John Caserta
This article, published in the journal Design & Culture, encourages instructors to design their academic experience to avoid the tension between instruction and research (personal work). This page contains 1,471 words and is filed under essays

Question the Classroom

Designers who teach generally split their attention between two competing concerns. The design professor must balance the needs of the student with the need to further his or her own body of work. These seemingly opposite forces too often take their toll upon the quality of both. Artist and educator Ben Shahn (1957, 12) cites this passage from a 1956 Harvard report on the arts in education: “In too many cases, the artist-teacher gradually develops into something else: the teacher who was formerly an artist.”3 This result would not be so devastating if teaching design weren’t so dependent on its connection to practice.

Being stretched thin may be a common condition, but it is solvable. Just as the designer in the workplace must learn business acumen, the designer in academia must learn to shape the school. The core systems that dictate how work is done should be continually questioned and tweaked to support the growth and progress of all involved. Given the heavy teaching loads that most design faculty carry, the classroom construct itself is ripe for a redesign.

In the last three years, my colleagues and I in the Graphic Design Department at Rhode Island School of Design have altered our relationship to the classroom by creating spaces for sharing and exhibition, by using faculty research questions as the core curriculum, and by forcing team work via curriculum sharing. When rethinking the classroom, we asked: What should class look like? What should be required versus elective? How and where do we share what we do in class? How do we learn from each other? The pursuit of these questions has collapsed the walls between faculty research and teaching and turned the department into a resource, not a strain upon our individual efforts as makers. The work formed with students during the semesters spills out into summers, weekends, and winter break, and, ultimately, into valid forms of research.

As a major shift in what we teach, our core undergraduate studios adopted faculty research questions for its curriculum. Each instructor in the course poses a question that also allows his or her own work to evolve. The question is discussed with fellow faculty before building out a lecture, assignments, learning objectives, and other support material. Each year the curriculum changes in response to who is teaching and what they are pursuing in their own practice. The faculty model for students how to form and develop a line of inquiry.

We have found that getting students accustomed to questions – being comfortable with the anxiety of the unknown – is more suitable for this era than attempting to summarize best practices in our field. The ideas of former chief scientist at Xerox Parc John Seely Brown have been important in altering our view of the classroom from content dissemination to the pursuit of inquiry. “Questions become more important than answers,” he wrote. Inquiry-based learning, “creates a motivation to learn and provides a set of constraints that make the learning meaningful” (Brown and Thomas 2011, 83)1.

These are some examples of questions that have been posed by faculty. Is design necessarily useful? How do you communicate to two billion people in five seconds? How do the tools we use influence the things we make? How can symbols unify a group of people? These questions take the present areas of interest from faculty and ask students to explore that territory on their own, inevitably bumping into precedents, adjacent fields, and new skills.

In a unit entitled “How can symbols unify a group of people?” we asked students to design a flag that could fly atop the nine-story building that houses the Graphic Design Department. This first-semester unit introduced students to basic ethnographic research methods, the role of symbols in communication, and the medium of flags specifically. An exhibition of seventy flags was mounted in the newly renovated GD Commons for the ten days before the 2016 US presidential election. Every member of the Graphic Design Department was asked to vote for the flag they most wanted to represent them.

Although I initiated the unit based on my interest in symbols, community building, and urban design, my colleagues added more complexity as it developed. Faculty and students alike layered on additional questions: How well can the designer make the case for illegible symbolism? Can we predict what will connect to an audience? Does one’s favorite design always win? What values are most relevant to communicate to the public?

When a question is well formed and given proper context, students will develop meaningful projects in response. They generate their own lines of inquiry. Harold Taylor (1960, 13), former Director of Education at MoMA, wrote: “The activity of thinking begins when an individual is impelled to think by the presence of questions which require answers from him. He begins thinking when he is involved in experiences which require him to place these in some kind of order.”5

The inquiry-based undergraduate design studio, which runs for two years at The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), is followed by research electives: semester-long investigations into an area of the professor’s choosing. Research electives give faculty an opportunity to take students more deeply into unexplored territory. In the research electives, faculty members are as engaged in constructing new work as the students. Various elements of the course may spin off into other projects or be publishable after some refinements. With this pedagogy, the classroom is integral to the instructor’s practice, collapsing the classroom versus research dichotomy into one integrated public act.

Newly Formed was one such course offered at RISD in the spring of 2016. This course asked students to experiment with new processes that compel students beyond the comfortable routines of form generation and exploration. Students responded to two assignments per week, generating visual forms in response to themes provided by the instructors, Christopher and Kathleen Sleboda. The results from the course found their way into broadsheet newspapers, an exhibition, and a print-on-demand book available on Draw Down Books (Sleboda 2016).4

Newly Formed joined a suite of other courses that put a faculty research topic in front of students with the intention of sharing findings with the field. The book and website for/with/in, published results from the spring 2014 course HTML Output, looked at the browser as a general-purpose design tool. Students developed software that outputs a book directly from the web browser. The code from the project was distributed freely online. The college also paid for a small print run to facilitate distribution at respected physical and digital bookstores. Teaching web design became forward-looking instead of focusing on what has been done. Designer and educator David Reinfurt explains this pedagogy:

In a field changing so rapidly, teaching is not an exercise in shoring up its boundaries, it is about understanding something by doing it, then trying to understand a set of core technique around it. There is no point in teaching it. You try it and see what results. It’s a forensic exercise (Reinfurt, in conversation with Charlotte Cotton 2011).2

Design research has more distribution venues than ever: the web and software applications, small-scale publishing, print-on-demand objects, exhibitions, niche magazines, installations, and public talks. There are few limitations to where design work can live. Reinfurt’s view of pedagogy, I believe, applies to research venues as well. Rather than “shoring up” sanctioned research venues, it is to our advantage to experiment with many forms of distribution – and to do this with our students when possible. Non-peer reviewed arenas for publishing demand that we clearly communicate the value of those venues both within our schools and to fellow design educators. Sharing what happens in the classroom shortens the learning feedback loop. The instructor may incorporate feedback into the next iteration of the course, or into his own research after the class has ended.

University and art colleges are culturally critical, and possess the potential to offer insights as valuable as professional practice. How can design educators use their privileged position within the Academy to produce work that others value? The educational mission of the university is best served when faculty can explore their research interests in the classroom, delving into the unknown with students and sharing those results with all who are interested. For those who believe that such a proposition is too self-serving, I argue that dealing with the unknown is the most important skill we can teach our students.


  1. Brown, John Seely, and Douglas Thomas. 2011. A New Culture of Learning. Self-published. Printed by CreateSpace.
  2. Reinfurt, David, in conversation with Charlotte Cotton. 2011. “The Photographic Universe: The Role of Photography.” Conference at Parsons School of Design.
  3. Shahn, Ben. 1957. The Shape of Content. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  4. Sleboda, Christopher. 2016. Reformed, Newly Formed.
  5. Taylor, Harold. 1960. Art and the Intellect. New York: Museum of Modern Art.

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Interim Dean of Architecture + Design and formerly Department Head of the Graphic Design Department at Rhode Island School of Design. Founded The Design Office, a workspace for designers, in 2007, and ran it until its closing in 2021. Hear an interview that covers my teaching and design career. Read an overview of my work from The Noun Project. This site is updated regularly and outputs to a book with Bindery. Get in touch via email.