24 March 2017
Peter Bogaards
Peter Bogaards

Growing nextgen digital designers

Tentative lessons learned from teaching and coaching students

With practicing digital design for more than three decades, we take educating next generations of digital designers serious. Therefore, we regularly participate in various kinds of formal and informal educational activities. This post describes one example of what we do and what we’ve learned about this type of education, so far.


During the academic years ’15/’16 and ’16/’17, we taught, coached and mentored many Dutch and international students from the master Information Studies at the University of Amsterdam. In the track MSc. Human Centred Multimedia of this master, we collaborated with the university in the course Interaction Design Project (6 ECs). In both years, we interacted with at least 10 teams of 5-6 student members each.

Format of the IDP-course

In the course, each team choose a design challenge provided by real-world clients. In this academic year, clients were among others the Allard Pierson Museum for ancient art, Waag Society (institute for art, science and technology), several Dutch juvenile detention centers, and a research program on tools for a future newsroom. The design teams had to deliver interactive solutions for learning hieroglyphs, digital models of Egyptian pyramids, a website for a not-for-profit version of appartement rentals in Amsterdam, supporting tools for journalists using artificial intelligence, and skills training programs and job applications in engaging digital formats. The digital prototypes the teams constructed entailed augmented reality, mobile applications, content-intensive websites, and tablet games.

At its start and two months into the course, we conducted two half-day workshops introducing students to iterative and incremental design processes in general and to specific stages, such as ideation and prototyping in particular. Dimensions we then coached the teams on were collaboration, design, planning and validation activities, field and user research, and stakeholder management. After almost 4 months of part-time design work, the students entered a period of 4 weeks for full-time intense prototyping work and validation. For example, user validation had to be done multiple times in this period to assess the intended learning outcomes of specific educational settings. During this month, we frequently discussed with all design teams their planned activities (on Monday mornings) and achievements (on Friday afternoons).

At the end of the course, the student teams had to produce multiple outcomes: an academic paper (10-15 pages), an interactive prototype for demonstration purposes, a poster, a conference-style presentation (10 mins) and an explanation video (2-3 mins). These outcomes were assessed and graded.

All students performed at various levels of expertise regarding research, technology and development. Only a few of them had formal digital design experience or education. Although interaction design was the main focus of the course, other design areas like content design, interface design or visual design were addressed in a few instances.

The main results of this course have been that students learned how to collaborate in a design team going through a comprehensive digital design process with several intended outcomes. They learned to reflect, research and deliver in real-world complex situations.

Relevant information regarding the master (and the IDP course), student project abstracts, explainer videos and video registrations of their presentations are available online.

Our ten lessons learned (so far)

Reflecting on our educational activities, we identified 10 things we learned regarding teaching young professionals in digital design.

  1. Like all designers, student designers increase their competencies, capabilities and core skills through the experience of iteratively creating, reflecting and validating possible solutions for real problems.
  2. Design is team work, so strong team collaboration with multiple disciplines involved is crucial for quality results.
  3. Design is not art. Therefore, stakeholder management, scheduling/planning and having frequent design critiques and conversations are essential activities in the process.
  4. Knowledge of the domain, digital materials and communication processes are essential requirements for all students.
  5. Assessment of the quality of designers and design teams correlate with prior expertise and experiences and the complexity level of the context.
  6. Adequate support, commitment and engagement of client stakeholders help teams work in the right direction with the necessary progression.
  7. Knowledge, skills and competences in researching, testing and experimenting are important for design teams.
  8. More expertise is necessary on ways to teach digital design and related communication and research skills. Although there are several methods to teach and learn digital design (for example the studio model), the circumstances for which method to use remain unclear.
  9. Institutional settings of education with their formal standards, protocols and procedures are very different than informal ways of learning, such as short commercial courses, public seminars or master classes at conferences.
  10. Unlike teaching a second language, calculus or chemistry, we still lack comprehensive educational concepts, theories and methodologies on how young people intentionally learn design in the digital domain, the didactics of digital design so to speak.

Moving forward

In summary and upon reflection, professional design practitioners must structurally participate in specifying objectives, contents and outcomes of digital design curriculums at all levels of formal (design) education. Therefore, we will keep contributing to the progress of digital design education and its related body of teaching and learning knowledge, skills and competences. We definitely will learn more and more what works and what doesn’t. And we will better understand what design entails in the digital domain and what it means to be successful, as digital designer and as design team. Seasoned design professionals have as part of their work preparing upcoming designers for the future. For us, it’s an integral part of what we do.

About the author

Peter Bogaards (a.k.a. @BogieZero) is the editor-in-chief of our blog BiRDS. Peter also works as a curator and coach at Informaat experience design. He has been an online content curator avant-la-lettre in various UX-related fields for almost three decades, choosing what he thinks is interesting, relevant or remarkable to share.

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