No Design Student Left Behind: Strategizing Design Curriculum

Filed Under: Inspiration , Article , strategy , Voice

Strategy is a key component in professional design practice, yet severely lacking in the design of educational experiences. Particularly in visual identity work, understanding one's position relative to others is critical.

I recently completed a comprehensive curriculum and strategic positioning analysis of the graphic design and digital media design programs at a small, private art school on the east coast. Located in a large metropolitan area, the school is a respected and established art and design academy with highly qualified faculty and a record of producing successful designers. While its primary mission is to educate students for entry into professional practice, it emphasizes the critical thinking skills stressed in liberal arts environments. I taught in their graphic design program for several years, 15 years ago.

The school's programs were not in crisis. Enrollments were stable, students satisfied, the faculty active and performing well in the classroom. But the school recognized the need to examine itself in light of larger forces: accelerating changes in technology, continuing shifts in the role of the designer from producer to participant and the blurring of disciplinary boundaries. Relative to these issues, the school sought to examine several fronts, including how to differentiate itself from its peers, foster innovation, encourage collaboration with the professional community and better participate with the community at large.

With the charge to examine, consult and offer recommendations, I laid out my primary objectives: to find and exploit strengths; identify and overcome weaknesses; and help shape an innovative and appropriate curriculum for the institution, profession and community. I viewed my role as that of mediator and facilitator. The school administration, program chairs, faculty and students would be active participants and the ultimate decision-makers on what changes, if any, should be undertaken.

The programs were to be examined thoroughly, critically and holistically. Nothing was considered off limits, including changing the name or nature of programs.

I began the process by choosing four primary goals: continuity (find and address curricular gaps and overlaps), strategy (strengthen and position the curriculum to the program's peers), integration (define the relationships between the print-based Graphic Design program and the web-, motion-, and video-based digital media design program, and between academics and fine arts) and growth (aid the development of short- and long-term curricular goals and renewed mission statements).

My first task involved conducting a comprehensive audit of all promotional and curricular materials (online and print) that the school had published over the past several years. Changes and differences in program descriptions, degree requirements, mission statements and strategic plans were noted. This phase benefited greatly from a document outlining desired competency skills for each level of each program. Written by the school administration in preparation for a NASAD review just three years earlier, the document's stated learning outcomes, program missions, vision statement and short-term goals were a useful reference point.

Materials were gathered from faculty through formal and informal meetings including class visitations over a one-month period and the collection and review of syllabi and project sheets. Students were interviewed in small groups with the aid of a questionnaire designed to determine what the students thought was working (or not) and what they valued, e.g., one-on-one contact. I was careful not to initiate criticism of individual faculty, courses or situations; instead, I sought to provide an opportunity for students to think broadly and envision the ideal. Not surprisingly, the interviews provided a wealth of ideas, while the concerns were common to almost every school in which I have taught, e.g., not enough electives. A select group of outside design professionals provided yet another voice and perception of the programs.

With this knowledge, I compiled a matrix (an intersecting horizontal and vertical line resulting in four equal quadrants) of courses and their projects and learning outcomes. Course-learning outcomes are perhaps the most critical aspect to the curriculum analysis process and should be the guiding force for any school's curriculum decisions. Well-defined learning outcomes can help create continuity among courses, limit content overlaps, close content gaps and ensure that faculty understand program goals. This is especially important at schools that rely heavily on qualified but transient adjunct faculty. And as is common most everywhere, faculty tends to teach to their strengths rather than to the learning outcomes of their courses. (While learning outcomes should be specific, e.g., “demonstrate the ability to ? ,” they should also be open-ended enough to allow for faculty interpretation.)

A competitive audit followed, which compared the mission statements, course listings and structure, learning outcomes, entrance requirements, portfolio review standards and other materials from comparable and select schools across the country. From this, several positioning matrixes were created to visually locate the audited programs. For example, Matrix 1 examined program ideology (using the words holistic and focused at opposite ends of one line, practical and conceptual at opposite ends of the intersecting line), while Matrix 2 examined program structure (using the words emphasis and balance, separation and integration). The matrixes supported a discussion of where each of the school's programs should move relative to others in its peer group.

All of this material was made available to the faculty via a simple website posted in advance of a full-faculty meeting held toward the end of my month-long stay. The web site also contained resource links and a two-year timeline and process for implementation, continued discussion and revision.

Decision-making at the faculty meeting was based on a consensus. No votes were taken, and all faculty members had an equal voice. Empowering all participants and finding commonality was critical to ensuring that changes were supported and implementation effective. Subsequent meetings were held with the school's administration, faculty and students over a one-year period, during which changes and implementation became more focused.

As we reviewed the two programs, our discussion turned toward their future and their larger role in design education and practice. Are too many schools offering degrees in graphic design? How can we predict changes in design, its roles and its value to society? What is the single most important characteristic differentiating the school's graphic design and digital media design programs? Should we merge the programs?

To provide students with a more integrated experience and to distinguish the school's offerings, a consensus was in fact reached to merge the two programs. Integrating print with web, motion and video technologies allows students to move more easily among types of media and processes and to think more broadly as a result.

Further discussion points included adding two additional courses, one in collaboration methodologies and one in design issues and ethics; more fully integrating new media and conceptual writing throughout the curriculum; and championing the year-long senior thesis course. Also discussed was the value of open-ended physical outcomes, furthering links to the school's academic offerings, and pursuing academic collaborations with the city's other universities and disciplines.

Because designers must increasingly draw from a range of disciplines to effectively identify, analyze and solve problems, a strategic and holistic approach to curriculum development is critical in shaping a program's identity, purpose and role. Identifying a program's relationship to its institution, immediate community, profession and other institutions can result in a program that is far more than a collection of courses and is instead an innovative, evolving entity.