Thinking, Making, Reflecting: Design Process and the Beginning Design Student


Authors: Nancy Snow & Saskia van Kampen
In first year, the design educator’s role is to prepare beginning design students for their undergraduate experience and beyond. We will be discussing a study currently underway that investigates a course’s assignments that focus on research methods and levels of critical engagement in first year design students. We will also discuss how certain components are structured in order to stimulate autonomous learning. This is essential to us in graphic design at OCAD University as our approach to first year emphasises process—where iteration is fundamental to design enquiry. 

Our study is documenting the processes students engage with over the course of a five-week project entitled Concept and the Senses. The assignment has students’ research issues surrounding the production, distribution, cultural, and social aspects of foods we consume. It requires students to employ both theoretical and empirical research in order to generate concepts, explore materials, work iteratively, and provide criticism (specifically peer-to-peer and self-reflection). The preliminary assumption going into the study is that understanding and knowledge is located in the process as well as the result (Kolb, 1984). 

The structure of the assignment shifts from the master and apprentice model—where students primarily learn through prescription and imitation—to a model where knowledge is produced through experience and reflection. As business theorist Chris Argyris states: “effective learning is an important cause of effective action” (507).

Through examples taken from the assignment documentation we will discuss the following learning objectives: research (what informs the decisions they make), making (how their ideas manifest physically), reflection/iteration (how students evolve ideas and visuals), and writing/verbalizing (how students articulate their intent). We will also talk about discoveries made in regards to instructor feedback. 

The goal of this presentation is to share our reflective pedagogical practice that integrates multiple modes of learning and encourages the development of autonomous learning skills in the beginning design student. 


  1. Argyris, C. (2004), ‘Reflection and Beyond in Research on Organizational Learning’, Management Learning, 35: 4, pp. 507–509.
  2. Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  3. Ross, J. (2000). Arts education in the Information Age: A New Place for Somatic Wisdom. Arts Education Policy Review, 101 (6), 27–32.
  4. Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2006). Understanding By Design. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education.