Teaching Design: how I designed my first university course



After my mandatory military service I was offered a job teaching a design course at Hong-Ik University. This was pretty exciting as Hong-Ik is regarded as the top design university in Korea. Eventually, I became an associate professor of design at Kyung-Il University for a couple of years.

My First Lecture

I remember spending a long time preparing my first design lecture. Five minutes before the class, I was in the bathroom throwing up. As I walked into the classroom feigning confidence, I overheard a young lady wearing a pink cap tell her companion, ”Why the fuck is that student dressed in a suit? Who the fuck does he think he is?” I took my place behind the podium, introduced myself as the lecturer, looked straight at Pink Cap and said, ”And that’s why I’m wearing a suit.” She didn’t return for the second class.

Apart from that inauspicious start, I had a great time teaching design. After all, I love design, and I love talking about design. A perfect match, then. But before any of this could happen, I had to design a design course.


Design Brief

Here was the official brief I received for this course: a class that teaches students how to communicate design in English.

Since I’d never taught before, here was the modest goal I set for the course:

Designing a Design Course

Field research: to prepare my course, I treated this like any design project, and began by conducting some field research. Since I had not received design education in Korea, I sat in on many design classes.Some days I even disguised myself as a student and hid in the back of the classroom. I also invested a lot of time interviewing people who had received design education in Korea. All this taught me the following: Students in Korea were mainly learning the manual skills required for design, but not how to think for themselves (and therefore how to come up with their own ideas). Also, students were never given a chance to voice their own opinions during the class. My course would have to teach them a combination of design communication and the design process.

Academic Research: at the same time, I found a certain paper written by three teachers that influenced me greatly (sorry: I can’t remember the authors). This paper was different to the others I’d read in two crucial ways: First, it focused on higher learning (most other papers focused on educating young children). Second, the authors treated the different types of learning not as types, but as stages. When someone is classified as a certain type of learner, it is hard to move to a different type. But with the right teaching, one can move up stages, rather like levels in a video game. The following table summarizes the paper:

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It's Just One Course, Why All This Bother?

Looking back, I realized my own design education at Syracuse University was absolutely fantastic (a big thanks to my amazing professors; except for one- you know who you are). And I wasn’t about to rob my own students of the brilliant education I’d had myself.



So, how was I going to go about accomplishing some of the higher levels of learning? It might seem obvious to you, but I had to think about this one for a while. The simple answer was this:

I would get the students to teach each other. YES! TEACH EACH OTHER!

This would fulfill many of the requirements of stages 2, 3 and 4, while also having the side benefit of making my job easier. And the best way to get the students to teach would be to make it seem fun (hat-tip to Tom Sawyer!)

Of course, every assignment for this class would have to be in the form of a presentation.

The Presentations

For my course, each student would have to give three presentations. I designed these assignments so that the students would obviously learn communication skills, but also the topic of each presentation would show them an important step in the design process. Also, through these presentations, they’d be teaching each other. Sneaky and effective.

Presentation 1: introduce yourself

To design a 3-5 minute self-introduction where the most important criteria were: be unusual, creative and memorable. If I can remember your presentation from the other 30+, then you’ve succeeded.

Reasoning: the goal for this first assignment was to break the barriers for what these students thought a presentation should be. A presentation is not about standing stiffly behind a podium, reading from notes. A great presentation is about imparting the message in a fun and memorable way.

Memorable results:


Presentation 2: a five minute presentation about your favourite design(er)

Reasoning: the first step of the design process is research, so this assignment would teach the students to do just that. An important requirement was that the students would have to conduct field research and document the process via video, in order to show the rest of the class.

Memorable results:

Presentation 3: an example of bad design

Goals: to convince the class that your example really is the crappiest design ever, and to offer viable solutions.

Reasoning: A crucial part of the design process is to be able to effectively critique existing designs. This assignment required that the students to receive feedback on an existing product, then test it out for themselves to find weaknesses. Again, this had to be documented via video, and incorporated into the presentation.

Memorable results:


Student Feedback


You can see an example of one of my lectures here.