the problem

Where do we start? This is the fundamental question we face as design educators on a daily basis, regardless of the topic at hand. As a multidisciplinary designer, teaching architecture, interior design, and graphic design at both public and private universities over a number of years, I find myself asking “where do I start” at the beginning of every class. 

Where do I start discussing design principles in a way that students will be able to understand? Where do I start inserting course objectives within the lecture and project materials so that it helps them really grasp how this influences design and the creative process? Where do I start finding information that will carry these students forward in their design careers when the future of design is truly undefined? Where do I start finding ways to help the student understand that design goes beyond pixels and paper? 

But beyond where, how? How can we teach students how to reach a target audience more efficiently on the whole, across multiple fields? How can we teach students the value of analysis and direct observation? And most importantly, how can we bridge different disciplines, opening the fresh, unbiased mind of the student to ways of thinking beyond the standard disciplinary stereotypes in ways that will prepare them for that uncertain future?

Today more than ever, with academic institutions coming under increased scrutiny from local and federal agencies, as well as the shift from traditional to non-traditional academic models that lure students with the promise of “faster and cheaper” credentials, it becomes increasingly important to look at new ways of providing a solid education that reveals proven value beyond that provided by the “new” competition —YouTube, Udacity, and CreativeLive. 

Simply put, today’s teaching challenge doesn’t lie only in recruiting and retaining students. It lies in establishing a relevance, beyond the paper degree, in a manner that justifies the added time and expense.

While this challenge can be perceived as overwhelming, it provides us with the potential for greater teaching success,
as it frames issues we must address moving forward. But it cannot be met with traditional teaching models of textbooks, lectures, and unguided homework. It must be met in new ways—ways that invite students to actively learn rather than passively listen; ways that meet students in their own domain; and ways that are willing to take into account that students today take in information in ways that we, the professors, simply cannot.

It is with this understanding—that academia needs to meet the students on common ground and prove its value to them—that I now focus my research: how we can use navigation/orientation, human behavior, and an understanding
of context to establish inclusive, engaging learning materials and environments.

history lessons

Early in my academic career, I focused my creative research (entitled Knowhere) on using orientation and navigation models to teach wayfinding in a series of collaborative design studios. The basic idea was that students cannot learn about wayfinding by reading a book. Text, especially text about abstract concepts, simply cannot convey the same level of insight as direct observation. To address this, Knowhere grew from a simple series of lessons given in the classroom to a full-fledged immersive study abroad program focused on watching and drawing people in unfamiliar spaces.

Materials developed for the course were rigorously tested within a number of user groups to assure clarity of information and intent. Assignments were given, and based on resulting solutions, adjusted to assure greater success with the next iteration. Other learning materials, including an introduction booklet, series of assignment postcards, and transparent tags for use in quick documentation, were developed and distributed for use in the final Knowhere: Italy investigation.

Using the Knowhere kit and materials, students from architecture, interior design, and graphic design programs at Miami University spent four weeks in Italy, traveling throughout six vastly different urban environments, documenting how people navigated in each location. Students observed tourists, natives, as well as the environment itself including the architecture, landscapes, and anything else that might explain how the physical environment might help inform navigational decisions.

Results from this final trip demonstrated that information obtained by the students in their observations produced a clear impact upon their final projects—students incorporated what they had learned during the program into their final design deliverables in obviously visible ways. What’s more, as students traveled to additional locations on the itinerary, their own personal navigation skills visibly improved, despite the clear difference in each environment visited. They had learned how to navigate, observe, document, and apply this information to new, seemingly unrelated deliverables. And they shared these lessons with their colleagues using social media channels, thus opening potential new directions
for Knowhere.

The lessons developed for Knowhere focused primarily on basic research methods, using wayfinding as a case study baseline. Observations noted during the Italy program were then expanded as I explored different locations, including London, Malta, Tokyo, and Buenos Aires to learn how the ideas considered previously in my research might alter to fit each environment and culture.

While Knowhere was intended to specifically teach wayfinding, the lessons learned through observing how the students absorbed the materials can be applied to other design-based learning opportunities.

new paths

Over the course of my tenure at the Academy of Art University, I have applied many of the ideas uncovered in my earlier investigations to learning materials within an online environment. How do students navigate the materials? What issues do they come up against in understanding assignment expectations? How might the course materials alter to simplify the content enough to make learning easier but not less educational? How can complex ideas be discussed quickly, meeting the needs of an online student and the realities of their ever-imposing distractions? How / should social media become part of the academic equation? In short, how can academic materials adjust to help students navigate complex information easily and effectively using tools that are already familiar to them?

These questions have led me to essentially redesign curriculum and teaching models as I develop materials that can be used in both onsite and online learning environments. My research now incorporates aspects of popular culture, semiotics, visual narrative, branding, information design, and motion graphics in addition to direct observation and a desire to converse with, not lecture, students.

Many assignments have evolved to incorporate observation and documentation, such as those previously incorporated in Knowhere. Many lectures have taken on documentary film structures, showing students examples of ideas being discussed from around San Francisco so they can better understand the potential impact of these design ideas. Demonstration videos have taken on a cooking video structure, listing ingredients and procedures needed to produce simple, but common, design projects, thus simplifying tasks that may seem overwhelming in a typical classroom. And expanded discussions of what design is and how it works now take place across social media platforms as students investigate their own surroundings for examples of design in action.

While many of these ideas may seem like extensions of currently used traditional academic models, their strengths lie in the fact that they exist both inside and outside of the physical classroom, providing learning opportunities for students when they need them and are ready to absorb them. The use of established structures additionally provides a sense of familiarity, thus engaging a MAYA-based solution.