Contribution towards a reflection about methodological strategies in Design education and the function of drawing in Design

Our teaching activity in Graphic Design and Industrial Design courses, at the IPCA, has motivated the investigation that originated this article: Contribution towards a reflection about methodological strategies in Design education and the function of drawing in Design[1].

Once our areas of study are Design and Drawing, our interest lies on the permanent challenge of our activity, reflecting on the practice of an educational exercise which is intended to be active, updated and critical. As such, we will focus for the most part on the fields of Graphic Design and Industrial Design.

As a work methodology we choose to analyze the emerging dimensions of Design that have provoked serious discussion on this subject. For this purpose, we will compare recent perspectives from various authors, belonging to design theory and practice, as a contribution to the reflection on possible methodological strategies to adopt in design teaching, more adjusted to the demands of the contemporary context. We will also approach briefly the way in which drawing (curricular structure) was developed in the realm of Design, depending on specific sociocultural contexts.

Nowadays, we face a paradigm change in the way of thinking and making design. In this context, the reflection by Stuart Bailey[2] seems to reveal his apprehension, common to other designers, due to the fact that the field is still held by a traditional know-how: “I suspect what I’m really against is what that term “graphic design” has come to represent, i.e. synonymous with business cards, logos, identities and advertising, and, again simply put, those are things I’m just not interested in. (…) I just mean that if we make a book, poster, or whatever, together, they’re more than mere documents of some other piece of work that exists already. Previous work may be embedded in the new form, or may dictate it, but again it becomes a “third thing”, greater than the sum of the constituent parts.” (Sueda, 2006).

In fact, the current practice of design has revealed a change in its traditional models. The curator and designer Andrew Blauvelt refers that the design produced since the mid 1990s registers that change. According to the author, we have shift away from the simply complex and towards a complex simplicity” (Blauvelt, 2000). In other words, the “complexity” of the formal Postmodern experiences (1980s and beginning of 1990s) is gradually disappearing from some of the more recent graphic design proposals. These are beginning to set preferably in a critical confront between its form and its content more than in stylistic questions. A growing number of designers demonstrate that the best way to “take a shortcut” in an exacerbated context of unimportant formal details where “everything goes” is to use clear visual and direct messages with a pragmatic base, eliminating the diversity of interpretations as a clear way to communicate and disseminate a cause. The complexity hidden in the simple appearance of these messages refers to the designer’s conscience as a citizen (citizen designer), attempting to interfere with reality, in a partnership with other areas, in the pursuit of a common welfare. Designers no longer feel responsible solely for their clients’ briefings but also for issues as complex as poverty, health or the environment, not only at a local level but also at a global one as, for instance, the projects “Toma Lá” by Susana António[3], or “Uma Terra Sem Gente Para Gente Sem Terra” by Nuno Coelho[4].

As Jonathan Barnbrook states: “We need to take our profession seriously and engage in cultural and critical discussion about what we are doing and aiming for. The modernist idea that designers are transparent messengers with no opinions of their own is no longer valid. We cannot just do our design and say issues such as unethical work practices are not our problem. We cannot say that a lack of meaningful content is not a problem. If we want the respect and attention we think we deserve, then we need to think about what happens to our work when it is seen in society and about the kind of work we want to participate in.” (Fiell & Fiell, 2003, p. 82).

Blauvelt also underlines that the open and participative structure appears as an alternative to the designer self-expression – although authorship does not disappear completely – he identifies projects which, for their collaborative aspect, suggest a game that implies actions without designer control. In what concerns these proposals the idea and the process seems to be more relevant than the final outcome.

The Postindustrial society (Bell, 1973) is increasingly inhabited by a new generation of products. The traditional relationship between the form of an analogical product and the function it was meant to have, is undergoing a deep alteration – as the digital culture seeps our daily life and the functionality of a product expands, the thin link between them, breaks. The microchip has made possible the miniaturization and the more and more frequent integration of virtual devices in our daily life products.  The formal freedom is a consequence of that and it puts a great challenge on the designer’s hands: identifying which is the best form for a certain function and the way the user is going to relate to its contents.

The modern model, in which the focus of design was essentially on the production and on the functionality (product-centered design), was replaced by a focus on the user and usability (user-centered design). However, nowadays, this last level has been expanding into a new model: a person-centered one.[5] In other words, the concept of usability has been complemented by a new approach – the experience of the user (user experience) – focusing on the relationship he establishes with the product or the service.

The authors of the article “What Needs Tell Us About User Experience” refer that recent research in Human Computer Interaction (HCI) have started to fill the existent gap in what concerns the motivations and needs of people, who were very little taken into account when it came to the classic model of usability.

Although the terms user experience and experience design are still recent, the same authors recognize the existence of a common perception that the user experience is an holistic and subjective concept: “(…) is holistic – it emphasizes the totality of emotion, motivation, and action in a given physical and social context – is subjective – focusing on the ‘felt experiences’ rather than product attributes” (Wiklund-Engblom, Hassenzahl, Bengs & Sperring, 2009, p. 666). This being so, the concept of usability does not disappear but widens its field. User experience is a consequence both of (…) product-centered aspects, such as functionality and aesthetics, as well as person-centered aspects, such as personal motivation and needs” (work quoted above).

With the technologic development and in this transition to the participative culture, various authors argue that the designer has to think less about the people as clients or users and more as co-creators and participants in the design process.

These concepts, in the area of design, raise a new number of questions related to the relationship that the product or service establishes with the user/person. From the moment that positive sensations, like pleasure, affection or well-being are held as fundamental aspects to engage the person in a good user experience, it becomes even more relevant in a design project to pay attention to studies coming from cognitive sciences and to matters related with personal motivations, humor or entertainment.

All these considerations here fore presented about the massive changes around the nature of Design and the various emergent approaches, cause another challenge: to re-think design teaching and its curricular structure, as well as the function of drawing in design.

One of the fundamental aspects to consider in this issue, explains Don Norman, is to define the competences a designer should have to face the needs of the present society. Companies expect from designers the ability to help them face problems at a completely different scale from the traditional one. According to the author, at a time when production requires an enlargement of its structures, due to technological implications or others, related to the relationship with the “user”, there seems to be the need for a curricular revision at the traditional level of handicraft: “The old skills of drawing and sketching, forming and molding must be supplemented and in many cases, replaced by skills in programming, interaction, and human cognition. Rapid prototyping and user testing are required, which also means some knowledge of the social and behavior sciences, of statistics, and of experimental design” (Norman, 2010, p. 2). Norman points out, however, that this circumstance should not convert designers into scientists or engineers, because they have a special gift “(…) to make our lives more pleasurable” (idem, p. 6).

Yet, the problem seems to be how to include or organize these areas into the curricular structure of design courses. According to Jon Kolko: “Unfortunately, both the large and the small of human behavior and technical complexity are difficult to fit into an existing curriculum, and both are typically excluded in favor of traditional “design specific” skills (typography, color theory, two-dimensional design, three-dimensional design)” (Kolko, 2011, p. 90). The author also remarks the lack of balance between “(…) what employers want students to know and what educators are prepared to teach” (idem, p. 91).

On her part, Meredith Davis, assumes that there is a disoriented relationship between contemporary life and what constitutes the content and the pedagogy applied in graphic design courses (Davis, 2008). For her analysis, the author confronts five tendencies from the study Visionary Design Council[6], which was meant to identify the competences of the 2015 designer, with the practices and orientations of current design teaching. According to her, there is still a deeply rooted practice in the traditional model connected with a know-how model instead of a know-what one, more appropriate to the circumstances.[7]

To conclude, Meredith states that, despite the importance of the form as far as communication is concerned and of the learning through know-how, teachers cannot repeat the patterns of their own learning when teaching design, because it is necessary to know more than just the artifact and the form. That is why she thinks a “new design” of the curriculum is essential for the teaching of design.

Based on her investigation she is confident to argue that form can be taught within a context and not as an isolated principle or an end in itself; and that students can focus on various problems at the same time and manage the complexity without needing a progression of the learning of tools (from the simplest of elements to the most complex ones.)

She also underlines the importance of thinking design through Christopher Jones’[8] interpretation of “system”: “(…) is all the communicative forms and relationships within culture, which in turn, interact with other physical, technological, cultural, social, and economic systems.” For this author, the complexity of a system is defined “(…) by the number and nature of relationships between communication and other aspects of life and work” (idem, p. 11). In this system, applied to design, all communicative forms are constituted by “components” like drawing, colour, typography, texture or shape and today they are established on a “(…) complex relational system that depends on the interplay of formal, technological, linguistic, and cultural variables” (idem, p. 4).

For Jamie Hobson the subject of drawing, integral part of the curriculum of the Graphic Design course, should provide the development of competences that will allow the students to “make analytical, intellectual and conceptual judgements” (Hobson, 1997) important for the professional practice. Regarding this, he questions the overrated significance given to certain drawing contents, namely the performance of technique execution, realistic representation or expressive language. According to the author, too much relevance is given to aesthetic and stylistic contents instead of exploring the analytic and thinking abilities that drawing can provide in the design process.

Considering the use and function of drawing in this area, he suggests a design teaching adapted to the current means of design practice: “We must consider visualizing skills that will provide ‘non-drawers’ with means by which they can give dimension to their concepts through simplification and visual shorthand” (work quoted above). He also proposes an expansion of methods of drawing applied to other areas which perform specific functions that could be useful for design process: “(…) the methodologies of engineers, scientists and cartographers, who use analytical drawing for reasoned deduction. In addition, we can learn from film-makers and others in the kinetic industries, who work with narrative and sequential images (…) drawing methods of electricians, builders, carpenters, plumbers and musicians – all of whom exhibit advanced skills of visual notation” (work quoted above).

A possible explanation for the continuity of a more traditional approach of drawing could lie on the way this subject was adapted and its purpose defined for other teaching areas, as was Design. There was already a curricular structure established in the realm of the Fine Arts. There is surely an evolution of historical character that deserves to be analyzed. Without wasting much time on this matter, which is not the subject of this article, we would like to point out two important aspects of the Portuguese case:

On one hand, the concern with the teaching of Design since the 1970s, with the foundation of IADE, Institute of Arts and Decoration (in 1969) and the creation of Design courses in Schools of Fine Arts (in Lisbon and Oporto). Until then, the artistic teaching that took place in Fine Arts Academies and Schools had not really promoted the manufacturing arts (Lisboa, 2007, pp. 500-502) nor the industries or manufactures. According to Maria Helena Lisboa there had never been a real adaptation of curricular contents to make them valuable to the training of the students, who being manufacturers wanted to improve their knowledge to better perform their tasks. (work quoted above)

On the other hand, the pragmatic conception of Drawing –  a subject that was, at first, defined by the exercise of copy and the predominance of the human figure (central theme in artistic teaching) – was organized by the study of “dimensions and proportions”, “copy of engravings”, followed by “models of relief” and finally “copy of nature”[9]. It is important to say that the work plan involved the study of the rules of composition, the study of the ancient and the knowledge of proportions and anatomy, as crucial disciplines for future artistic performance. Posterior changes in the practice of artistic teaching and consequent adaptations of the curriculum, did not bring, in Maria Helena Lisboa’s opinion, important modifications in the teaching of drawing at the level of the established work program. Program orientations emphasized mostly figure drawing, even if some other areas of drawing are registered, namely at the level of “architectonic, ornamental and landscape drawing” (Lisboa, 2007, pp. 497-498). Even after drawing expanded into those areas “(…) the necessary conditions to create a favorable model desirable to the project of objects to produce industrially” (idem, p. 502) did not exist where the teaching of drawing could be adapted to the emerging demands in the manufacture production domain. One should note that in the same period, the German School Bauhaus (1919-1933) was developing a teaching/learning model which integrated art and technology. This School, based on the socialist ideology of William Morris, making “art for the people”, reinforced, on a first stage, a model of integration of the handicraft with industry, in a collective pedagogy between the “master of form” and the “master craftsman”, destined to the development of projects with industrial quality. This model that “(…) was intended to make the perfect union between the didactic method and the productive system (…)” was a typical example of a democratic school, based on the principle of collaboration between masters and students (Argan, 1984, p. 31). However, in Portugal, this practice did not occur, and drawing was isolated in two independent branches. On one hand, the professors of Fine Arts developed “imitative drawing” and on the other, other professionals of techno-scientific areas, like engineers, taught a “technical” drawing (Lisboa, 2007, pp. 501-502).

Other perspectives have enunciated the importance of the subject of drawing because of its applicability and function in “design project methodology”. It is the case of Philip Cabau who problematizes the distinctions between “Plastic Arts’ Drawing” and “Design’s Drawing” (Cabau, 2007, p. 26). For this author, one of the major differences lies on “uses and procedures” of drawing that are explored in each one of these disciplines. In the case of Plastic Arts, drawing does not take on “(…) the nature of a pragmatic. It mostly deals with the enlightenment of the work of attention itself (…) of the events, procedures and affections (…) (idem, p. 32) But in Design “(…) drawing represents because it has to communicate and control the communication (…)” and, in this way “the pedagogic approach of drawing to Design should constitute above all a pragmatic of drawing. A complex pragmatic, conscientious of the mechanisms and operators that participate in the collective process of Design, but also of the potentialities that drawing can promote within the project development itself ” (idem, p. 29).

Before this short portrait of today’s context here presented, Design is now going through a redefinition and expansion process out of its traditional frontiers: Today design, in its broadest sense, is not only the site of important economic and cultural praxis, but equally an interface for questions of identity, politics of representation, and redefinition of social models. It is this ‘expanded’ conception, as observed in cinema and sculpture of the sixties, which should lead us to reassess the frontiers and models structuring the field of ‘graphic design’” (Bovier, 1998).

These changes imply reforms in curricular structures and have been generating big debates around design teaching. Education is under pressure and the acceptance is not peaceful for the professionals and teachers, who were put out of their comfort zone, established a long time ago. Maybe Jon Kolko’s proposal “learn from our neighboring disciplines – who generally have a long history than us but have bested nearly the problems of identity, advancement and change” (Kolko, 2011, p. 91) may help contextualize and develop new perspectives.

In the last decades, when emotion as a complementary factor of reason began to be taken more and more seriously, the concepts relating to “visual thinking” have also been the theme for a number of researches and publications which reveal the potential of this aspect in design education. We should then add the importance of drawing exercises as an activity of thought that enables the organization of information in a project, as are, for instance, the mind map. The curricular or work plan of the subject should, then, allow the student to develop skills that help him in that process. According to what we said earlier, for Jamie Hobson, other professional areas could constitute a great source of information and learning on the relationship between the function of drawing in specific contexts that could become useful to the design process.

The need for a deep investigation related to the changing qualities in teaching and pedagogy of Drawing, and consequently, of drawing in this area, becomes clear. It is our purpose to continue this reflection, either through analysis and evaluation of pedagogic initiatives revealing alternative practice to the traditional process, developed by other teaching Institutions, including foreign ones, or  through the development, application and evaluation of an interdisciplinary model on a learning context centered on the study theme here presented.

[1] This article is the result of an investigation carried out by the authors. It was presented in the 7th Ibero American Conference of University Teaching: Innovation and Quality in Teaching, Oporto – June 2012 (published in the Book of Proceedings); and in Matéria Prima Symposium – the Practice of Visual Arts in Basic and Secondary Schools, in FBAUL – July 2012 (published in the Book of Proceedings); and in CONFIA’12 – I International Conference on Illustration & Animation – December 2012 (published in the Book of Proceedings). It was accepted for publication in a magazine IMAGINAR, nº55.

[2] Stuart Bailey is a “graphic designer”, writer, critic and co-editor of the well-known magazine Dot Dot Dot. His work has contributed to the Art and Design culture. Along with designer David Reinfurt he founded the project Dexter Sinister.

[3] See more of her work at

[4] See more of his work at

[5] The author Katja Battarbee uses three levels to classify user experience (product-centered; person-centered and interaction-focused), being that, for her, the person centered model focuses both the human needs and the relationship between the person and the product.

[6] Visionary Design Council refers to a study from AIGA – The Professional Association For Design, in collaboration with Adobe, taking place since 2006. AIGA & Adobe. Designer of 2015 Trends. [online]. Accessed April 16, 2012 at:

[7] Meredith Davis bases her statements on Sharon Poggenpohl’s theory that distinguishes: “design as craft” and “design as discipline” invoking respectively the concepts “know-how” and “know-what” by Habermas.

[8] Quote by Meredith Davis concerning Christopher Jones’ theory, developed in his book Design  Methods: Seeds of Human Futures, published for the first time in the 1970s.

[9] As it was defined in the Statutes for the Academy of Fine-Arts. Consult the Government’s Diary (1836). Statutes for the Academy of Fine Arts (pp. 1208-1209).



AIGA & Adobe. Designer of 2015 Trends. [online]. Accessed April 16, 2012, at

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Year 2012
Type Conference Proceeding
Publication Actas do CONFIA'12 – 1ª Conferência Internacional de Ilustração e Animação, 1
Pages 543-554
Publisher IPCA
Local Ofir: Portugal
ISBN / ISSN ISBN 978-85-62814-08-2