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.


Syllabus Redesign

syllabus_redesign_cover

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:


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?