Evolving Design Practice — A two-week intensive course on service design, AI, and reflective sustainable design practice
Pontus Wärnestål, Associate Professor at Halmstad University, Adjunct Professor at Woxsen University
Design education needs to evolve in a world where “designing new things” is counter-productive to meeting sustainability challenges. Education also needs to develop as new emergent technologies like artificial intelligence profoundly affect how products and services are experienced. How can we address the changing landscape of design and update our practices and curriculum for design education? This is the starting point for a new course called Evolving Design Practice, given at Woxsen University in Hyderabad, India, in collaboration with Halmstad University in Sweden.
Design education focuses on teaching how to create physical, digital, or digi-physical artifacts. While this is a foundation for design practice, such a one-eyed perspective is insufficient for sustainable design work in the 21st century.
First, value is not inherently a part of an individual artifact. Value creation happens in service systems where multiple stakeholders interact.
Second, a focus on defaulting to create new artifacts runs counter to the pressing need to design for mindful and sustainable consumption.
Third, design-oriented approaches and methods have considerable potential to address social innovation and cross-cultural co-creation.
These conditions triggered the creation of a two-week intensive course on evolving design practice. The course is a collaboration between Halmstad University in Sweden and Woxsen University in India. It was given for the first time to third-year Bachelor design students at the Arts and Design Department at the Woxsen University campus located outside of Hyderabad.
One priority of the course is to provide a deep dive into a service-oriented view of value creation. Introducing artificial intelligence as a design material for creating new user experiences and impact is a second priority. Another focus is to continuously evolve the students’ reflective work on what design means for their professional identity. Finally, the course is designed to help designers gain practical experience designing social and environmental sustainability services.
Junior designers often struggle with the messiness of design in the world. Even though design is practical in nature, the design processes taught in the classroom are idealized and theoretical. This can lead to frustration and insecurity for junior designers confronted with practice in the field. Processes must be adjusted due to competing constraints, such as stakeholder values, political views, and resources like time, money, infrastructure, or availability of materials. In this course, students gain an understanding of real-world practices and values through (a) case studies and (b) practical design project work in the local community.
While the course is practical and project-oriented, there are also daily lectures covering theoretical concepts from Service Design and AI. We emphasize the synthesis of these two aspects and provide case studies where AI plays a crucial role in designing and delivering service for multiple actors.
Themes and Content
Design evolves due to novel theory developments from various fields, increased adoption of new technologies, and changing societal needs. This course focuses on three such developments. One is the increasing focus on design for service and systems thinking. Another is the emergence of data analysis, machine learning, and the implications of the design of AI-powered service experiences. Finally, there is a pressing need to use design to address sustainable development goals and align value-creation with decreased environmental impact. Beyond these three content-oriented themes, the course stimulates the students to reflect upon the role design can have in different organizations. The course also consists of a personal reflective practice, where students are encouraged to explore their identity and profile as designers.
The course is a full-speed two-week intensive course. It follows a structured yet flexible format of morning lectures, afternoon project work, and individual reflection time. Primary research in the form of field studies, observations, and interviews is carried out predominantly during the weekend between weeks one and two.
Week one focuses on introducing Service Design as a theoretical topic, as well as practical methods such as journey mapping and service blueprinting.
The lectures in week two introduce artificial intelligence with a strong focus on machine learning from a non-technical perspective. The content is tailored to designers in a way that frames AI as a design material with its own set of UX qualities, methods, tools, and skills.
The afternoons consist of project work organized around the sustainability development goals and sub-goals, with a solid connection to the local community. This allows the students to practice making big abstract goals like the SDGs tangible, gain experience in co-creation, carry out extensive and deep contextual research, and provide value for the local community.
The project is performed like a sprint, with a mid-way review of research, strategy, and scope on the Monday of week two and a final presentation in a pitch-like format on the Friday of week two.
Six teams of five Product and Visual Design students explored projects based on the UN’s sustainable development goals in a local Indian context. Informed and inspired by the lectures and case studies, the students devised exciting and important projects. For example, raising awareness of green spaces in Hyderabad by using interactive screen installations where citizens and urban planners can explore how trees and plants can enhance Hyderabad’s cityscapes. Another project introduced an app for preserving and empowering traditional Indian crafts in the villages throughout the Telangana state. An important aspect from a service ecosystem point of view in this particular project was the relationship between governmental arts and crafts grants, NGOs, and the artisans and their customers. A third example project from the course was a clothes and accessory swapping service, which addresses the problem of unsustainable fast fashion. By using deep insight-driven research, the students realized that the “fast” part of fast fashion is a deep need for young people. Guided by this insight, they introduced a service that allows for quick and easy exchange, refurbishing, and repairing clothing already in circulation. Other projects from the course include two different digital services for addressing mental health for young people in the aftermath of Covid-19 in rural areas and a digi-physical creativity aid for children with cognitive disabilities.
After the course, students filled out an anonymous course evaluation. Student satisfaction was at an all-time high in terms of the content, delivery, and the students’ work effort. In particular, the reflective design practice theme was highly appreciated. One student phrased it:
“The lectures were very insightful. Dr. Pontus not only explained the course content, but also made us think about the kind of designers we would like to be, which is very important for young designers like us.”
As design practice receives greater attention from industry, government, and society, many new opportunities emerge. This puts new requirements on the role of design. Therefore, designers need a new and evolved education to rise to the challenges ahead. As these course experiences show, design practice is not only about technical proficiency or the craft itself. An integral part of the future of design lies in designers’ self-reflective practice and continually asking themselves: what is my role as a designer? What kind of contribution should my work be? What sort of organization should I work for? What unique strengths do I bring to the table?
Interested in learning more? Please don’t hesitate to reach out.
Teachers in the course: Pontus Wärnestål, Surya Teja Bachu, Ashish Kumar, Santosh Kocherlakota