How I Teach - Reflecting on 15 years in design education
by Jon Kolko


I’ve shared with you the things I’ve learned in my fifteen years of teaching. These are things I wish someone had told me when I started.

I didn’t spend time talking about some other issues facing design educators, but I’ve written a lot about those in other places. Some of these topics include the role of online learning, the relationship between design and computer science, design portfolios, wicked problems in design, and the nature of scale in higher education.

I also want to share some resources that you may find useful.

Austin Center for Design has published a free book on the nature of Wicked Problems in design. The book covers topics of ethical design—of selecting problems that are worth solving.

Austin Center for Design also regularly updates a free design library of content that you can repurpose in your classes. These lectures are the same content we use at the school.

Final thoughts

The design studio is a wonderful environment for creativity. It’s a place, and a vibe, and a process: it becomes the backdrop for meaningful experiential learning. Inside of the design studio, classes are built around learning outcomes and a thoughtful timeline of learning interventions. Students learn skills focused on ethnographic research, synthesizing complexity into meaningful insights, shaping services and products, and evaluating their work to ensure it is usable and useful.

Fundamental to this learning is critique, a unique form of assessment that helps ideas advance. Constant presentation helps students gain confidence in their process and their own abilities. Dialogue around theory helps them build a perspective on the role of design in the world around them.

Students practice their work through assignments, iterating, testing, and refining their ideas. They develop craft by practicing methods, and they get constant and regular feedback through in-person and written grading. And they build confidence and thoughtfulness as they receive targeted assessments.

Many of these things are simple and obvious (although, at least for me, they were only obvious in retrospect). I’ve found that there aren’t any tricks to teaching effectively. It’s hard work. But I’ve shared methods and techniques that help design students learn and grow.

I see my graduates doing great things after I teach them using the processes I’ve described here. Methodical, thoughtful and respectful design education helps students become methodical, thoughtful and respected design professionals.

Design is one of the most powerful forces we have in changing the world around us. It shapes culture and changes the way we interact with one-another. We can’t leave design education to chance, because our graduates will soon be in charge of building the designed world around us.

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