assignment requirements, learning goals and the course schedule and often they look like legal documents, written in small type with dense paragraphs. I’ve been wondering recently if syllabi could be more student friendly. Since I teach in a visual communication program, it also seemed appropriate that my syllabi should demonstrate some understanding of the principles of graphic design.

This fall I redesigned the my syllabus template, trying to create a document that is nice to look at and easy to use. The syllabus is structured so the learning goals, student projects, grading scale and schedule are in the front of the document and the policy information at the end. Additionally, since syllabi are a primary document that represents the college, I worked to have the syllabi be on-brand, using the appropriate typefaces and logos. It’s still early in the term so I don’t have feedback yet from students on the documents but I’m excited to learn how well they work for them.

See the syllabi for two of my courses:

New Adventures in the Northwest


Last week I moved from Minneapolis to the Pacific Northwest to start my new role at Trinity Lutheran College as Professor and Chair of Graphic Design & Visual Communication and Associate Dean of Learning Design & Technology. I am excited to be helping student learn design and to be working with the school to use design practices to create programs, courses, and learning environments where students thrive in their learning.

Trinity is a small school with history of bold, creative moves; in 2008 the school sold its campus and purchased a 5 story building in downtown Everett, WA, renovating it into beautiful learning spaces, offices, and a chapel. Rather than building and supporting a fitness center, Trinity partners with the nearby YMCA to provide fitness facilities. To help keep costs down, many faculty members have dual appointments as teachers and as administrators. As a small school, Trinity knows well the challenges facing many schools and has responded with creative solutions. I’m excited to be joining Trinity’s dynamic community, as we explore how to use design to improve learning for students at Trinity, you will hear about it here.

Higher Education Leaders as Designers

Paul Zenke has wrDesign in Educational Technology Coveritten “Higher Education Leaders as Designers,” a chapter in the new book, Design in Educational Technology. Zenke briefly outlines some key themes in design thinking and connects how those design thinking concepts could be used by leaders in higher education to help address the difficult challenges facing their institutions. The chapter provides a helpful framework for looking at design thinking and leadership in higher education and the bibliography is good. Unfortunately, the book is very expensive, so try to obtain it from your local academic library.