Reflections On Teaching Design History, Year Two

I teach a class covering Design History at the SVA MFA Interaction Design Program. This is my second year teaching it, and I thought I’d try to recap what I learned and put down some ideas for next year.

This is a survey course, and it covers mainly the period between the Arts and Craft Movement until the early 2000’s. I use a mix of lecture, readings, class participation, and a final paper/presentation to get the students through a decent amount of material over a long period of time. The syllabus is here, and we use the Meggs design history as the baseline text, although I supplement with several readings. There are several challenges that I am grappling with that I think I can only attempt to minimize:

  • The class has only six sessions over seven weeks. Yes, you read that correctly. The sessions are nearly three hours, but that presents an issue of fatigue on everyone’s part.
  • About half the students from non-design backgrounds, so a lot of remediation is required. The other half often come from deep design backgrounds and some of this is too general for them.
  • The student body is incredibly diverse, coming from multiple countries, so the European/North American focus of much of what most materials covers may not be familiar to them, especially the cultural references.

What Worked
Based on last year’s class outcomes, I changed up the research assignment from something more speculative (you can see last year’s project here) to a more straightforward paper/presentation, with the topic up to the students. I also tried to break up the class sessions with more participation, and that worked better, but still not quite enough. I think the scope of material is appropriate, but could use some tightening up along thematic lines.

What Didn’t Work
Two main takeaways from this year were in the negative column: I still lecture too much, and the material is too dry. The scope of the class is overly broad, covering multiple design fields and movements over a long period. I need to communicate a lot of material to even establish a baseline, I feel, but it ends up sucking the life out of what already can be dry material. I also need to make the materials more inclusive from a gender and cultural perspective, since an acknowledged deficit is that the field suffers from the kinds of biases prevalent in other academic fields.

Next Year
I’m going to restructure the class along broad thematic lines and align materials and lectures to those. It should look something more like this:

  • Communications – graphic and communication design, including movements from late 1800’s to later 1900’s. This might take two classes
  • Objects – industrial design and industrialization
  • Interactions – the impact of computation and networks. This also might take two classes.
  • Systems and Environments – origins of usability, user research, service design, design thinking.
  • I am looking into switching the baseline text to Victor Margolin’s new World History of Design.
  • I want to work on providing better reading prompts for the students, and then involve them more deeply in in-class discussions of the work. Hopefully this means I can lecture less, or at least break things up more.