The Scaffolds

For over a decade I’ve had the opportunity to teach students just entering academic and design practice at an institution that prides itself on small class sizes, on-going instructor development, and a focus on teaching excellence. Some of my students come to University directly out of high school while, for others, our program is the opportunity for a fresh start. I’ve had to consider the specific needs–work and life balance–of mature students, and how best to harness the excitement and anxiety inherent to those attending university for the first time. Since the information design program at MRU is fairly evenly split between instruction in communication theory, design practice, and writing, our students tend to enter the program with more strength and interest in one of the three areas, and less so in the others. Some students have been well prepared for the study of visual form, while other students gravitate towards the written language. All must achieve a certain level of theoretical understanding and design and writing competency to become practicing information designers.

I am conscious that the areas where I do my teaching and research are undergoing rapid change, and that at any given time it is not unlikely that there will be students in the class who are more up to date than I am on the latest communications technologies, although not necessarily on the larger context of those developments. What I have to offer are war stories, a deeper understanding of design philosophy, a stronger sense of relevant theoretical and historical underpinnings, and a broader idea of the analogical cases that can help to inform the present conversation. I also have the capacity to serve as a facilitator for learning and to lend a level of excitement and pertinence to their study.

It is this stance of facilitator that I adopt most frequently. I believe a large part of my job is to scaffold the learning process, creating a congenial environment where people are willing to bring their best thinking to the table, as we all focus our attention on the particular subject at hand. Sometimes this involves discussing selected papers or design case studies, typically from book chapters or peer-reviewed sources that the students will have been asked to read before class. My approach here is to have ready a short list of what I consider to be the key points covered by the material, but to fall back on it only if the discussion fails to engage all of those salient points. More often than not, I find that the conversation ranges widely enough to cover not only what I considered essential, but also one or two other very good topics that I had not addressed in my own preparation.

Over the past 15 years at MRU, I have tended to teach courses that are heavily project based. When appropriate, I engage not-for-profit agencies in my classroom, being careful that the client’s objectives do not overshadow the learning outcomes established for the class. It is a delicate balance, but one that provides a remarkable learning opportunity for the students. In 2012 we worked on visualization projects with researchers from the University of Alberta, in 2013 with HIV Edmonton, in 2014 with the MRU Daycare, and in 2017 with MRU’s Geology department.

Finally, there are lecture components, where I am providing some digested information that the students can attempt to remember and use. I find these to be the least satisfying and productive of my classes. That said, the transfer of information is still a key component of education at every level, and it needs to be handled with care and efficiency. To balance lecture-style instruction, I allocate time to meet with students one-on-one or in small groups to discuss their projects. In-classroom critiques are an important component of my teaching practice. My classes benefit from 3-hour face-to-face allocation, thus permitting extensive engagement with students’ project work. Since iteration is critical to good design practice and foundational to design education, I aim to pace projects in such a way as to enable multiple touch points, and opportunities for questioning and redirection, if necessary.

Experience

I began teaching at MRU in 2003, in the three-year applied degree Electronic Publishing program. I taught across the curriculum while, simultaneously, working with my Chair and colleagues to shape a new degree, eventually called Information Design. We conducted focus groups and a program review, talked to alumni and industry partners, and consulted with programs across the institution. We developed an entire suite of new courses and sequenced them to meet the requirements of a four-year undergraduate degree. I was charged with planning many of the visual design courses, course descriptions, and course outlines that became part of our program proposal. Subsequently, I co-developed COMM 1620 Tools for Information Designers, and developed COMM 1620 Foundations of Graphics, COMM 3610 and 3611 Visual Communication for Info Designers I and II, and COMM 4650 Critical Design.

In 2017, the Information Design program concluded its first, post-launch program review. Currently, we are working through the recommendations made by our students, alumni, colleagues, and reviewers. As MRU, our Faculty, our applicants and students, and our industry continue to change and evolve, so must our program. We are reviewing course sequencing and course names and descriptions, hoping to introduce more program-level options for our students (currently we only have one option in the Fall of their fourth year). Our faculty are excited about MRU’s commitment to indigenization, and would like to encourage more cross-Faculty student interaction through a Minor in Information Design.

Teaching Design

Our goal is to graduate practicing information designers. Our students apply to our program, undergo an interview process and, if successful, join a cohort of other ID students (between 40 and 50, depending on the year) who take a set of dedicated courses, eventually participating in a 4-year portfolio course, where they showcase their work to industry, friends, and colleagues. Between year 2 and 3, they must also complete a paid work term in the ID industry. While our program is fairly practice-focused, some of our graduates may (and have) continued in their academic study. Some of our courses, the 4th year Critical Design course for example, are specifically structured to meet the needs of those considering graduate study in design.

Each student must reach a level of competency within the 4 cornerstones of information design:

  1. Everything communicates—Though we cannot (and should not) control the behavior of our fellow humans, what we create in design must serve a purpose, to some predefined community, within a particular context. In essence, we try to make things that exist for reasons that are outside of ourselves. When words, images, colours, or shapes are put together, they communicate. When they are changed, so is what they say. Nothing can be random or arbitrary.
  2. Iteration—In every course, I aim to help students add to their information design toolbox. Depending on the specific course, that addition may be a theory, a tool, a way of working, a strategy, or a method. Iteration is part of the design process—one of the more critical tools in design—that asks us to make, look, and re-make based on our observation. Sometimes the making and re-making emerges out of our own critical thinking and, sometimes, it’s based on consultation, testing, or co-creation with pre-determined readers/users/communities. Most often, it’s both.
  3. Critique—At key intervals within the design process, designers seek feedback on their work, usually from colleagues, classmates, superiors and, sometimes, from clients and others. In their most basic use, critique and iteration help designers improve functionality and target look-and-feel. When done well, critiques challenge assumptions, biases, and stereotypes; push against the status quo; clarify contexts of use; and raise expectations of quality, including accuracy, thoroughness of research, attention to detail, and justification of design choices (https://medium.com/@milenaradzikowska/5-for-a-useless-critique-a92b46cddf21).
  4. Service—In Information Design we aim to be of service to others: individuals and communities. Sometimes that service means identifying a problem, and attempting to address it using ID tools, methods, and practices. Other times, service means challenging existing systems, practices, attitudes, or behaviours. Other times still, it means telling meaningful stories emergent out of qualitative and/or quantitative data, using visual and textual means.

Whether I am teaching visual rhetoric, typography and layout, design history, feminist and critical design, interface and interaction, or material data, those four principles scaffold it all. What changes is the level of detail in my instruction, weight of expectations in my students’ deliverables, and complexity level of the final design.

Small class sizes are critical to effective design teaching. Across North America and Europe, design class-sizes range between 10 and 20 students. Most classes are termed “studios”, and are held for 3 to 6 hour blocks. Teaching design occurs at a micro, meso, and macro levels. At a macro level are found lectures on colour theory, typography, usability, design history, and so on. At the meso level are group critiques. These are either held with the participation of the entire class or in smaller (3-5 person groups), with each student presenting their work and receiving feedback from their colleagues, with the careful guidance and oversight of the instructor. Finally, the instructor usually meets, one-on-one, with every student to review their project ideas or iterations, talking through roadblocks in methodology, tool use, or concept development. Small class sizes and long-time blocks are what make these kinds of pedagogical strategies possible. While I meet with individuals or smaller groups, the rest of the students work on their projects or on smaller exercises that I’ve assigned for specifically-targeted practice.