Exploring Connections between Environment and Community Through Design

Students explore design methods and criteria through which the meaning of the typographic message and form may be altered.

Danilo Bojic
Assistant Professor
Winona State University

With global warming and climate changes, environmental topics—including awareness, conservation, and outreach—became relevant topics in several humanistic disciplines, including design. The collaborative effort, though interdisciplinary approach, needs to be made to provide students with solid educational opportunities during their design studies beyond the traditional curriculum.

As part of the Advanced Typography in Visual Communication course at Winona State University, students engage with community members around current environmental topics involving Lake Winona, Winona, MN. Through the project, students further develop compositional skills and methods of visual organization using abstraction. Students consider and develop an awareness of subtleties and detail of the letterforms and the effect of formal alteration on a neutral, without bias or obvious meaning, letterform. Through semantics and syntax, students explore design methods and criteria through which the meaning of the typographic message and form may be altered. At first, students raise questions regarding conservation and local/regional impact, followed by investigating a series of topics concentrating on types of pollution and visualizing them through experimental typographic methods. Finally, they develop creative responses raising awareness and informing the local community through project work. 

Findings presented give a better look at the overall health of Lake Winona, including water clarity; blue-green algae and toxin levels; nutrients, plants, and algae relationship levels. Visual responses range from experimental typographic, mark-making, and mix media representations of different types of pollution to infographics providing guidance for better daily practices in gardening and waste management. Students’ call to action could result in fertilizing reduction by the local community, fostering expansion of naturally occurring native plants to filter water nutrients and lowering yard waste entering and affecting the lake and the local ecosystem.

The documented experience provides fertile ground for future iterations of this class as a method of following positive/negative environmental development in this local community and creating a platform to raise awareness and call to action.

This research was presented at the Design Incubation Colloquium 7.1: Oakland University, MI on October 17, 2020.

Using Things to Scaffold Difficult Conversations for Collegiate Residence Life Orientation Participants

Students use diagramming and conversation to explore aspects of social identity, and a card game/training program.

Michael Arnold Mages
Assistant Professor
Northeastern University

People can have a tough time talking with others about certain topics. Some topics, in combination with certain relationships can threaten the social identity of participants (Stone, Patton, Heen 2010), which can limit the potential for effective, replete relationships between people (Flores 2012). To help people begin to develop strategies for difficult conversations, designed things can serve in a number of ways: things can offer a frame to help people visualize challenging concepts, can provide an avatar upon which a person can project difficult subject matter, can offer prompts to help a person to develop responses. In short, things can act as scaffolding (Sanders, William 2001) extending the capacity of people to engage with difficult subject matter.

In the context of college residence life, some students assume formalized leadership roles within the student community, as resident assistants or orientation counselors. Beyond the anticipated duties of conducting the orientation activities, these students become de facto counselors and play a subtle but informal role throughout the year, helping students adjust to academic and residence life in college. These students, however, are not always prepared to serve as mediator in difficult conversations, or to fully consider the perspective that other students’ intersectional social identity might lend to a particular situation.

This presentation will share work done in collaboration with the Carnegie Mellon University Office of Residential Education and Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion where students used diagramming and conversation to explore aspects of social identity, and a card game/training program that was developed through an iterative process with design students. This presentation will discuss these artifacts, and propose a model describing a range of approaches by which things might moderate difficult conversation that may be useful for further work in this area.

Flores, F. (2012). Conversations for Action and Collected Essays. (M. F. Letelier, Ed.) (1st ed.). North Charleston, South Carolina: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Sanders, E. B., & William, C. T. (2001). Harnessing People’s Creativity : Ideation and Expression through Visual Communication. In J. Langford & D. McDonagh-Philp (Eds.), Focus Groups: Supporting Effective Product Development. Taylor and Francis.

Stone, D., Patton, B., & Heen, S. (2010). Difficult conversations: how to discuss what matters most  (2. ed., 10). New York: Penguin Books.

This research was presented at the Design Incubation Colloquium 6.1: Quinnipiac University on October 5, 2019.

Disrupting Genius: A Dialogical Approach to Design Pedagogy

Disruptive making methods to teach collaboration, discourage individual bias, and support understanding and connection amongst design students.

Bree McMahon 
Assistant Professor 
University of Arkansas

Rachael L. Paine 
Adjunct Professor
North Carolina State University

We are interested in examining the theme of ego and idea hoarding in student studios and design culture, methods for disrupting the existing monological status quo approach to design pedagogy, and opportunities for future culture shifts. During a short presentation, we will examine these themes and the outcomes of a classroom workshop case study which employed disruptive making methods to teach collaboration, discourage individual bias, and support understanding and connection amongst design students.

Dr. Philip Plowright criticizes the culture of design which aims to keep design unknowable (Plowright, personal communication, October 24, 2018). The conceptual foundations of design practice claim to be “indescribable and personal” (Plowright, 2017), with designers clinging to assertions that methods are idiosyncratic, steeped in personal genius. A genius instructor, fearful of sharing knowable, repeatable methods, must surely produce students who further promote this broken culture. When a designer’s goal is to be the smartest person in the room, the ego runs wild, idea hoarding takes over, creativity dwindles, and conversation suffocates.

During a collaborative design charette, students responded to questions about design authorship, origination, and agency. Using rapid prototyping, iterative processes, design dialogue, and making methods, students created multiple compositions reflecting their insights. Disruptive prompts were introduced throughout the workshop. A formal discussion followed the charette and participants engaged in a conversation.

Students explored complex topics in design culture and also learned methods for collaboration, which allowed for free knowledge exchange, design critique, and creative innovation. Challenging the traditional studio model provides a learning space for addressing new challenges or “wicked problems” while also learning skills for reaching agreements, coordinating actions, discussing specific goals, and exploring new modes of discovery (Dubberly & Pangaro, 2017).

Adopting a pedagogical approach that disrupts the idiosyncratic design culture keeps the ego in check, generates collaboration, fosters creativity, and encourages conversation. In the case of this workshop, participants began to see themselves as a smaller part of the collective whole, rather than an individual genius seeking personal gratification and recognition.


Dubberly, H., & Pangaro, P. (2017). Distinguishing between control and collaboration—and communication and conversation. She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation. 2. 116-118. 10.1016/j.sheji.2016.12.002.

Dubberly, H., & Pangaro, P. “What is conversation? How can we design for effective conversation?” Dubberly Design Office, 1 May 2009, Retrieved from www.dubberly.com/articles/what-is-conversation.html.

Pask, G. (1976). Conversation theory: Applications in education and epistemology. Elsevier Publishing Company, New York, NY, USA.

Plowright, P. (2017). Update – Project Goal. The cognitive structure of design methods (architecture). Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/project/The-cognitive-structure-of-design-methods-architecture

This research was presented at the Design Incubation Colloquium 5.3: Merrimack College on March 30, 2019.

Design Criticism in Search of a Platform

Dr. Gaia Scagnetti
Assistant Professor
Graduate Communication Design
Pratt Institute

By definition criticism presents negative connotations. In philosophical terms, criticism is not an action but a method of systematic analysis of a written, oral and visual discourse. It involves merit recognition and it means a methodical practice of doubt. Design criticism has had a short life story and never reached the popularity of Architecture or Art criticism, Film or Literary criticism. Probing design work is perceived as a threat, especially in a time when liking is the expected way of supporting peers both within and outside of social networks. To like and express appreciation for the work of others is a consolidated strategy to get noticed and welcomed in a community of practice, especially among the young generation.

Support is rarely shown through critical encouragement and is mostly communicated through unconditional recommendations; endorsement is seen as a currency to be exchanged regardless of the intrinsic value of a certain production. The problem gets exacerbated by the platforms we use to contribute to disciplinary conversations: symposia, conferences, talks are now always recorded and publicly streamed. This public exposure does not support attempts to make critical analyses; streaming is an opportunity for advertising others or yourself, your connections and your relevancy. Public speeches are opportunities to create connections the so called shoutout to other projects, friends or celebrities. In a time where positivity is the currency nobody wants to practice doubt.

We can consider the process of criticism to be equivalent to making strategic decisions it is a part of how we govern ourselves. Strategies are rarely discussed out in the public, but within a dedicated environment where the social rules of conduct are made explicit and intentions are shared. Similarly, design criticism should be fostered and cultivated within purposebuilt platforms. Design criticism needs a home more than ever. Analysing, considering or dissecting design discourse is a contribution to the politics of truth and criticism is the art of not being governed quite so much.

This research was presented at the Design Incubation Colloquium 2.1: Pratt Institute, Graduate Communications Design on Saturday, October 24, 2015.