Teaching by Design

Last year at Cooper U, we took the plunge and completely redesigned our Visual Interface Design course to better serve the design community. By applying the same user-centered design approach that Cooper U is built upon, the redesign became an interesting case study for how teaching and practice influence each other.

The impetus for the redesign came from student feedback and a sense that the course didn’t fully convey critical parts of Cooper’s visual design process. Though the former course was successful in many ways, it tried to do too much and appeal to too many to fully reach its potential. This resulted in an overwhelming, lecture-heavy classroom experience that felt out of place compared to our other workshop/activity driven courses. And while students left with a lot of great information, they didn’t have a clear direction on how to apply what they learned back at their workplace.

For example… 

Typography easily deserves a full class in itself; there even are multi-year degrees awarded to practitioners. However, given the broad terrain we covered, we could only devote 15 to 30 minutes to a survey of the topic. This gave students a general sense of typography, but it was neither enough to become an expert nor included small, easy ways to better implement type at work.

In order to improve the class, we needed to apply some of Cooper’s goal-directed special sauce: to begin by understanding who the course can and should serve, what this audience really needs, and what we can deliver to address these needs.

We were trying to do many things at once, and both the content and delivery suffered for it. In order to improve the class, we needed to apply some of Cooper’s goal-directed special sauce: to begin by understanding who the course can and should serve, what this audience really needs, and what we can deliver to address these needs. To ensure the course is on target, we also wanted to continually test and refine its design to evaluate the impact. In other words, we needed to apply our own process in order to redesign the course.

And this process includes…

Identifying the audience and the opportunity 

After conducting numerous interviews and studying the competitive landscape, we quickly realized that the market is saturated with courses, primers, and resources to teach basic visual and graphic design skills. In addition, we heard from design professionals that it is far more challenging to create a brand-driven visual strategy that drives UI creation from the beginning. In leaving the basics behind, we could focus on tackling this challenge instead of being all things to all people.

Refocusing the content

This was an exciting discovery: potential students wanted to learn just the kind of stuff we felt was missing from the course. By refocusing on the user-centered design process that Cooper has practiced for over 20 years, we could better serve students by sharing our strategic approach to visual design.

For example…

A hallmark of Cooper’s unique work style is to include all team members in projects at the onset: interactive and visual designers, developers, marketing and sales teams. Too often, visual designers are tacked on at the end of a project and are just told to make it “look pretty.” At Cooper, visual designers are involved in decisions and planning from Day 1, and they help shape the entire user experience from beginning to end. In teaching this process to our students, we aimed to help them create interfaces grounded in research and strategy, not just esthetics.

Prototyping to test ideas

As the course re-design progressed, we developed a pilot class, which was a lot like running a prototype. We set a date for the few course launch, then continued to refine certain parts in successive sessions. It’s a live prototyping project that constantly supplies feedback we can act on to improve in each release (course taught). If we ask students to be open, flexible, iterative, and collaborative, it makes sense that we are too. 

For example…

After the first class, we removed a research interview that wasn’t effective during the pilot and switched to a video that has been much more successful. We watch when students have a lot of questions, get excited, or glaze over, and revisit the course each time to think of how to refine the course.

That said, it is challenging to be both an instructor trying to teach and a critical eye trying to evaluate what’s working and what’s not. It can be tempting to try and change things on the spot, but it’s not always easy to know when to change course and when to push through even when things aren’t perfect. At Cooper, we design and teach in pairs. It’s invaluable to have a partner to bounce ideas off of and get support from, especially when iterating a new design concept (or course!). While prototyping the course, we often swap off who is teaching and who is observing and taking notes. 

Evaluating the Impact

Ultimately, Cooper’s revamped Visual Design course has found a successful niche with experienced visual designers as well as managers of those designers who want more insight into their teams. Interaction designers also benefit because they discover how to get more insight from the research they are often already doing, and learn how to best work with their visual design collaborators.

The new course also does a great job of teaching students how to articulate ideas and create successful work more effectively back at their workplaces. In the act of teaching the Cooper process, we cover many methods that can easily be taken back home. We cover:

  • How to define Experience Attributes (descriptive adjectives like “simple”) to guide your visual language
  • How to conduct research that results in actionable findings for visual design, including Observation and User Interviews
  • Ways to survey the competitive landscape, including a Domain Analysis of visual elements (comparing type, color, icons, and more) and a Brand Matrix (comparing different brands visually or based on Experience Attributes)
  • How to apply the Visual Language to an interface starting with Visual Language Studies (initial
    ) and Archetypes (focused design explorations of a few key screens)
  • How to present in order to get buy-in and useful feedback stakeholders and collaborators 

We couldn’t be more excited about this class because in its improved form, it’s something truly new on the scene. After all, once upon a time visual design was only taught in art schools – now craft and process have converged in the applied teachings at Cooper U. People who come will experience a course designed using the very same techniques and tools they are learning, and the effectiveness of that may be the best teacher of all.

If you’re interested in attending the new Visual Interface Design course, you can find details and dates for upcoming classes on the training page of our website. 

Nikki Knox

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