Thoughts on Communication Design and UX Education

If you graduated college in the 90’s with a graphic design degree, you may have learned valuable skills related to visual communication, typography, creative problem solving, compositional layout, etc.

Times have really changed. No matter how you view it, educators are tasked with teaching much more than they did in the past. Communication design will always be an aspect of a designer’s education, but many programs are expanding their approach to incorporate user-centered design thinking.

Educators who teach communication design and UX may incorporate visual design, web design, user interface design, user experience, interaction design, front end development, motion design and much more. This article surveys Communication Design and UX educators on various topics such as the state of design education, theory they teach, projects they assign to their students and the tools they use.

Dennis_photoDennis Cheatham

School: Miami University
Department: Art
Position/Title: Assistant Professor of Graphic Design

What do you think the current state of CDUX in higher education is?
From my experience, there seems to be a growing divide in how CDUX education is being operated. I define this divide as interface design vs. experience design.

Interface design rests on the look and feel of a design. These stop at what can be created without any code/development/production and in turn, can not be tested or understood beyond their aesthetic veneer and information architecture that assumes how users will behave/interact.

Experience design (or user experience, interaction design) requires designs to be built/developed/coded so these outcomes can be tested. This allows designers to learn from their design decisions when testing outcomes themselves and with others.

Most programs I am aware of are focused on interface design, but as educators with UX/coding experience move into teaching, programs are embracing the experience design approach where human behavior, the democratization of information via best-practices coding, and attention to evidence-based design through user testing are of importance.

If a design program would like to change its curriculum to a CDUX approach, what is the best advice you would give them?
I have found that defining a program-wide “usability” philosophy is key. At Miami I use Liz Sanders’s “useful, usable, desirable” idea in curriculum development as assessment. Regardless of if a design outcome is digital, paper, packaging, etc., the focus is on designing something that is useful (to the intended audience), usable (considering this audience’s cultural and physical makeup), and desirable (visually engaging and delightful). Decide what ideal outcomes are for your program and keep that as a defining principle.

What type of theory are you incorporating into your curriculum?
Students operate and become familiar with LaTour’s Actor Network Theory, Liz Sanders’s writing on Participatory Design and Generative Design, Social Cognitive Theory and Activity Theory in our curriculum. This balance of theory has been selected for its practical application and is ability to help students to gain new perspectives on users and use scenarios. Depending on the student level/content level of a course, theory is more or less overt in curriculum, sometimes embedded without being identified, or sometimes defined and explored in detail.

What type of projects are your students working on?
Student projects range from those that focus on skill development to full design/development and testing. Projects include: repeated exercises in CSS/HTML/copy and paste JavaScript; full website design, development, coding and development; personal and assigned client responsive websites, product and service design based from a human centered design perspective; app wire framing and simple usability implementation/testing; WordPress theme development for the management and operation of student portfolio websites.

What tools and resources do you use in your courses?
Espresso (CSS, SASS/SCSS HTML, JavaScript, PHP editor); CodeKit (SASS compiler); Adobe products for visual design; Illustrator comps (instead of Photoshop, thanks to Illustrator’s color management and rendering that mirrors CSS).

Lucid_Traditional_PortraitBrian Lucid

School: Massachusetts College of Art and Design
Department: Communication Design / Dynamic Media Institute
Position/Title: Professor of Design

What do you think the current state of CDUX in higher education is?
Many communication design programs remain rooted in pedagogy crafted for the design industry as it existed ten to twenty years ago. I have a general concern that many design programs do not currently address the thinking and making skills required for the types of experience design careers that are currently in high demand.

If a design program would like to change its curriculum to a CDUX approach, what is the best advice you would give them?
UX courses cannot be simply “tacked on” to an existing communication design curriculum and be successful. Aspects of user-centered design are sometimes at odds with the values of traditional design programs that have grown out of the disciplines of graphic design and advertising. These subtle incompatibilities cause a great deal of confusion and stress for the students, who can feel pulled between faculty with very different philosophies as to what makes “good” work.

That said, I do not agree with the growing movement to separate design education into small pieces—motion design, information design, information architecture, interaction design, and experience design—and teach them as new or discrete disciplines. While there are arguable benefits to focus and specificity, this approach denies the value of a broad and foundational education in art and visual design. These emerging sub-genres of design should not be looked upon as separate disciplines, but as different approaches to looking at design overall. Dynamic media education is stronger when treated as an extension or expansion of the respected craft of visual design. Regardless of medium or approach, students benefit from the visual sensitivity to form, composition, and color, and the conceptual, editorial, hierarchical, and historical thinking that grow from an education in visual communication design.

The most effective programs are integrative, growing from a traditional foundation while integrating the skills required of experience designers across all levels of curriculum. The most successful programs:

  • teach whole-brain approaches to problem solving
  • instill a creative process that encourages students to ideate solutions widely across a given problem
  • prepare students in developing strategies to manage complexity, not remove it.
  • challenge students to take on the roles of author and editor of content.
  • foster empathy and value the ability to detect the needs of clients, users, and coworkers.
  • provide instruction in various research methods
  • teach methods to prototype quickly and inexpensively
  • nurture collaboration, leadership and team building

Experience with the properties above makes design students more critical, informed and empathetic — skills that are of value no matter the career path they choose once they leave school.

What type of theory are you incorporating into your curriculum?
At the Massachusetts College of Art and Design the following four theory areas are deeply integrated across all undergraduate and graduate levels of our curriculum. Each is essential for students who wish create a career designing experiences.

  • Design Research
  • Information Design and Data Visualization
  • Storytelling and Narrative
  • Motion Literacy

These “pillars” provide a critical context for researching and evaluating user experiences, the visual vocabulary to create clear and effective communications across a variety of media, and the editing skills to place design work in a human context.

What type of projects are your students working on?
Our students are challenged to manage complex content, designing experiences and narratives that communicate clearly and poetically within a clear set of user goals.

Projects include visualizing complex musical compositions, large-scale wayfinding projects, and designing interfaces for narrative journalism. All projects grow from abstract content and user research, providing the students ample editorial responsibility as they shape the project into a unique prototype that can be tested and critiqued.

What tools and resources do you use in your courses?
As a program, we focus more on prototyping than production in our core curriculum. We utilize a wide variety of prototyping tools including Apple Keynote, inVision, and Axure for interface prototyping, and Adobe After Effects for motion prototyping and the creation of narrative user scenarios. For algorithmic prototyping we use Processing and Open Frameworks. Arduino is our platform for hardware prototyping.

JulieJulie Mader-Meersman

School: Northern Kentucky University
Department: Visual Arts
Position/Title: Associate Professor, Visual Communication Design

What do you think the current state of CDUX in higher education is?
It’s changing and growing in momentum, breadth and demand. It’s increasingly apparent that students who have experience with and who understand dynamic, interactive thinking, and who have agile design methodologies — and skills to be able to produce deliverables — will be able to make meaningful contributions to teams and projects beyond the academic setting.

If a design program would like to change its curriculum to a CDUX approach, what is the best advice you would give them?
• Build opportunities for students to think about whatever they design from an experience-based point of view — whether or not it’s conceptual, visual, technical, etc. Design first has to deliver a meaningful or useful experience to work well.

• Provide opportunities for students to merge holistic thinking with technique so that they gain experience with how to produce their ideals.

• As Pepijn Zurburg of de Designpolitie (Amsterdam) told my students while on study abroad in 2007, in design, treat everything as an experiment. When considering how to teach communication design in the realm of new technologies and experiences, embrace opportunities to learn with students, facilitating and demonstrating an investigative process to the opportunities and challenges that emerge over time.

What type of theory are you incorporating into your curriculum?
We look at material from a range of theoretical texts across our curriculum. Specific to interaction design, I start with portions of Nathan Shedroff’s views on experience design, and I incorporate Saffer’s “Designing for Interaction.” I also sometimes use Jon Kolko’s “Thoughts on Interaction Design.” Reading from other significant figures is shared, including Brenda Laurel, Bill Moggridge, Jeffrey Zeldman, and others. I also agree with and use Brian Miller’s text “Above the Fold” for web design, which advocates for the integration of strong visual design with strong UX.

What type of projects are your students working on?
Our students are working on a wide variety of projects across our holistic visual communication design curriculum, including everything from basic digital skill acquisition to advanced information experiences, brand experiences, and motion design experiences. Specific to interaction design, this semester, they are designing and coding prototypes for hypothetical, responsive, convention web sites; designing high-fidelity visual prototypes for apps; and interactive publication design experiments within the Adobe digital publishing suite workflow.

What tools and resources do you use in your courses?
In addition to books like those mentioned and a well-curated list of links to relevant web sites (blogs, publishers, design firms, technique sites), I design and construct tools for my classes in the media in which I expect my students to operate. For example, I designed and coded a responsive web site containing the content necessary to study the subject contextually, at a pace, sequence and depth that is in sync with my class. This allows me to both demonstrate technique and provide a resource that students can repeatedly visit — and that we can manipulate — for study.

pmcneil-200Patrick McNeil

School: University of Missouri, St. Louis
Department: Art & Art History
Position/Title: Assistant Professor

What do you think the current state of CDUX in higher education is?
It seems that few people actually understand what it is, and for obvious reasons have trouble making any progress towards changing to it. This lack of understanding is the biggest hurdle we face.

A prime example is that every time I mention “user research” everyone thinks I am talking about the user research marketing people do…which is not the same at all.

Or it is just lumped in as “computer stuff”.

If a design program would like to change its curriculum to a CDUX approach, what is the best advice you would give them?
Hire individuals outside the normal Graphic Design circle and weave external ideas into the program. UX is a blend of graphic design, psychology, computer science, human factors and more. If you don’t diversify your ideas you will not mange to expand into this area.

Also, you have to be willing to let something go. As you add UX methods to a communication design program you must displace other material that feels really hard to let go of.

What type of theory are you incorporating into your curriculum?
A shift to user-centered design methodologies is the biggest change. And getting everyone to understand that the research into users and their behaviors is a legitimate job skill worth developing and showcasing in portfolios.

What type of projects are your students working on?
I have students doing:

  • Experience maps (or Customer Journey maps)
  • Planning and designing the UI of a mobile app
  • Wireframing, planning and visually designing responsive web sites
  • Visually designing a web application (in particular a customized airline ticket ordering system)
  • HTML/CSS/Bootstrap projects including:
    • personal portfolio site
    • single page marketing sites
    • Multi page brochure style sites
    • A complex login form complete with JS interactions for various events to teach micro
    • interactions in interactive design

What tools and resources do you use in your courses?
The adobe suite (including Dreamweaver)
Axure for wireframes and prototypes
Web hosting for all web projects via nearlyfreespeech.net
Tons of sketch paper!

Learn from Patrick McNeil in his online courses on coding, web design and UX design at HOW Design University.

BrittanySchadeBrittany Schade

School: Western Washington University
Department: Design
Position/Title: Assistant Professor of Interactive Design

What do you think the current state of CDUX in higher education is?
Inconsistency. There seems to be a lot of confusion to what UX means—rightfully so. There are a lot of jobs right now for User Experience Designers and Researchers with job descriptions that range in ambiguity. This is definitely reflected in higher education. The investigative and unstable nature of UX makes it challenging to assess student outcomes and commit to curricular changes.

If a design program would like to change its curriculum to a CDUX approach, what is the best advice you would give them?
Developing flexible curriculum is absolutely necessary. Defining courses by technology and project outcomes prevents educators from making changes and experimenting with new ideas. One of the biggest challenges design educators face is remaining current and plugged into the industry. One way to remedy that is to bring in industry professionals to supplement knowledge that extends beyond an instructor’s area of expertise. Whether it be guest speakers, workshop leaders or guest critics, the students enjoy having a fresh perspective in the classroom as well the inherent networking opportunities that can result. This can also help to satisfy the needs of programs that may lack the resources to build or make significant changes to their existing curriculum.

What type of theory are you incorporating into your curriculum?
The greatest challenge I face is condensing course work into a 10-week quarter without compromising the content or process. This high-pressure model shares many similarities with tech start-ups, many of which are using the Lean UX model. Following this model, I encourage my students to research and test earlier on in projects using wireframes or prototypes rather than premature visual designs. This has proven to be both an efficient use of time and an accurate practical methodology.

I also incorporate a heavy dose of John Maeda’s ‘Laws of Simplicity’ and emotional design theory from authors Don Norman and Aaron Walters. I find that their research is an critical and influential component of any UX curriculum.

What type of projects are your students working on?
We offer courses that incorporate user experience research from a variety of contexts, all of which require students perform a significant amount of user research and market analysis before design is ever considered. I always require students to document their entire process from brainstorming to the final prototype so that they can continually reflect on the phases of project that led them to their outcome. This also serves as a valuable companion to their portfolio that demonstrates their mental processes.

Beautiful Users

Beautiful Users: Designing for People by Ellen Lupton

One of their projects is to build, design and create content for a responsive web design. This project teaches students to consider the context of use and highlights the importance of organization and flexible content. Another project I give is to challenge students to solve a problem or fix an existing system resulting in the design of a digital or physical interactive solution. This could be anything from a mobile application to a wearable device to a physical wayfinding structure. While there are specific project deliverables, the project outcomes are left vague. This emphasizes problem solving, user flow, user centered design and the power of effective prototyping for client presentations.

I also teach the capstone course for the interdisciplinary UxD minor. We work with real companies (last year it was Microsoft) who provide complex challenges for the students to solve. The students meet with the company several times throughout the term to obtain “real-world” experience presenting to clients and participating in workshops.

What tools and resources do you use in your courses?
Given the amount of adaptation that is required to sustain top level expertise, I firmly believe in sharing resources with both my students and my peers. Therefore my course websites contain a robust section of resources that serve as an ongoing toolkit with recommended readings, tutorials, case studies, events and downloads. The most relevant and consistently favorited by my students are the articles from alistapart.com, the best of which are compiled in the book ‘Just Enough Research’ by Erika Hall, I use that book in almost every course I teach. The students are also big enthusiasts of prototyping products such as Skala Preview and sketch pads from uistencils.com.

Heather ShawHeather Shaw

School: Lesley University College of Art and Design
Department: Design
Position/Title: Associate Professor of Design

What do you think the current state of CDUX in higher education is?
I think several programs are rooted in traditional graphic design, with “web” or “interactive” electives tacked onto curriculum. Program development from the “outside-in” approach fails to create necessary fluencies across curriculum. Time-honored visual language literacies synced with interactive/dynamic theory and practice should be integrated in curriculum from from start to finish. This challenges design educators to rethink established teaching methods and approaches, and develop new curriculum models from the inside-out.

If a design program would like to change its curriculum to a CDUX approach, what is the best advice you would give them?
I recommend conducting a program audit. This entails inviting one or two outside experts in CDUX to observe the curriculum and provide a detailed documentation of the review. Their evaluation will articulate what the curriculum is doing well—and outline specific recommendations for change. Subsequently, an advisory team composed of professional designers can frame new learning objectives and outcomes for the program through consultation. This provides curricular guidance and advice through the lens of a working professional. However, any enduring transformation takes time. Faculty need dedicated hours to develop and build new curriculum models brewed from audit and advisory counsel.

What type of theory are you incorporating into your curriculum?
Systems thinking is at the core of our curriculum — regardless of medium or outcome. Curriculum is supported through literacies involving motion, algorithm, information architecture, mapping, prototyping, user testing and feedback. All projects center around a highly iterative process of building and user testing. Some texts that I reference include “The Design Method: A Philosophy and Process for Functional Visual Communication” by Eric Karjaluoto and  “Thinking in Systems: A Primer” by Donella Meadows.

What type of projects are your students working on?
Assignments strive to embody both design and technology objectives. Projects range from applied to abstract, and require students to move seamlessly between digital and tangible constructs. Applied assignments include designing and coding single page scrolling websites, app design, responsive design, and a site audit. Abstract assignments involve the use of algorithm to create generative works and patterns, data visualization, digital simulations and the translation of physical interactions to digital environments. Assignment expectations emphasize core design values, material skills, and craftsmanship in the delivery.

What tools and resources do you use in your courses?
We use a variety of tools for different purposes, and these frequently change based on the requirements of a project. For print and motion work, we use several Adobe CC apps. For web development we use Sublime Text, Foundation (Zurb), Bootstrap, and WordPress. For prototyping and simulation, Apple Keynote, Powerpoint, FluidUI, POP (Prototyping on Paper), SketchUp, and Augment. For algorithmic design we use Processing, Nodebox and Quartz Composer. For course management our university uses Blackboard, but we also use Dropbox and Slack for file sharing and communication.

R.JRJ Thompson

School: Youngstown State University
Department: Department of Art
Position/Title: Assistant Professor, Graphic & Interactive Design

What do you think the current state of CDUX in higher education is?
I’ve taught at 4 institutions and for the most part I feel that Interactive Design/UX is largely misunderstood in academia. Most people view my students and I as “only making websites” – which is minimizing, considering that we do more than websites. animations, apps, cms, kiosks, entrepreneurship…

So, fighting that perception, wherever it may be, is challenging.

Depending on the institution, finding qualified applicants (MFA degree holders) to teach interactive design courses is exceedingly difficult. It’s a very, very niche skillset amongst MFAs. I believe that recruiting qualified candidates that can teach interactive technologies and be good designers doesn’t necessarily have to come from an MFA, but the accreditation standards that guide a program or institution can make that difficult — I don’t have a ton of knowledge or experience with accreditation organizations, specifically NASAD, and whether or not they would from on a non-MFA instructor in an art and design program, but I can imagine it being a situation worth criticism, be it constructive or otherwise.

If a design program would like to change its curriculum to a CDUX approach, what is the best advice you would give them?
CDUX is already a massive influencer on culture. With the growth of technology, the role of CDUX is only going to grow in numbers and in strength.

My advice would be to invest in that future by investing in the right technology and the right people. I try my absolute best to do what I can with the minimal resources I have at my disposal and I have been able to push my students and their work to new levels as a result – but if there were more resources available….well, we’d be doing more incredible things.

Through investment, educate everyone as to the critical importance of interactive design in academia, in theory, in practice, in business – and in reality.

What type of theory are you incorporating into your curriculum?
Pre-Design Considerations:

All of my projects require moderate research in the client, their end user base, and developing user profiles of the personalities found in their end user base – this asks the students to understand a complex, diverse spectrum of expectations, interpretations, and perspectives. Aligning projects with user-centered focus permits for their projects to have direct applicability, which increases authenticity and the potential to use the work in post-class opportunities…

(“clients” are typically sourced locally, students are encouraged to be entrepreneurs and attempt to implement their work professionally)

What type of projects are your students working on?
Intro to Interactive Design:
HTML & CSS, minimal JS, WordPress, Muse, Front-End Design w/ Photoshop (slicing,etc)

Intermediate Interactive Design:
Wordpress template customization, Joomla, Drupal, iOS app design & xCode (two projects)…final project students have to front-end design their own operating system

Advanced Interactive Design:
iOS app design, phonegap hybrid apps, touch-interactive front-end kiosk design project, drupal and joomla custom templating…final project students have to make an animated demo of their operating system design from Intermediate Interactive

Interactive Application Design:
all iOS apps, using various tools like phonegap, xcode, titanium, appgyver, additional drag + drop app programs….final project students have to making a minimal working version of some functionality of their operating system front-end design project from Intermediate and Advanced Interactive Design

What tools and resources do you use in your courses?

  • Adobe Creative Suite
  • xCode
  • InVision app
  • TryMyUI
  • Phonegap
  • Gamesalad
  • WordPress/Joomla/Drupal
  • Apple Developer Program

The information for the article was supplied by professors who are members of the CDUXP (Communication Design and User Experience Professors) group. The group consists of University Professors that blend the worlds of Communication Design, User Experience Design and Technology. The group has discussions on their Linkedin group page and are working on creating a more complex resource in the future at www.cduxp.com.


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5 thoughts on “Thoughts on Communication Design and UX Education

  1. Timoyer

    Thank you for publishing this insightful article and taking the time to incorporate the perspectives of leading minds in the UX field.

    Can you please link to/provide resources that provide further definition to the theories & fields of study referenced early on in tour article?

    “Participatory Design and Generative Design, Social Cognitive Theory and Activity Theory”

    Upon Googling these references, research papers and articles that daylte back 10yrs or more occupy the first 3-4 pages of search queries. Thank you.
    ~Tim Moyer (www.Timoyer.com)

    1. Dennis Cheatham

      Thanks for your question, Tim—here are a few sources for starters on the theories I mentioned:

      Participatory/Generative Design
      This goes beyond “designer-knows-best” human-centered design and adopts a person/user-as-expert stance. Sanders and Stappers have recently published a fantastic book on Generative Design with case studies that flesh it out.
      Sanders, Elizabeth B.-N., and Pieter Jan Stappers. Convivial Toolbox: Generative Research for the Front End of Design. Amsterdam: BIS Publishers, 2013.

      Social Cognitive Theory
      Albert Bandura’s book: Social Foundations of Thought And Action: A Social Cognitive Theory (1986) posits that people are influenced by personal, behavioral, and environmental factors. Many researchers have applied and tested SCT in various ways and shared their research. Bandura’s 2001 article on SCT and Mass Communication applies to design well and makes SCT accessible.
      Bandura, Albert. “Social Cognitive Theory of Mass Communication.” Media Psychology 3, no. 3 (2001/8): 265–99.

      Activity Theory
      What people do reveals a lot about the way they make sense of the world around them. AT is systemic it its focus and cultural influences are considered, so its no wonder its aligned with ethnography. Anthropologist Christina Wasson fleshes it out in her 2000 article through a design lens.
      Wasson, Christina. “Ethnography in the Field of Design.” Human Organization 59, no. 4 (2000): 377–88.

      These articles just touch the surface of these theories but I hope they serve as a place to start.

  2. Albert22smith

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