July 18, 2022

Revamping the Design Teaching Approach

From what I have noticed as a student of Graphic Design for 10+ years, throughout grade school and some classes in college, is that there is such a focus on the GRAPHIC part of the design. Going into college, I thought this would be the same situation: do a project, turn it in, get a grade, repeat. Little did I know that was not what college was all about. There are multiple factors that go into the design process — from ideation, problem-solving, to sketching and prototyping, to the actual design work, and then getting feedback and critiquing.

Now I’m not saying that those quick 10–15 lessons on Illustrator aren’t important. They are, and they help build the student’s knowledge and confidence in the subject matter at hand: graphic design. But how can we present students with a REALISTIC picture of design?

A phased approach

Present a project in phases (outlined below). We will explore some of those here in detail.

Phase 0: Pose a Problem

Everything starts with a problem, whether you know it or not. A client wants a logo, that’s a problem (well, for the client). Someone can’t read a sign; a design lost its meaning. All of these are problems for someone or something, and as designers, it’s our job to fix it.

You need to pose a problem to your students. How are they to solve it? Say a client needs a logo for their upcoming restaurant. Great, boom — you have a problem.

Phase I: Ideate and Research

The first thing to do is research. How are you going to approach solving this problem? Some, if not all, questions can be answered by the source themself — the client. For our restaurant example, getting a name, color scheme, or whatnot can really help layout ideas and start to develop a scope of your design. How big/what medium are they planning to print it in? These basic principles help drive the design and are a critical step to help understand what and why to design what you are designing.

The best way to come up with ideas is sticky notes. Give everyone a pad of stickies and go to town — come up with sketches, statements, or other ideas and stick em up on the board. When you feel lost, do some more. Nothing is a bad idea at this point in the process.

Phase II: Plan

Create a gosh dang plan. A lot of students, and yes, including myself, go in blind. Take out a pen, some paper, maybe a Google Doc if you’re feeling fancy, and answer the basic questions:

WHO — Who is the client or company?
WHAT — What do they need (and be SPECIFIC)
WHERE — Where do they need it? (i.e what medium or format?)
WHEN — When is the deadline?
WHY — Why do they need it?
HOW — How are you going to deliver it to them?

The plan needs to be a formal write up, and can’t be mental. Mental plans aren’t plans, they are ideas. Plans and ideas are different.

Phase III: Prototype

For designers, prototypes can span different mediums and modes. For graphic designers, it generally involves a rough sketch of what they feel like they want to do. Give yourself room to sketch — don’t be confounded by space at this point. Don’t get fed up with the details, either. My sketching teacher in college did not want us to draw, he wanted us to sketch; he said quantity over quality. Remember — the sketch is not the final product. The sketch is a mere idea that will come to fruition. Sketch different ideas on paper, on a whiteboard, or in any space, you can. Make sure to capture them with your camera or phone to ensure that you have access to them.

Phase IV: Design

Now comes the part you’ve trained for — the designing. The first thing you need to do is put your sketches on your artboards or workspace so that you can refer to them when needed. I will emphasize that variety is the best thing you can give a client. One logo will never do, more than one is the way to go. I always won contests and bids from clients in college and high school because I altered one color or changed one aspect of the design; heck I sometimes did two different designs. The client can’t see what’s in your brain — only you can, and you have to take that idea and make it a reality.

Phase V: Critique

Before you do anything else, ask for feedback. Do a gallery walk with sticky notes and write feedback on them for review. Save the original works that you think look good, and make more revisions based on feedback. The client may like the original, but they also may gravitate with the new designs. A good way to critique is using Padlet or Miro, two amazing applications I would highly recommend for any design classroom; they are amazing collaboration tools!

As seen in the image above, this process is circular. Why though? You would think that revisions would require a step back into the design phase, right? Think again — by conducting a review or critique of your work, you are stepping back into the research phase by surveying peers, kind of like a focus group. You then develop a plan (or revise your plan, perse), to make revisions, then going to sketch it, possibly, and then proceed to re-enter the design phase.

Why though? They’re just high schoolers.

Sure. That’s true. They ARE high schoolers. But, why are we not teaching these kids the real-world skills that they need to learn to apply? Design is rooted in critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, ethics and morality, and of course, creativity. Using this phased approach to approaching a design project will yield results in your classroom that you’ve never thought possible. Believe me. We reformed our upper-level graphic design classes to be more of a printshop-esk style class, approaching our classes in a similar phased approach, and as a student and co-creator of the format of the classes, I couldn’t be happier to what we were able to set up and achieve.