Educator Case Study: Concept and the Senses project encourages reflection and critical thinking for first-year design students

Case Study by Saskia Van Kampen RGD, Assistant Professor at OCAD University

Image: Project by Lourdes Portal d'Uniam, 2014


Concept and the Senses is a project that Nancy Snow and myself developed for our first year graphic design students as a way to introduce them to theoretical (identifying and defining information need) and empirical (material making) research techniques. It is a five-week scaffolded assignment that has individual students researching issues surrounding the production, distribution, cultural and social aspects of the food we consume.

Students are expected to develop a concept, explore materials and work iteratively — switching multiple times between 2D and 3D representations. Every week students are asked to reflect deeply on their progress by answering questions that Snow and I developed with the aid of Emilie Brancato an English Language Learner (ELL) Specialist from the Writing and Learning Centre at OCAD University.



The learning objectives of this project focus on input over output—process is marked more heavily than the final project. The reason for this is based on what Professor Jean Donham notes in her essay College Ready—What Can We Learn from First-Year College Assignments?: that students entering first year undergraduate institutes have difficulty analyzing and synthesizing information to construct meaning. Donham also notes that first year students are not prepared for initiating their own inquiry, nor do they know proper methods of citation for evidence and research sources and how these pertain to their work. First year students also lack the level of “curiosity, open-mindedness, self-reliance, and perseverance” required of a University design student.


The weekly reflection requirement of this project aims to accomplish the following:

  • help students establish strong research skills and develop their critical and analytical abilities 
  • bring awareness to their unique creative process
  • encourage risk-taking and exploration
  • establish a strong understanding of concept development 


In professional practice, graphic design often requires a designer to develop a strong understanding of an unfamiliar topic, product or issue. For this, it is important for students to develop research skills that go beyond the basic online search. Many first-year students are also unaware of University standards for research, so we supply them with a 'seed list' to help them get started, including resources with basic definitions that will be relevant to the topic of this assignment. Students are required to provide point-form notes documenting key takeaways from articles they consult for the project. In addition to the list, we also present a lecture on peer-reviewed articles and how to differentiate quality online resources from those that are biased or poorly researched. 


Students are not given specific instructions regarding materials, techniques and tools for this project. Instead students are encouraged to explore and experiment with unfamiliar materials, take risks and go through the process of trial and error, all of which must be documented in their weekly process books. By positioning 'failures' as a requirement for the assignment that will be worth marks, the project encourages iteration and reinforces the importance of knowing what doesn't work. This focus on experimentation and exploration is also important for helping students develop their own unique creative voice and setting them on a path of self-directed learning. 


Because the project shifts from 3D to 2D several times, students are also encouraged to work in unfamiliar ways. Stage one has students developing physical textures of the foods they are researching and photographing these textures to be presented for in-class peer review. Stage 2 asks them to further explore these textures by visually communicating how the food is experienced by the senses (scent, taste, etc.) and representing it in the form of a three-dimensional cube. These cubes are meant to be approached in a conceptual way in that they can be any size, open or closed, interactive, etc. Cubes are then staged, photographed and paired with words to further communicate the intended messages.


We also added weekly reflection statements to help students navigate through these unfamiliar processes. The written component has students think about the decisions they have made so far and assess them before coming to class. Example questions for stage one would be:

  1. Describe the assumptions you had regarding your topic before you began researching it
  2. Did the theoretical research you conducted affect your initial ideas and concepts?
  3. What did you learn from your empirical research (exploring media and techniques)?
  4. Why did you choose this medium to create the texture of your object? What issues have you encountered working with the media and how are you addressing them? Is this affecting your intent? 

These types of questions encourage students to engage in what social scientist Donald Schön calls “reflection in action”  (Schön 1983). He describes this process as a conversation throughout the cycle of action and reflection (Schön, 79) and can be introduced at an undergraduate level in order to begin cultivating methodologies where theory, research, and practice work together. We have also found that these questions offer students time to contemplate and prepare for in-class discussions. 


The food issues that students focus on cover a wide range of topics including genetic modification, food waste, affordability, organics, vegetarianism, obesity and over-packaging. The following are two examples of strong critical engagement, research, iteration and making:


Project: Lourdes Portal d'Uniam (2014) 

Lourdes was surprised to discover that the Peruvian meal she was researching could be traced back the cooking of Chinese immigrant workers who picked cotton and were treated as though they were slaves. Her initial concept idea was to use shackles to represent slavery, but the project began to evolve as she re-visited her decisions at each stage. The arbitrary choice to focus on the shackles was soon replaced by a more research-driven decision making process.


In her execution, textures were generated using cotton-based materials. Instead of shackles, she opted for a more personal representation, using the body as a symbol for the brutality that the Chinese workers endured. As this student became more critically engaged in the decisions she was making, she developed new iterations of the idea based on the discoveries of her research. 


Week 2 process work creating textures of steak using cotton to support her research. Student work by Lourdes Portal d'Uniam.



Week 3 process work creating cubes with the textures developed in week 2. Student work by Lourdes Portal d'Uniam.


Top: Process work to represent the food issue — brutal treatment of immigrant workers. Bottom: Final 3 textured cubes (steak, red onion and potato) all made from cotton products. Student work by Lourdes Portal d'Uniam.


Project: Jessica Tat (2015)

Jessica focused on the meat processing industry in North America and the amount of worker injuries that occur in North America. She began by making her textures from her own body parts but then had to revise her plan when she could not translate this into 3D artifacts. She then explored materials used in aiding injuries such as gauze, latex gloves and bandages. Tat decided that her headline would not function as a traditional headline but report statistics on injury rates, which she disguised as the Nutrition Facts label commonly found on all food products. For her final photograph she placed her textured cubes on styrofoam meat trays, wrapped them in plastic and labelled them with “Production” facts stickers.

Textures of meat using human body parts to communicate safety issues of the meat packing industry. Student work by Jessica Tat


Final poster series with Production Facts labels that contain statistics on injuries that occur in the meat packing industry. Student work by Jessica Tat.



Overall, students find several aspects of this project demanding. One of the main challenges is with the abstraction of the food items. Because the food items are being reduced to texture and must take the form of a cube, students must rely on other visual cues to communicate their message, using the principles and elements of design.


The shifting between 2D and 3D is also a challenge, as certain things communicate well in 3D but fail to do so when translated into 2D — especially when students have incorporated kinetic elements, light features or interactive components. Some students have found alternative ways to achieve these effects by using QR codes, pop-ups, folds, windows or double-sided posters.


When students get stuck with their concept or find themselves facing compositional dilemmas, I provide support by asking questions about their ideas and about their decision-making process. These questions usually reveal gaps in their research where the student has not done enough exploration with materials and layouts. By asking questions instead of suggesting solutions, this approach helps students fill in the missing pieces and discover new methods on their own. 


Another way Snow and I guide students to discover their own methods and processes are through the use of peer-review sheets during in-class critiques. Students sit in front of another student’s rough work and are asked to answer questions that are specific to the learning objectives of that stage. These questions have students critically engage with the work they are analyzing. Students then present their thoughts on their peer’s work to the class. This method is especially helpful for students who are uncomfortable with public speaking as they can read from their sheet instead of having to talk off the top of their heads. It also breaks the psychological barrier that first-year students have with critiquing the work of others. Once someone starts the discussion it is easier for others to add to the conversation.


Examples of peer-review questions from Stage 1 include:

  1. Using the vocabulary of design, describe what principles and elements are being employed in the work of your fellow student.
  2. Relating to the learning objectives for this project, what can your fellow student improve with their next presentation? 
  3. What did you discover through analyzing this project that you may not have learned through your own exploration / project execution? 


As students are handing in work every week, we have to assess their work every week. This can become overwhelming without having detailed marking rubrics in place. Thus Snow and I have carefully crafted grading breakdowns that:

(a) Directly reflect the learning outcomes of the course
(b) Explains what that the learning outcomes mean in reference to a given stage of the project, and
(c) Outlines the deliverables that will be marked.


For example, one learning outcome in the rubric for stage 1 is:

(a) Students must demonstrate how basic concepts can inform and guide the development of a project.
(b) The deliverables being marked are proof of theoretical research (what informs your concept), and documentation of the concept.
(c) In your own words state how the information gathered could and/or does contribute to your concept development (point form notes, sketches are all ways of documenting this).


Because the rubric is comprehensive it makes for more expedient marking. It becomes not only a practical tool for us to target our feedback but also for students. The rubric guides students through a process and helps them stay on track without tangenting past the scope of the project. It also helps them identify their strengths and weaknesses and to act more quickly on any issues they may be experiencing.


Analysis (2014-2015) 

Snow and myself believe in a reflective and iterative creative process not only for our students, but for our own pedagogy. We assess and revise our fall and winter assignments each summer according to student responses and outcomes. One of our main discoveries after conducting this project in 2014 was that we were assuming students knew how to be reflective and iterative in their making. For example the questions we were asking the students to engage with were too vague, such as: “did you try anything you are unfamiliar with?” and “what was your intent and did you achieve it?” Such questions do not help students understand how to be reflective nor do they encourage students to discuss the effect of their actions. Instead these questions elicit one word answers or denotative descriptions of a piece of work.


Anne Hume, an education researcher, experienced a similar phenomenon in her classroom when using reflection journals: “In not scaffolding the reflective process sufficiently for students [she] had made assumptions that [the students] could think and write reflectively, when in fact these skills need to be acquired through the use of targeted strategies and practice” (Hume, 252). To correct this issue Snow and I teamed up with Brancato in order to strengthen the wording of our assignment sheets and questions and address our students’ diverse level of understanding.


The major changes for this past semester (2015) include

  • A more organized scaffolding of the steps required for the project, which helps the beginning design student focus on the task at hand instead of becoming prematurely preoccupied by the end result.
  • Verbal examples of assignment requirements and samples of reflective writing in the assignment sheet, which helps the beginning design student grasp what is being asked of them without providing visual examples which they could potentially mimic or be influenced by.
  • The inclusion of definitions of words and terms that may cause confusion, which not only aids the ELL students but also reinforces design terminology for all students.
  • More specific questions that aim to stimulate reflective responses from students, the intent of which is to help students be more rigorous in their written components and to encourage students to put words to their actions.


The new approach to the assignment sheet and project set up is presently involved in a pilot study.


The key takeaway from this project for educators is to not make assumptions about the beginning design student. First-year assignments need to help students understand and develop processes, to help students engage critically with their work and the work of their peers, and to help students become autonomous in their learning.


Instructors also need to adopt the same practices that they tell their students to engage in—to be reflective and iterative in their assignment development and to engage critically with their teaching process.


The key takeaway for students is to take risks, explore, experiment, and to do research. Most importantly is for students to find their autonomy—to shift from asking if what they are doing is ok to a more self-directed, self-assured mode of learning where they recognize their mistakes and build off of the lessons they have learned.


The Study

This project is part of an ongoing research project being conducted on the 2015 cohort. Our study is investigating if a more holistic inclusion of self-reflection and peer-to-peer writing within design process can help students in the following ways: 

  1. Encourage increased critical engagement through the creative process
  2. Give them tools and techniques so that they can be more purposeful in peer critiques
  3. Start them on a path to become reflective practitioners

Data analysis is taking place throughout this summer with plans to disseminate results in fall 2015. For more information about this assignment or our study please contact Saskia van Kampen at 


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