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Reconsidering the
design process

A guideline for different actors of a Beijing-based Art and Design institution

1. Introduction

Design has been widely defined in design literature as a noun that refers to the end product, the designs, and as a verb that refers to the process of designing, the activity (Lawson, 2005; Parsons, 2006). For the International Council of Design (2023), the design process involves a structured design methodology, applied and developed in all sorts of context, which has resulted in theorising not one but many different processes. As such, Design Thinking has become one of the most cited processes in the last decade as its problem-solving qualities and human-centred focus (Norman, 2006) has attracted great numbers of innovators in different fields, including education. Such process could, as I will explain later, be applied to a specific event and the challenges faced by an organisation (Kimbell, 2011), going beyond the traditional framework of the design discipline.

As design teacher in a Foundation in Art, Design and Media Practice (FADM) based in Beijing, my role is to turn the design process more accessible to design students, who should see it as a guideline to implement in their current projects and later professional life. As reflective practitioner, I have recently observed and experienced that the design process has not only become a teaching tool, but it implicitly sustains the learning environment in which I work, not only from a pedagogical stance, but also businesswise in bringing my workplace a competitive advantage in the service industry. Understanding such importance of the design process in structuring ways of working, including mine as practitioner, led to a two-hours meeting in March 2023, in which I had to present my teaching methodology to the Chinese teams of our company. The reflections and actions that the meeting aroused before, during, and after it took place, will structure the essay.

2. Reflective approach

In The Reflective Practitioner (1983), Schön explored how practitioners who reflect on their own practice become researchers of their context, a quality that allows to unveil the hidden structures of their professional life. As design practitioner myself, who transmits design knowledge to novice designers, I have been continuously, but unknowingly, engaged with Schön’s reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action concepts, being attentive to what happens during a lesson, how students engage, and then what could be improved from there. As noted in Tracey et al.’s paper (2014), reflection is a central tool for personal development, but also essential in the practices of design and education. Through this essay, reflective writing will allow me to explore my personal and internal process as designer and design teacher. As I constantly incite my students to evaluate and review their practice, I suddenly see myself invited to do the same in an academic setting.

Reflection on design processes is indeed a reflection on designerly ways of knowing (Cross, 1982), which in turn seeks to understand design teaching and learning practices (Mewburn, 2012). Before teaching, my procedural knowledge as designer was kept in my head and hands, hardly externalised (Norman, 2006), until I had no choice but to make a greater effort for my students. As the design process is tacit knowledge, an intuitive thinking that is repetitive and part of a routine difficult to uncover, even for the most competent practitioners, it required me to reflect on and represent how we know what we know (Schön, 1983; Luppicini, 2003) and, I would add, how we know at each moment of the process wheel what we need to do.

To better direct my process of reflection in this essay, and engage in a metacognitive exercise by analysing my own thoughts and actions while building on Schön’s model, I will use Luppicini’s series of reflective questions (2003). In this theoretical framework, called reflective action instructional design (RAID), I have a particular interest on the action-referenced reflective practices. These will structure my writing with a first part of reflection-to-action, followed by reflection-in-action, reflection-on-action, and a last part of reflection-from-action. In all areas, such action is considered to be the meeting previously introduced, as it became a convergent point in my recent practice as designer and design teacher.

1. Reflection to action: What led to the meeting

In The Philosophy of Design, Parsons (2006, p.10) defines the design process as “the intentional solution of a problem by the creation of plans for a new sort of thing”. As problem-solver, I consider planning as integrally part of the design practice, which in turn requires a number of phases to follow in linear and iterative ways. In 1995, Johnsey collected many models of design processes, which most concur in phases of investigation, ideation, implementation and lastly evaluation. These were taught to me already ten years ago when doing my studies in design, which I later incorporated to my practice as visual communicator. It is only in 2018, when I started to teach art and design, that I made sense of what a structured project-based pedagogy meant in a school context and, in 2021, when I started to work with older students at a pre-degree level, that I began looking for ways to turn the design process and its phases easily understandable.

By considering students as users of the design process, my diagrams are every year re-adjusted and re-invented by use, from which new insights come out, leading me to apply the design process that I preach to adjust my own teaching. My role as teacher, the one who transmits strategically through scaffolding, and my role as designer, the subject matter expert who knows the content of what is transmitted, are suddenly merging with the role of the instructional designer who facilitates, in this case through visual diagrams and measured indications, how the design process is accessed and learned. Looking at this situation retrospectively, my refined understanding of the design process and my never-ending interest in its complexity, progressively called my supervisors’ attention. One day, this led me to explain such process to the Chinese teams of the company, my colleagues from marketing, student recruitment and progression who, as the students at the beginning of the academic year, need to grasp the mechanisms of the process, for their own professional purposes.

2. Reflection in action: What happens in the meeting

It must be a coincidence that two weeks before the 28th of March 2023, day that I had the meeting with my colleagues, I was introduced back to design processes through the Design and Design Thinking module of the University of Birmingham (2023). Reading wider theories again was refreshing and confirmed that my own theories built from practice were presentable, which also built my confidence when going to the meeting with my diagrams, as my colleagues could easily see that I was not alone thinking what I was thinking.

In that meeting room were at least fifteen Chinese colleagues from different departments and the head of the company at the centre of the table, just in front of me. He started with “Thomas, please explain us how our teaching differentiates us from competitors and portfolio schools”. Although our company is a for-profit training centre, it still maintains a certain ethics regarding education that seems unfollowed by other centres in China, as outcomes are plagiarised at unconceivable prices, built for students without their involvement and, often sadly, with a successful progression towards their BA courses in the UK. Acknowledging the marketisation of education, the meeting seemed an opportunity to explain my diagrams of the design process to those who could actually make a difference when recruiting students and polishing the company’s image. Whether or not they were forced to show interest because of my boss presence, I was myself enthusiast and immersed in my demonstration moving between exploratory and presentation talk, while trying not to lose the room’s interest, to keep the dialogue fluid and equitable, and to be as pedagogical as I could be through improvised examples.

However, the quality and apparent technicality of my colleagues’ questions proved that their understanding was higher than I expected. My boss even asked me a question that I considered naïve in-action but then fascinating afterwards: “Can you give us an exact number of times that this iteration of the process happens?” I could feel the challenge imposed to all these colleagues who seize the student as customer and who suddenly had to sense what they were selling. Those more advanced could see how the design phases are interconnected and how with each cycle of iteration the designer would come closer to a solution to the problem defined; somehow frustrated in seeing iteration unpredictable and hard to quantify. Others had more ontological thoughts, wondering about the difference between service and education, what was education, what was design, what even was a project, turning genuine curiosity and ignorance into sudden philosophy. Nonetheless, given the question asked at the beginning regarding targeted competitors, I needed to make very clear that teaching the design process was design as verb, as learning would happen through effort, while the so-called portfolio schools introduced earlier were rather promoting an interpretation of design as noun through presentable outcomes as effortless private goods.

3. Reflection on action: What happened in the meeting

While reflection-in-action is an ongoing internal dialogue during the action, reflection-on-action is retrospective and happens after the act is completed (Luppicini, 2003). After the meeting, I first realised that my students are explained the design process repeatedly, experiencing it over months, then grasping it to an extent, even if it may take years of study to dominate it, while my colleagues as non-experts are explained the design process occasionally but do not experience it in the design studio format where a collaborative learning environment is constructed (Mewburn, 2012). Secondly, I could not assure that their level of understanding during the meeting was reflective and went beyond comprehension as they are not often given opportunities to perform flexibly with the design process (Perkins, 1998). Thirdly, it made sudden sense to me that consultants in design thinking would be called out by companies to train their employees, these not being designers nor teachers, through a set of activities rather than a presentation, to engage them actively with learning material. My role of design teacher suddenly changed to a consultant who cares about systems, processes and social arrangements (Kimbell, 2011).

4. Reflection from action: What the meeting could lead to

This last section explores what reflections could arouse from the meeting, first those having an immediate effect on my position and then possible outcomes to discuss based on my praxis. Regarding the former, the meeting was considered a success by my boss who decided to act upon it at different levels. First, the director of a renowned UK university in Art and Design, to which most of our students progress for their BA studies, is said to visit China soon to see how the market works given some of our competitors’ malpractice. I would then be called again to expose our teaching methodologies to their representatives. Parallelly, I might be able to negotiate my upcoming contract renewal as I have been suggested to train colleagues and expose to parents the hidden structures of our work, hence allowing me to switch audiences for similar content. With all this, I have gained my supervisor’s trust for exposing didactically a tacit knowledge that I have been studying for years.

In the long run, this experience made me reflect on the role of design consultants in planning and organising workshops that would make people work together on innovative solutions, in this case it could be activities teaching my colleagues how to work as novice designers to solve everyday issues related, for instance, to their work environment. A second point that the meeting leads me to reflect on is to continue creating design resources to be used in the future by adult learners, from pre-degree students to employees of a company. If well-structured, these could later allow me to design their learning experience through a digital artefact while at the same time teaching them the given content (Goodyear, 2013). They would therefore become users of an artefact and learners of its content, which would start shaping my role as learning and instructional designer.

Conclusion

In reporting reflectively an experience, a meeting in which I had to present the design process to non-experts of my institution, the Design Thinking approach was applied all along quite naturally. Looking back, I used empathy to understand my colleagues’ limitations as users of the design process, previously based on my work with students. I defined such problem in advance and ideated a series of diagrams to visualise my demonstration, which I printed and tested again with my students, whose feedback allowed to adapt my design before the meeting. Besides the diagrams, my thoughts were implemented in a presentational talk, which I later reflected on by writing this essay. Such experience has then fed back new thoughts that iterate the process in different but complementary directions; training and instructional design. I would finally say that it is interesting to extrapolate Design Thinking to a life experience rather than a classical design project, following a thought that has always triggered me; that it seems possible to design one’s life, when design is process-driven and, again, understood as verb rather than noun.

Posted: April 21st, 2023

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