Holly Thorsen is the Associate Director of Professional Education at Cooper. A veteran of the improv stage, Holly specializes in helping individuals and teams build creative confidence through interactive training programs and leadership coaching to create lasting change.

This is the second of a five-part series where Holly shares her knowledge of design education, educational philosophy, and the importance of shifting company culture to one of creative leadership and feedback.


Short-term trainings are exceptionally difficult to create. In less than 24 hours (and sometimes, as little as eight), we are tasked with building a core design competency that participants can integrate into their organizations. This requires deep reflection and forethought to craft meaningful, hyper-efficient educational experiences.

We’ve identified three key teaching practices that set us - and our course participants - up for success:

1. Scenario-building. We would consider our trainings ineffective if our participants didn’t feel prepared to bring these skills back to their organizations. Drawing upon our experience as practitioners, we identify situations where the skills we are teaching will likely be most relevant, and apply a real-world context for learning. This works a few different ways and pretty much always involves digging into one in-depth practice project. 

First, we try to emulate the environment in which the designers work, creating familiar circumstances that might necessitate interviews or a service development plan for a particular persona. Second, we simulate realistic, high-stakes situations for practice. For example, in Mastering the Art of Feedback, we role play in a wide variety of contexts, such as high-pressure situations where managers need to give critical feedback. Third, we bring in outside voices. In our Design Leadership Immersive, we ask participants to apply their leadership skills beyond the classroom, and attendees conduct video interviews and observations. This approach allows us to ask participants to collaborate with people who have similar tendencies to co-workers with whom they’ll collaborate back at their office.

2. Energy management. Providing an engaging educational experience across the day is critical for efficient learning - and often overlooked in professional development contexts. Whether it’s the need for breaks, food, fun, or play, a lack of recognition can completely deplete an individual or group’s energy. By managing energy effectively, we’re able to provide all participants with a better experience and the opportunity to walk away with a deeper, fuller understanding as a result of being genuinely engaged.

3. Case studies. Because Cooper Professional Education operates within a design firm, we have the opportunity to draw upon a 25-year history of project work. We actively share our consulting experiences, including our strongest projects as well as some of the failures along the way. These case studies are essential in cementing nuanced understanding of the power design and creative leadership can have in the world.

Though short-term trainings definitely provide a strict time constraint, effective teaching is best enabled when we apply these three key practices.


Interested in learning more about Cooper Professional Education and our philosophies around design and education? Read more on our curriculum and class schedules at www.cooper.com/training.