Design Education: on the cusp of change Participatory design and the new design curriculum

Susan Stirling

The world of design, and design education is on the cusp of change. The definition of design has broadened: design is not only seen as what we make, but why we make it. As designers we are all problem solvers, with the goal of making an impact on the world.  As a Convergence Academies Fellow, I was most interested in sharing with my students my enthusiasm about design as a tool for change.


President Kim, in his Columbia College Chicago position paper titled “Redefining Our Greatness,” expressed the need for curriculum to provide students with a “wealth of opportunities to begin understanding who they are in the world through community engagement work and experiential learning.” I took on that challenge with my fellowship project.

I was introduced to Convergence Academies, and Tilden High School– an underserved CPS partner school on Chicago’s South Side– a year ago through my work on the Archeworks New Practice team. Our team of design professionals employed a user-centered design process to create a digital atelier at the school to meet the needs of the students, teachers and staff. We documented this process with a toolkit that other schools can use to replicate this model. My involvement at Tilden inspired me to introduce the Columbia College Chicago students to the Tilden High School community. As a graphic designer who switched paths mid-career in order to pursue a graduate degree in design research and strategy, teaching college students was the next step on my journey.

I was invited to partner with a team at Gensler, the global architecture and design firm, on a project to research and design student-centered designs for college dormitories in order to help students succeed during that very important first year in college. This was an ideal opportunity to engage my Columbia College Chicago students in a real world design problem as well as an opportunity to build on my previous work with Tilden High School.

Intro to Visual Design Studies, which I taught during the Fall 2014 semester, is a required class for second year Art+Design students at Columbia College Chicago. My class was made up of 15 students from diverse backgrounds with varying design abilities and experience. All were either graphic design or illustration majors. In this class I introduced the students to the concept of user-centered design. My goal was to have my college students partner with high school students and immerse themselves in their world, in order to understand the issues that these 12th grade students experience as they prepare to graduate. How were the experiences of the Tilden high school students similar or different to their own pathways? My plan called for the Columbia students to gather data, design concepts, and present them to the Gensler team for feedback, and finally test them with Tilden High School students. This project was ambitious, but by engaging the students in the process, my hope was to create excitement about using design as a problem-solving tool.

First steps

Design students at Columbia College Chicago are very comfortable with creating, one of the 3 C’s in Convergence Academy’s participatory design framework. They are less familiar with the process known as “design thinking”. In this process designers go through the following steps in order to put the user at the core of their design solution:

  • Understand: do primary (observations and interviews) and secondary research,
  • Define: reframe the problem as a question: “How might we…?”
  • Create: propose concepts that may address the issue
  • Prototype: build solutions
  • Test: try out solutions with users

These tasks were abstract for my students. Many designers, like my students, resist the idea that design is not just about aesthetics, but also about the research and collaboration that goes into arriving at design solutions. But I persevered, and presented concrete examples of case studies where designers employed this methodology with great success. My goal was to introduce the students a new way of thinking about design through experiential learning.

Partnership with Gensler and Tilden high school students

I began by getting my students out of the classroom as often as possible. My class was invited to the Gensler Chicago offices where my students were given a tour and introduced to the project. The Gensler team visited our classroom at Columbia College several times throughout the semester to work with the students, and offer feedback throughout the project. These field trips, and the collaborative meetings between the Gensler team and my students proved to be valuable (and allowed them to connect, another Convergence Academy “C”). My students commented that they had never visited a design firm and were excited by the experience.

Class visit to Gensler Chicago offices.

The students learned user-centered design methodology through participatory exercises. In order to learn how to conduct interviews the students role-played the interview process in class with their peers. In addition, we walked as a class to a nearby coffee shop to do an informal exercise in user observation. They wrote their observations on post-it notes, and then we returned to our classroom where we clustered the notes in order to learn how to arrive at themes and insights from their research findings. This exercise was repeated after the students interviewed fellow students living in the dormitories and asked them what they like most and least about their experiences, and what they think could be changed.

Columbia College Chicago students organizing findings from observation and interview research activities.

Memorable interactions

Once my students were familiar with user-centered design methods, I introduced them to the Tilden High School students. Nearly half of my students spent time at Tilden, where they worked with high school seniors in a class called “Senior Seminar” where students explore options after college. My students worked with the Tilden students on a collage activity where they used images from magazines to express where they see themselves now, and in the future. It was an eye-opening experience for my college students, most had not ventured beyond the Columbia College Chicago campus. Hearing the Tilden students’ stories made a strong impression on the college students, and these insights were apparent in the final projects my students presented at the end of the semester.

Working with Tilden High School students on collages. Theme: Where are you now? Where do you want to be?

The most memorable interaction between the two groups of students came at the end of the semester when I invited the high school students from “Senior Seminar” to our class at Columbia College Chicago. During this class my students shared with the high school students their design concepts for college dorms. They asked the Tilden students for comments and integrated their feedback into their final presentations. Bringing these groups of students together was the highlight of the semester.

Top row: Columbia College Chicago student teams working with Tilden high school student teams on their design solutions for college dormitories. Bottom row: group photo

Next steps and moving forward

I chose to teach undergraduates late in my career because I wanted to share my passion for design as a problem-solving tool. With my Convergence Fellowship project I now have an experiential learning framework that I will build on for future classes. This project required my students to step out of their comfort zone. The students learned and practiced new skills, and they ultimately solved a problem that will make an impact on people’s lives. As design education at the college level continues to evolve, I hope that my project will be a model for new way of teaching design. I am inspired to by a student’s comment on my course evaluation, “This course gives me a window into what the real world expectations are. I genuinely can say that this type of class is what makes me want to go into my field of study. The style of this class gave me confidence in my design problem-solving skills and strengthened my design thinking”.