Five things I learnt from my students

176-class-learnings

Draft versions of the final project from students at Princeton University. The project focused on visual narrative and storytelling. Each student used the whiteboard walls to write feedback and comments on the other’s work in progress. / Featured image: Icon taken from one of the student’s story.

For the last two years, I have been teaching various flavours of design (information design, design thinking, interaction design) in non-design institutions. So far, the experience has been extremely eye opening but also challenging as when I started, I didn’t know how different it would be from previous years of teaching similar courses in design schools. Teaching to non-design students* has involved re-thinking and re-positioning the way I used to teach design.

One of the biggest changes was to learn how to make each implicit aspect in design, explicit: from explaining primary colours to pointing out that to use an xacto knife you first need to put a cutting mat on the table. But most importantly, I realised that first, these students needed to develop an understanding and appreciation of design, which is what typically motivates design students to study design. Outside the field, there are too many assumptions and preconceptions about who designers are and what they do (now even more than before!), what makes crucial to provide a clear picture right from the start and explain what design is and what isn’t.

Every cohort of students is different and unique in their own ways but a recurrent factor is that every year I learn something new from them. Particularly, my students have equipped me with five key learnings:

1. Using simple words invites dialogue. The longer we have been working in professional practice, the more jargon and technical words we use without even being aware of it, and teaching in a non-design environment makes this very noticeable. We seem to use highly abstract or cryptic words to refer to the most basic concepts. Designers talk about “values” and “leading” rather than “colours”, and “the space between the lines in a paragraph”, just to name a few common ones. While using these words is totally relevant and necessary in our daily practice, when teaching design to non-designers we should be able to explain the concepts behind the terms and slowly introduce technical jargon.

2. Knowing why you did what you did is important. I found that non-design students are more interested in process than design students. Non-design students love to learn how you arrive to the final design, and they can ask all kind of questions (e.g. What was your rationale for choosing blue and not green? Why did you decide to visualise data in a chart and not a table? Why you change the font size in that version?). I have to admit that the first time my students asked me forensic questions about a project, I panicked. Mostly because I thought I didn’t really know the answers: did I just make arbitrary design decisions in this project? Luckily, after jogging my memory I remembered the process followed for that particular project and actually realised that I did follow a logical chain of decisions that was supported by exploration, audience’s input, and research. Since then, when working on a design project, I try to be a little more aware of what I’m doing at each step of the process and why so then I can share that experience with my students.

3. The role of iterations for the quality of a design isn’t clear to everyone. The concept of iterations is actually extremely foreign to non-designers. At the beginning of the course, non-design students approach design projects as they study for an exam: working four or five hours before the deadline and submitting what they have. No matter how many times you tell them to bring drafts for next class, they won’t (unless is mandatory!). Luckily after the first project, they see that those students who have been iterating their designs, are the ones who end up with the most interesting and sophisticated final deliverables. As designers we know that we can be iterating (working on, revising and improving) a design forever; but at some point closer to the deadline we need to have a “final” version. No one has explicitly told me this reasoning though: a design idea is constantly changing. I was trying to explain the students the importance of iterations when the concept came to mind. I learnt that it is important to explicitly explain and practice this concept (iterations) since early on in the course.

4. Peer-feedback is king. From outside, design decisions can be seen as subjective, and when you are the one teaching, your feedback can be seen as “your preference” rather than responding to actual design and cognitive principles. After a few weeks, I noticed that students have rapidly developed a sense for what were good and not so good design decisions, and loved giving feedback to other students. It was actually easier for them to spot what wasn’t working on someone else’s project, and then check on theirs to see if they have done something similar. Peer-assessment helps students develop a critical eye, and detach myself from being the one “telling them what to do” or everyone thinking they have to follow “my style”.

5. Designers do see the world through a different lens. This may sound cliché or biased, but to some extent is true. Where non-designers just see information on a poster, designers see structure, hierarchies, colours, images of various types, meanings, thought-through and arbitrary decisions; where non-designers just walk around a city, we see signs, patterns, maps, icons, systems, and more signs. I learnt how different but also how important it is this way of seeing the world in order to become a designer and creative thinker. And yes, this is something you have to explicitly make students aware of; the only way to develop this lens is by developing a critical eye and exploring.

Each semester, I hope to inspire my students throughout the course, but I more and more realise that they also inspire me with their fresh perspectives, unexpected questions and inquisitive eye. At the end of the semester, when I look back and see how much they have achieved, I’m really proud of them and their learning journeys. In the last 16 years, students have helped me reflect on my own practice, and way of thinking about design.

*Non-design students: I’m not sure if there is a better term to describe this concept, but to me these are students who aren’t pursuing a design major or similar; and who have no previous experience in design at all. These students cannot be compared with first year design students because they haven’t created a portfolio, taken any foundation classes, or had any previous interest in design prior the class. Most of them don’t know about Adobe software or other tools used by designers. 

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