What makes a great design project? Steven Heller and Lita Talarico, co-chairs of the SVA’s Designer as Author program, compile design lessons from higher education programs from United States all the way to Korea and Australia in their book Design School Confidential in an effort to answer this question.
The book starts out discussing, “the anatomy of a successful project,” from both the instructor’s and the student’s perspective. The authors asserts that teachers look for three desired outcomes from a successful project. First, to challenge the student, second, to inform them and “provide enough unanswered questions that students are learning something by doing something new,” and finally, third, to elevate the student. The book also provides helpful feedback from students about projects that they found successful and why they thought those projects benefitted them.
The majority of the book consists of sample lessons from various design teachers and their classes, including example works produced by students and student feedback on the projects. Some of these projects seemed to fall short, with the product being fairly predictable outcomes, but the majority of the lessons in the book act as great inspiration to teachers in the classroom and had fairly surprising results, ranging from a 3-dimensional burger cart overlaid with information graphics about minimum wage and “flipping for a living,” to a postmodern chair that forces the audience to engage with other participants.
Some of our favorite projects included:
- “Water, Politics, and Hope”
Brigham Young University (BYU)
Students in this lesson were given one semester to address a “national or international social issue that could be universally shared and individually articulated.” The class chose water as their issue, and each addressed their own sub-topic within, whether it be the Clean Water Act or African children choosing water over an education.
“Cradle to Grave”
London College of Communication
What was most surprising about this lesson was not the idea of the lesson itself, but the outcomes from the students. The assignment given was to “select a durable household product, like a hair dryer, dishwasher, or anything that’s used a lot, and research and analyze it. Then design a visual representation of its lifetime use of material resources from cradle to grave” the point being that viewers would understand the waste of a particular product or environmental impact. One student designed a moving panel for the conveyor belt at a grocery store to depict the life of a plastic bag and what happens to them once they are disposed of.
School of Visual Arts, MFA Designer as Author
This final project seems very Nicholas Felton inspired. Students were asked to select a period from their lives in which they were involved in a series of events and tell the story using type and graphic elements only, without decorative or illustrative type, photographs, or illustrations.
Although the lessons were intended for higher education students, many of these lessons, or at least the ideas contained within them, could be adapted to a younger crowd. Design School Confidential is a great jumping-off point for teachers looking for ideas in their design classroom.