The classroom is abuzz with activity as students perform a variety of tasks to complete their work, such as signing out to interview clients, heading to the innovation center to use the 3D printer, laser engraving or cutting vinyl, using the software in the computer lab, creating illustrations on their tablets, designing websites to show their portfolios, and working in the art studio with traditional materials to create new versions of their concepts. In all of these instances, authenticity and student choice are at the heart of learning through design.
James W., “decomposed tech” shirt design.Left: James W., Organic Pumpkin Purée food label design. Right: Alixandra W., button design for 49th Annual Pewaukee Kiwanis RiverRun event.Noe W., t-shirt design for Pewaukee Kiwanis 2023 Beach Party.
Learning how to collaborate with a real client is also a key part of the process. But how did we get to this well-oiled machine of student-centered learning?
It starts with research that helps students understand what design is—an umbrella under which many media arts disciplines reside, including illustration, photography, typography, motion graphics, and more. In all of these, the designer is the idea person who brings the elements together to create a cohesive final product for the client. The client is always right, but a good designer leads the process, steering the client to make good design decisions.
The designer is involved in the production phase of the project, too, collaborating with the production team to get the best final product, whether it’s a t-shirt, poster, or 3D product. Considering social media for the client can also be part of the designer’s job. In all of these instances, collaboration is at the heart of creating a quality design that meets the client’s needs.
Planning and Pitching
In the design classes I teach, we start by building this collaborative approach to assignments through the planning and pitching phases. Students research their ideas through self- and teacher-curated websites and document their findings in digital and traditional visual journals. Then they work individually to learn how to use design software, the difference between raster and vector graphics, and how to create a visual hierarchy while applying their knowledge of the elements of art and principles of design.
Feedback and Revision
Students consult with me and with small teams of classmates during the idea phase to gather feedback and adjust their ideas as needed. The ability to edit ideas and work is important in design because, ultimately, the work is for the client and must meet their needs.
Students collaborate to discuss the final versions of their designs and consider which ones best meet the needs of the client. The client is often the person who decides which version of the design to produce. All of this is built into the assessment process, creating a sense of ownership and authenticity.
In the real design world, the client may ask for edits. This sometimes happens in the classroom, too, and it is a valuable experience for students, reminding them that the client’s satisfaction is the main goal while also creating quality design work.
In the past, we have collaborated with district teachers and administrators who needed design work completed. Students created food labels for the culinary arts program, posters and infographics for the new makerspace, public service-style posters during the pandemic, and more.
We have also worked with community members. Students collaborated with the Pewaukee Kiwanis Club to design t-shirts for their annual beach party and buttons for their annual RiverRun event. In these instances, students compete, are paid for their work, and receive a copy of the final product. They also get to see their work featured at each of the events. These real-world assignments also provide students with examples for developing a college portfolio.
Competition, collaboration, and authenticity makes design and its subgenres an outstanding way to teach students real-world skills. Teaching software skills is important, but not the primary focus of design class; the main focus is understanding design thinking.
Adobe is still the industry standard, but there are free apps that are comparable, such as Photopea, Vectr, Canva, and Adobe Express. Some of these require an account, but most are free. Access to software shouldn’t stop you from teaching design. Showing students how to bring their ideas to fruition while giving clients what they need is an invaluable experience in authentic learning.
Art teachers support their students in recognizing and understanding the part that design plays in their everyday lives. Students express emotions through physical drawings of robots with digital symbolism, create visually impactful infographics inspired by real or imagined travels, develop real-world skills by collaborating with clients on design-related projects, and more.