RGD’s Design Educator Conference Highlights: Part I

RGD Design Educator Conference 2023 emcee and speaker, Diana Varma RGD shares takeaways from the conference.


On June 1, more than 40 passionate design educators took to the lecture hall at Vancouver Community College, transformed into students for the day at the RGD’s Design Educator Conference 2023. I had the great pleasure of emceeing the event filled with community and connection. As eight presenters took to the front of the lecture hall to speak about everything from accommodations to AI, engagement to equality, decolonizing classrooms to design thinking, we listened intently to the immense value of each presentation. I’ve done my best to capture the highlights of the first half of the presentations by Debbie Millman, Glen Hougan, Vivien Anayian and my own presentation in this part. Part II will cover presentations Eric Forest RGD, Nida Fatima, Scot Geib and Marian Bantjes. 
All sessions were recorded and the RGD Members have access to these presentations and 750+ other presentations from our webinars, conferences and other events in the Members-only section

Keynote: An Open Letter to College Students, Debbie Millman 

Demand more from your schools, from your faculty, from yourselves.
Overview: Chair of the Masters of Branding at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, Debbie Millman presented an evolving, never-before-given talk entitled 'An Open Letter to College Students'. In this talk, she shares what students need to think about before they decide to come to college (as there is an epidemic of students not doing what they want to do) and what to think about when they get to college to get the most out of their experience (namely to show up, turn off technology, sit at the front of the room and ask questions).
  • Students should study what they actually want to learn because college is such a major time and monetary investment.
  • Students should take a gap year if they don’t want to come to class, and when they enrol, they need to show up!
  • Students who sit in the front row are more in tune with the teacher, participate in class discussions, can see and hear the material better, can maintain better eye contact and have fewer distractions.
  • College is supposed to be hard.


Talk: Specifications Grading as the Future of Grading, Diana Varma RGD


Traditional grading systems leave a lot to be desired and often students are “punished by rewards”. 
Overview: In this talk, I spoke about challenges and opportunities in traditional grading systems and offered an alternative called ‘specifications grading’ that I’ve found to lessen student stress while maintaining high academic rigour. Having experimented with this framework since 2018, specifications grading is based on students achieving a checklist of items (specifications or ‘must-sees’) that they must demonstrate in order to complete an assignment successfully. The emphasis placed on narrative feedback, reducing the distraction of comparison that letter or number grades can create. Specifications grading is a framework that exists as a middle ground between traditional grading systems and ‘ungrading’ and one that can work within large institutional systems that require a final grade at the end of a course.
  • Grades as we know them came into widespread use 125 years ago (they are relatively new and there’s room to re-examine them!).
  • Grades place emphasis on ‘playing the game of school’ (extrinsic motivation) instead of interest in learning (intrinsic motivation); they pit students against one another, perpetuating a competitive scarcity mentality (there can only be one number one), instead of building a culture of community abundance and growth (we can all be a little stronger, better, wiser than our past selves).
  • There are a variety of ways to ‘ungrade’ and no one-size-fits-all solution.
  • No grading or ungrading system is perfect but the purpose of the latter is to reduce the stress of grades, increase the amount of feedback students receive in the course, shift the focus from grades to outcomes, mimic real-world industry relationships with expectations and empower students to be the directors of their own learning.


Talk: The Future of Designers is Not in Designing, Glen Hougan

Chat GPT provides content but not context. Context is where we, as humans, can play.
Overview: Associate Professor and Chair of the Design Division at NSCAD University Glen Hougan, shared an enlightening talk about the ways in which generative AI is both a competitor and collaborator for present and future designers. He argued that the “designer is the multiplier” in the equation of collaboration. AI is a great aggregator, but its outputs are only as good as its inputs, as well as the strength of prompts for those outputs. Therefore the creative thinking that goes into a classroom project is just as important — or maybe more so — as the final outcome in an age of generative AI. 
  • Chat GPT provides content (through pattern recognition) but not context, so there’s a real human element needed to make AI work successfully.
  • There’s huge power in prompting to fuel effective collaboration.
  • Is the value of student assessment still on the output (AI’s strength)? Should we, instead, be evaluating students on the process, context and inputs (AI’s weaknesses)?
  • We’re going to become: design translators, design curators, design contextualizers, design facilitators.
Talk: How to Kaizen Design Education to Face Challenges of Living in the VUCA World, Vivien Anayian
New designers often struggle with the messiness of design in the world outside of the classroom versus the neat and tidy methods they’re taught inside of the classroom.
Overview: UX Designer and Educator, Vivien Anayian shared the ways that implementing “Kaizen” (continuous improvement) can help prepare students for life outside of the classroom in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world. 
  • “Perfect” comes from the latin root “finished”, which can be an overwhelming concept for students; instead Kaizen is about continuous improvement.
  • The Kaizen mindset can help transition students from school to work using the following seven elements:
    - Small steps for big results
    - Embracing change and adaptability
    - Empowerment and engagement
    - Data-informed decision making
    - Respect for people and collaboration
    - Focus on standardization and simplification
    - Kaizen as a mindset, not a one-time event
Stay tuned for Part II to be published in August!