Design Education is not broken

To design is to communicate clearly by whatever means you can control or master. — Milton Glaser

This year there have been a number of negative articles on design education from the outside looking in. Although they touch on challenges design educators face I feel they have been ill informed, overly negative, unsupportive and offer very little in terms of resolutions. It is time for higher education design educators to provide positive stories on UK design education with a positive future focus.

Change via positive example and critique is much more powerful than attack and unbalanced criticism. So with this publication and this the first article I hope to provide a platform for positive critique and ways forward to enhance and showcase our good practice.

The articles take the form of responses to set questions. If you teach in UK design and would like to contribute please write on Medium and submit to the publication or drop me and email. Adam dot Procter at

Here are my responses.

Q1. What are the challenges that you think face UK design education today ?

Higher education in the UK has been facing numerous changing landscapes over the last decade and creative education has at points been under a full blown attack. At the moment the investment in new events such as the London Games Festival and other initiatives to support the creative industry and knowledge working indicate that there maybe some positive news ahead. But there also looms a white paper that could be set to rock the UK landscape of higher education in ways that could have a major effect on recruitment and diversity. Higher Education is an interesting beast and even more so now than ever.

One of the ongoing biggest challenges lies in the effective privatisation of higher education with the cost of the education being borne by the individual who undertakes the course. This has had huge effects on diversity and in turn worse still is what students expect in regards to ‘return on investment’.

Students I encounter are often very grade aware and have expectations of the grades they should be awarded; they can certainly be labelled as ‘strategic learners’. In particular this is something I have to work really hard to un-teach. This means ensuring assessment is designed to reward trial, iteration and failure as well as outcomes. When this type of explorative learning is rewarded not only do the students learn a host of methodologies and thinking but it can also help reduce the ways in which students might think they can ‘game’ the system.

Universities have to deal with a lot of bureaucratic process that senior and often the most experienced teaching staff have to undertake which often takes them away from the job of educating itself. The requirements to take on managerial roles are often part of career progression if teaching staff are to actually increase their pay this also contributes to senior staff being taken away from the classroom. This has a major impact specifically in design education which is studio based and can be highly frustrating. Of course we need administrative structures, management systems and quality assurance processes, although current QA is not interested in pedagogy but standardisation, however are actions related to mere processes best placed with the design educator? Of course we love to design solutions and improve process via design thinking but I think curriculum design and delivery are much better places to spend our time. Understanding these concerns is not simple but it is a back drop to be aware of and something I know design educators are keenly aware of.

Q2. What do you think UK design education should provide ? (bullet points)

  • A chance to explorer and try new ideas.
  • Understand and undertake broad and varied research.
  • Iteration and thinking through this making.
  • A chance to fail.
  • Learning to love to learn.

Q3. If you could do or suggest one thing that would help overcome those challenges and address what you want to provide what would it be ?

Take a look at your module documentation and see if it allows you to be agile with the projects you can run inside it. If you design in this way you are able to adapt to the industry, new ideas and feedback. This may mean some up front pain to remove specifics and the rewriting of your learning outcomes and learning matrixs. However if you approach this with well constructed learning outcomes that consider bigger picture concepts and have a broad outcome focus the benefits are a much more agile curriculum. This will also have the added benefit of allowing you to be adaptable with your projects year in year out, semester in semester out, without triggering future ‘painful’ administrative bureaucratic paper work changes.

Q4. How would you advise other design educators overcome some of the issues you have faced and overcome, to help students meet the needs of the creative sector ?

I think the key is to instil in your students as soon as possible that they are on a learning journey and that the outcomes that may have achieved high marks previously may not, in fact, have provided much real learning. Research, exploration, instances of iteration, testing and failing are so important and you need to be able reward these. Reflection and documentation of the journey are key.

Be culturally literate, because if you don’t have any understanding of the world you live in and the culture you live in, you’re not going to express anything to anybody else — Paula Scher

I deal with students who work very digitally which can be a challenge as they often spend a large part of the project in software such as Photoshop or Unity, where numerous iterations can and should continue to take place. Tools such as Padlet and Niice have really helped students document the research phase, couple with collation throughout a project into PechaKucha style presentations to peers and staff. Field trips and a reminder that Google is a bias search help students vary and document the process as they work. Collection with reflection and broad exploration are key. Use of a blog or journal coupled with screen recording and screenshots as they work really enhance this process. It has to be encouraged often and built in from the start, as much like back filling a sketchbook it wouldn’t be useful otherwise. Allocating a little time each week or every few days to the process of documentation and reflection is important.

Sophisticated desktop publishing and multimedia software allow virtually anyone to do everyday design work; designers can no longer rely on their traditional skills alone. Designers must deliver conceptual innovations and new insights, the things that computers cannot do. This challenge will lift design beyond a service trade into the role of interpreter for culture — Katherine McCoy

Q5. Tell us about a project you ran that you feel worked specifically well in educating new designers? Links and images welcome.

Most of our games design modules ask for a portfolio to evidence learning. Some of the most successful games projects have crossed both digital and physical via short sharp projects designed to encourage iteration and feedback.

We are searching for some kind of harmony between two intangibles: a form which we have not yet designed and a context which we cannot properly describe — Christopher Alexander

Further, some of the most enjoyable and well received projects are where the learning is almost hidden inside the concept. Two such projects I have run recently in this regard have been a board game project and a crazy golf project in year one as part of the BA Games Design & Art programme at Winchester School of Art. In both instances students had to create physical games and engage with players throughout the design process.

The board game project is all about iteration and paper prototyping ideas. The design of the board itself is not important, the design of the game play must take the lead. For this project I set themes that must drive design, failure, chance, collaboration, and embed the consideration of target audience to guide mechanics and design choices. Students in teams of two or three must iterate often over a 2 week period to enhance and improve the game, they must throw away ideas, a lot of ideas! Workshops on Lean UX and Conditional Design take the fore with a final play exhibition at the end. However even at this point the students must still gather feedback, although the allocated time for the project has ended, it is understood the project is technically never finished, this helps to put process and ideas ahead of outcome in the students mind.

The crazy golf project also requires a specific target audience and calls for a real life golf course to be created, along side a digital counter part. This reverses the ideas of a digital prototype to inform the psychical model and introduces physics, model making and the player, again this project ends with a public exhibition for further feedback and reflection. Public events and real user testing should be embedded in every project a student undertakes.

I hope this provides some food for thought on how you may look at your own projects. You can read more detail of these projects on our course GitHub pages.

Q6. Finally please tell us your current role, HE institute you are connected with and for follow up purposes your Twitter account.

Adam Procter, Programme Leader — BA Hons Games Design & Art, Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton, @adamprocter