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.


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 d.school. This enabled us to complete the crash course and have a debrief discussion in about 2 hours. The d.school 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.


New Adventures in the Northwest

NewAdventures_TLC_Header

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.


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?


Crowdfunding Higher Education

Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman and Jared Spool, of the Unicorn Institute, have started a Kickstarter campaign to help fund their startup User Experience Design School, Center Centre. The campaign surpassed its initial target within a few hours and within several days it has raised more than $65,000 from more than 650 backers.

Seeking donations to support programs is nothing new to higher education institutions. However in this case, the school is foregoing traditional fundraising pathways, using instead technology supported social networks and crowdfunding tools to mobilize support for the program.


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.