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.

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.

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.

Prototyping & User Testing in Learning Design

Sketch of classroom

By: rorydraw used under Creative Commons license.

Prototyping and user testing are common practices in many design fields, yet when designing courses and curricula within higher education, developing prototypes and testing them with users seems to be a rarity. How might prototyping and user testing help us improve our designs for learning?

Prototypes help designers discover and address design challenges and constraints early in the design process through creating low-cost and often low-fidelity mock-ups. There is nothing like building a prototype to uncover the real challenges in a project. Prototypes can lead to solutions that could not have been imagined at the start of the design process, but through repeated efforts to improve a design, a beautiful solution is found.

Prototyping becomes even more helpful when we get our prototypes out into the world and test them with the people who will ultimately use what we are designing. Through user testing, we get incredible feedback on our design solutions. User testing gives us real answers to questions such as: Is it easy to use? Does it meet users needs? Did we make good assumptions about how users will approach our design? Through user testing, we get a view into the mind of our users so we can evolve and further develop our prototypes to better meet their needs.

When designing courses and curricula in higher education, we do have some practices that might be considered prototypes. Syllabi, curricular maps, and learning activity designs evolve through many drafts in the design process. Yet, are we treating these drafts as prototypes or are we refining a single solution? By developing multiple prototypes, each representing different approaches to a design challenge, designers take on a frame of divergent thinking-expanding and exploring many aspects and possible solutions to the challenge before moving to a convergent thinking mode to narrow and refine ideas. Yet, how often in learning design do we develop multiple concepts as possible design solutions? Often we skip exploring multiple approaches to a challenge and move immediately into narrowing and refining an early concept. Additionally, the process of developing multiple concepts requires a time commitment. Yet in learning design, do we give enough time to the prototyping process to allow designs to evolve and improve through the iterative building and refining of multiple prototypes?

While we may do some prototyping in course and curricular design work, I rarely see prototypes tested with students before a course or a curriculum is launched. There may be some good reasons for this, as many curricula take students several years to complete. User testing something so large prior to launch could be improbable or impossible for many institutions. Even at the course level user testing can seem impractical, trial running a semester long course for the purposes of user testing could be challenging for many schools.

Should we just skip user testing all together and make adjustments over time as we run the course with students year-over-year? This seems be to a standard practice in course design. We put together a syllabus, launch it, then gradually tweak and improve it each semester or year. Of course we should use student feedback to improve our designs over time, but don’t students in the early runs of a new course design deserve our best design efforts? How might user testing give us feedback to improve our designs prior to launch so that a course might be great on the first offering rather than having to wait a few years for it to be refined?

If doing a full semester or multi-year trial seems improbable, how might we do smaller, modular user tests? Could we develop user tests that allow us to test prototypes of particular learning activities or core resources? Could we find ways to test curricular structures and sequences with students without going through the whole sequence?

It seems we could learn a great deal in the design process and produce better designs more quickly by involving more prototyping and user testing in the process. So how do we do it? What have you seen that works well?

Visual Course Design

Close up of sticky notes being used for course design.

Designing the scope and sequence to learning activities for a new course can be a challenging process. In the early stages of course design, my brain is full ideas and concepts for learning activities, possible readings and resources to assign, and presentation techniques I might use.  It can be difficult to get that jumble of ideas into a meaningful course structure while trying to maintain a good balance of work for my students and me during the term.  Until recently, I would rough out the scope and sequence for a new course in a word processor as a part of writing my syllabus, but I’ve been finding that the building the first draft in a word processor makes it difficult to make quick changes. Additionally, at the early stages of course design, I am trying to form connections between concepts and ideas and drafting in the word processor forces a linearity to my thinking that makes it harder to see those connections. To better get the ideas out of my head and into a place where I can work with them to build connections, I have recently been using a visual method to help me sort out all of the pieces of a new course in the early stages of the design process.

On a stickFoam core and sticky notes used for course planningy-note, I write out a number for each week of the term and attach them to a large piece of foam core. These help me see the calendar constraints for my course.

Using different colored sticky notes, I write out the weekly activities, assignments, and student projects and add them to the board under the number of the week that the activities will take place. I write out topic and content themes for the assignments. The theme notes help me to develop a thematic progression through the units.  I will also make notes, either on the board or somewhere else, about the amount of time I expect students to work on the assignments or projects.

On other sticky notes, I write out the reading selections, noting the main themes of the reading and the page quantity for the selection.  The theme notes help me to match reading and assignment themes. The page numbers help me create a balanced work load through the weeks of the term.

Having the entire semester of assignments and activities posted on a single board helps me to see the flow of the course in a way I can’t when the schedule is spread over multiple pages in a document. The large format helps me to make connections on unit structures and themes and to quickly see if the work load is spread evenly through each week of the term. If I want to make a change, it is fast and easy to move notes around the board or to write out a new note. Once I feel I have a good scope and sequence developed, I write out the schedule in my syllabus, make final adjustments, and add the information to my course in the LMS. By using an analog visual structure for drafting the scope and sequence of a new course I find it easier to get the jumble of ideas out of my head and into a space where I can easily move them around to form a coherent course design that has good thematic flow and a balanced work load for students.

Mental Models and Usability

Conceptual Models Diagram from Norman, D. A. (1988). The Design of Everyday Things. New York, Basic Books.

Conceptual Models Diagram from Norman, D. A. (1988). The Design of Everyday Things. New York, Basic Books.

In his book, The Design of Everyday Things, Donald Norman explores methods to design usable objects and systems using everyday objects such as door handles and faucet knobs as examples. Norman emphasizes the role of conceptual models in creating easy to use systems. Any system or device will be easier to use if the user has a good conceptual model of how the system works. It is the designer’s job to create a conceptual model for the system that aligns with users’ mental models or educates users on the model of the system (p.189).

Three different aspects of mental models must be distinguished: the design model, the user’s model, and the system image. The design model is the conceptualization that the designer has in mind. The user’s model is what the user develops to explain the operation of the system. Ideally, the user’s model and the design model are equivalent. However, the user and the designer communicate only through the system itself: its physical appearance, its operation, the way it responds, and the manuals and instructions that accompany it. Thus the system image is critical: the designer must ensure that everything about the product is consistent with and exemplifies the operation of the proper conceptual model (pp. 189-190).

In complex systems aligning these mental models can be challenging. Designers are likely to be experts in how the system works, whereas users may have a limited or incorrect understanding of the complex system. This can create a situation where designers create a system that reflects their expert understanding, not the novice mental model of the user. This type of design error can commonly be seen in websites in which the navigation of the site is based on the org. chart of the business—a system image based on insider view of the business rather than a system image based how website visitors think about the organization or  how they frame the tasks they want to accomplish.

In higher education, programs, curricula, and courses are just a few of the many complex systems that leaders are called to design. University leaders have an insider expert conceptual models of the educational system—a model that is likely very different from the conceptual model held by  students and other constituents of the university.  Through user-centered design practices such as those recommended by Norman, educational leaders can design learning systems that are understandable and user friendly for their students.


Norman, D. A. (1988). The Design of Everyday Things. New York, Basic Books.

Tim Brown on Design Thinking

In this TED talk, Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, discusses how design thinking can be used to address complex systems problems in areas such as health care, education, or climate change. For Brown, the human centered, participatory, and action oriented practices of design thinking can help people and organizations develop new ideas to address the complex challenges of their world. Higher education is going through a time of significant change; the human centered, participatory, and action oriented practices of design thinking may help schools respond and thrive in their changing environments.

Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit


IDEO has created Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit, a fantastic free resource designed to help educators use Design Thinking to create and improve things at their schools.

The toolkit provides an introduction and overview to Design Thinking, outlining the major phases of a Design Thinking project.

  1. Discovery
  2. Interpretation
  3. Ideation
  4. Experimentation
  5. Evolution

For each of these phases, the toolkit provides step by step instructions for forming work teams and leading tasks of the phase. These instructions identify the number of people, time, and resources need for each task. Additionally, the instructions provide ideas and questions to help project teams complete their work.  See an Example.

For educators who are new to Design Thinking, the toolkit provides a good introduction to the process. For people experienced with Design Thinking, the toolkit provides rich resources to support projects.

The toolkit was developed in partnership with K-12 institutions, however, Higher Ed educators will have little difficulty translating the resource to their context.

Book: The Design of Business, Roger Martin

Cover image of The Design of Business, by Roger Martin

In his book, The Design of Business, why design thinking is the next competitive advantage, Roger Martin explores how design thinking can help businesses create long-term advantage and value by building systems that balance the needs of the analytical processes required for efficiently running an organization and the intuitive processes required to help organizations explore and discover new opportunities. Higher education is going through a period of significant change and many of the existing operational models are being disrupted through technological and social changes. Martin’s design of business framework is a helpful concept for colleges and universities seeking to create value and competitive advantage in our changing environment.

One of the core ideas Martin explores is how businesses traditionally derive long term value by moving knowledge through what he calls the knowledge funnel.

The first stage of the funnel is the exploration of a mystery. A research scientist might study the mystery of a syndrome such as autism. A hospital administrator might ask what kind of space would improve the condition of cancer patients coping with chemotherapy…

The next stage of the funnel is a heuristic, a rule of thumb that helps narrow the field of inquiry and work the mystery down to a manageable size…It is a way of thinking about the mystery that provides a simplified understanding of it and allows those with access to the heuristic to focus their efforts.

As an organization puts its heuristic into operation, studies more, and thinks about it intensely, it can convert from a general rule of thumb (Americans want a quick, convenient, tasty meal) to a fixed formula ( [Ray] Kroc’s totally systematized McDonald’s). That formula is an algorithm, the last of the three stages of the knowledge funnel (pp.7-9).

Martin argues that businesses create value by moving knowledge through the knowledge funnel—by exploring mysteries and creating heuristics to help address the mysteries, and by exploiting existing heuristics by transferring them to be algorithms allowing for expansion and economies of scale. “Most often, organizations choose to focus on one activity, either exploration or exploitation, to the exclusion of the other and their own detriment” (p.18).

Organizations that focus on exploration will often structure their work around intuitive processes that are able to make intuitive leaps that help a mystery to become a heuristic but will struggle with systemization and scaling and may be disrupted by other organizations that make their heuristic into an algorithm.

Organizations that focus on exploitation organize their work around “running an existing heuristic, gently honing and refining it, but not seeking to move knowledge to an algorithm or running an existing algorithm and not seeking to explore the next mystery” (p. 19). Exploitation oriented organizations are at risk of being disrupted by new discoveries or environmental changes that make their algorithm obsolete.

Martin offers a third mode of organizational orientation, design thinking, in which organizations embrace both exploration and exploitation activities. “The answer lies in embracing a third form of thinking—design thinking—that helps a company both hone and refine within the existing knowledge stage and generate the leap from state to stage, continuously, in a process I call the design of business” (p. 24).

For his definition of design thinking, Martin draws on a definition given by IDEO’s Tim Brown. “design thinking is ‘a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s need with what is technically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity'” (p.62).

Martin argues that in order for design thinking to thrive in organizations it will require leaders—design thinkers—who are able to balance intuitive discovery processes and the need for analytical decision making. To do their work, design thinkers employ the tools of observation, imagination, and configuration. Through observation, design thinkers develop a deep understanding of the people they hope to serve. With imagination, design thinkers make inferences about what might address people’s needs and through prototyping and user-testing, they refine the idea. In configuration, design thinkers translate their insights and prototypes into the systems that will create the business outcome (pp. 160-163).

The design thinker therefore enables the organization to balance exploration and exploitation, invention of business and administration of business, and originality and mastery. Design thinking powers the design of business, the directed movement of a business through the knowledge funnel from mystery to heuristic to algorithm and then the utilization of the resulting efficiencies to tackle the next mystery and the next and the next. The velocity of movement through the knowledge funnel, powered by design thinking, is the most powerful formula for competitive advantage in the twenty-first century (pp. 24-26).

Martin argues that building design thinking into an organization will take significant intentionality. Because most organizations are built around analytical logic processes, there will be clashes of culture between design thinking processes and traditional analytical processes. If organizations are to build and benefit from design thinking processes, there is leadership work that will be necessary to make space within the organization for design ways of thinking including how projects are structured, how compensation and prestige is managed, and how leadership makes decisions.

To illustrate design thinking in organizations, Martin discusses a number of companies such as Proctor & Gamble, Research In Motion, Target, Hermann Miller, Apple, and Steelcase that have moved to become design thinking oriented business, discussing how design thinking helped these companies create significant value. However, Martin’s criteria for what makes businesses successful in using design thinking is unclear. In particular, Research In Motion, maker of BlackBerry devices and one of Martin’s key example institutions, has lost significant market share in the years since the publication of this book. Additionally, Martin admits to have been personally involved in several of the example organizations. While Martin does not make a case-closed argument for the effectiveness of design thinking, the concept has merit and is worth more exploration.

The world is changing for higher education institutions, many schools are finding that their organizational models are being disrupted by technological and social changes. For many, past history will not be an indication of future results. Colleges and universities have often structured their work in the heuristic level of Martin’s funnel, hiring highly skilled and highly paid faculty and administrators to support student learning. In some cases this heuristic level work is being transformed to algorithmic work through technological change that allows schools and organizations to automate many teaching and learning tasks. For-profit schools, online learning, MOOCs, and alternate credentialing systems are a few of the changes making some educational processes much cheaper and are disrupting the operational models of many schools.

Martin’s design of business model could be helpful for higher education institutions.  Colleges and universities could embrace  algorithmic processes, making some teaching and learning work more efficient in order to free up creative and skilled faculty and administrators to tackle new and vexing challenges—to explore new mysteries and create new opportunities through developing new heuristics.  The design of business model may help colleges and universities to respond to current disruptive changes by developing organizational systems that are able to discover new possibilities and then help them develop those concepts effectively and efficiently.