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?

References
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.



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