From "Higher Education Management"

by Keith Hampson, PhD

Brands like Target and Apple have successfully used design to set themselves apart. Mainstream magazines like BusinessWeek and Fast Company now devote complete issues to design. College design programs are experiencing unprecedented demand. Highly ranked institutions like Stanford now teach MBA students about the role of design and design thinking.

There’s a growing recognition that design is not simply about making products attractive. A well-designed product, (or space, image, service) can be easier to use, fit better into the flow of people’s lives, suit the needs of a broader range of end-users, increase productivity, and even influence emotions (which in turn can influence cognition). Sectors as hard-nosed and utilitarian as healthcare and manufacturing are now taking the “soft” subject of design very seriously.

Somehow, though, digital higher education - both its software and content - has managed to remain untouched by good design. Design is not even on the agenda.

The importance of design to digital education starts with this simple fact: by moving the locus of education from the classroom to the digital environment, we necessarily change the factors that determine the quality of the student’s experience. In the digital environment, design plays a far more important role as a determinant of quality than it does in the classroom.  “Screens” (laptops, smartphones, tablets, etc) are heavily design-dependent. The quality of design in screen-based environments dramatically influences the end-user’s experience.

Higher education has a history of suppressing design; the reasons for this are complex and varied (and the subject of a future post). Yet, design and education have remarkably similar objectives. Design - whether applied to advertising, instructions, signage, or user-interfaces - seeks to make the complex simple, just like educators. Both design and education attempt to leverage the user’s existing knowledge. Each attempts to engage its users. Each aims to maximize the audience’s retention of relevant information.  Each wants to move beyond a one-way, passive form of communication, and to help the end-user become an active participant in the process. Each wants to be as efficient as possible - by selecting methods that lead to understanding and engagement as quickly as possible. And each succeeds by organizing the user’s attention; encouraging them to focus on what the designer/educator feels is most important.

Design might also, though, serve as a means of establishing a competitive difference for institutions. Increasingly, students approach education like consumers - seeking out meaningful differences among competing institutions. And as the supply of online courses and programs grows, students now have true choice. True competition will follow. Thoughtfully designed software and content can serve as a competitive differentiators; a difference that - unlike most in higher education - is actually tangible; students can see (and experience) the difference. It’s also a nice coincidence that this marketing tactic actually supports the educational mandate of the institution - unlike, say, a new set of climbing walls for students.

The bad news is that few institutions have the talent and resources in place to leverage design. But, of course, that’s also the good news. Nimble and intelligent institutions can use design to stake out a significant difference from other institutions.

In future posts, I’ll look at the research being done on the educational value of design, present a few examples of great design in education, and predict (fearlessly!) why design may become a staple of digital higher ed, whether traditional institutions act on it or not (hint: media companies). Until then, keep in touch.

Keith Hampson, PhD

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