Teaching to Diverse Academic Backgrounds
On 30, Jan 2023 | In Research | By Matthew
Nominated for the 2023 Communication Design Educators Award in TeachingDesign Incubation
Impact: Research reveals that most institutions of higher education deemphasize visual thinking. This Design Thinking based course is impactful because it presents open-ended design problems to a cross-section of learners from diverse academic backgrounds and shows creative motion and interactive outcomes. Courses like this are an example of design in service to higher education.
My work in this course joins the growing conversation around pedagogy. Innovators like Meredith Davis propose Design Thinking principles to address new graduates’ critical thinking, problem-solving, and creative skills gaps.
Publications like AIGA Designer 2025 note that communication modalities and technologies are complex and changing rapidly. Designers are thinking about flexible, responsive, complex, and customizable solutions to ambiguous problems and crafting for different audiences and multimodal experiences. As one can imagine, teaching motion and interaction in this environment presents unique challenges, opportunities, and outcomes.
Description: Digital Art Survey and Practice is a Block One course at the University of Tulsa that focuses on aesthetic and creative experiences. Students develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills as they learn the fundamentals of motion and interaction design using emergent software.
In the spirit of interdisciplinary collaboration, this course welcomes students from every corner of the campus, whether biomedicine, geoscience, or cyber security; most come from outside the art department from diverse academic, extracurricular, and cultural backgrounds with different expectations, software proficiencies, and pedagogical experiences.
This course presents an opportunity to design problems that flex to diverse student interests and skill levels and develops critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Furthermore, when one considers the proliferation of technologies, creative software, and communication modalities this cross-section of students use daily, most are already communication designers eager to learn our histories, methods, philosophies, and tools that shape design.
Each semester begins with an emphasis on Margaret Boden’s first level of creativity, “unfamiliar combinations of familiar ideas,” in her book, The Creative Mind.
Rubrics and problems are organized into five learning objectives. They ask measurable questions like “Was the solution delivered by the due date?” and open-ended questions like “Is the solution creatively surprising?” Then, as students gain knowledge and confidence, they can reflect on my comments in the rubric, apply new things they have learned, and resubmit solutions for regrading, giving students the comfort creativity requires.
Outcomes: I am always amazed by their talent, dedication, and creativity. Course outcomes show that students from diverse academic backgrounds can successfully solve visual problems and are eager to think like a designer. Student feedback is generally positive, and remarks mention growth in creative thinking, ideation, iteration, and communication design principles. One student summarized it nicely: “I have learned much more about the process, gaining an actual method to create designs instead of constantly winging it.”
Problem 1: How can a designer communicate their personality type and give a sample of their skills?
Problem one introduces students to the beneficiaries of their design, which in this case are their classmates and me. Students generate their own research content by answering a mix of measurable and open-ended questions and editing the results into a short video. In addition, they learn basic motion concepts like plot structure, camera framing, and scene transition.
When one considers the ever-changing web of devices, apps, and plugins, it is not surprising that software is a source of anxiety. Therefore, while students must learn and demonstrate some specific software knowledge, they are encouraged to incorporate other digital and physical forms of creativity.
Problem 2: How can a designer communicate the basic elements of two-dimensional design using motion graphics?
Problem two introduces students to the benefactor and beneficiaries of their design, which in this case, is hypothetical. Author Mary Stewart hires them to design a video that summarizes chapter one of her book, Launching the Imagination: A Comprehensive Guide to Basic Design.
In chapter one, she uses fine art examples to explain the basic elements of two-dimensional design. The design elements are interconnected and difficult to discuss separately, but this reading allows for a structural way of thinking about the elements. In this problem, they learn to think about design elements from a fine art perspective but communicate them using motion design tools.
With a concept map template, students use familiar tools like the dictionary and thesaurus to expand the definition of particular words in the script and develop design skills by visualizing the words with a doodle. This step develops students’ imagination and gives them a couple of concepts. Finally, with a storyboard template, students visually plan the sequence of their concepts and study my solution.
We meet as a class towards the end to view each other’s work in a group critique. Some students find it very helpful to see how peers solve the same problem. One of the most valuable things about critique at this level is less about what I tell them and more about how they describe their work and clarify their intended message.
Alternative to Problem #2: How can non-objective motion graphics communicate the meaning of instrumental music and perfectly match individual sounds in instrumental music?
Problem 3: How can designers collaboratively ideate, prototype, and test interactive designs like websites and apps without the cost, time, and restraints of coding?
Problem three introduces students to interactive prototyping. Students use Figma to make interactive prototypes they can test on their phones or computer. They develop visual thinking skills by making interactive components that communicate a mood. For example, make a toggle button that moves playfully or a dropdown menu that moves shyly.
Students discuss prototypes with a few groups of students that give them a cross-section of ideas and solutions for their mood and component solution. This matrix can generate inspiration, iteration, and collaboration because while each cell presents a unique problem, it shares commonalities with others and even user testing.
Alternative to Problem #3: How can interactive design (UX/UI) components communicate and practice design principles?
Aiga designer 2025: AIGA Design Educators Community. Design Educators Community AIGA Designer 2025 Comments. (n.d.). Retrieved February 2, 2023, from https://educators.aiga.org/aiga-designer-2025/
Boden, M. A., & Bruce, T. (2004). Creative mind: Myths and mechanisms. Routledge.
Davis, M. J. (2017). Teaching design: A guide to curriculum and pedagogy for college design faculty and teachers who use design in their classroom. Allworth Press.
Stewart, M. (2019). Launching the imagination. McGraw-Hill Education.