EGR381: Design for Understanding is a class taught at Princeton University since 2017. This class is about learning how to make sense of the world and visually communicate with clarity. Through hands-on exercises and projects, students first gain familiarity with key cognitive activities of the sensemaking process: filter relevant from irrelevant information, give meaning to experiences, and move from data to an interpretation constructing patterns to gain a broader understanding of the situation at hand. Then, students learn design principles to create visual explanations that support those activities.

The Class

This class adopts a learning-by-doing approach and we take process very seriously! Students work in design studio-type classes. They are expected to participate in the conversation, provide constructive comments to peer’s work, sketch ideas, take notes, and come prepared each class to show progress. To fully understand design concepts and improve the quality of the work, students are encourage to visualize and prototype their ideas, and iterate many times.

The class is structured in three units:

  • Unit 1: Understanding cognitive processes & design basics (learning process, cognition, Gestalt principles, color, visual composition, design principles)
  • Unit 2: Applying design principles to explain science (design research, visual communication) 
  • Unit 3: building an argument with data (data visualization, storytelling, visual narrative)

Class Projects

The class involves two or three projects where students translate complex and messy content—such as scientific concepts, processes, emotions—into valuable and meaningful information. Each project introduces a new information design challenge, aims at specific target audiences (undergraduate students, high school students, clients investors or University faculty and staff), involves different formats and sizes (posters, booklets, decks), and adds various constraints (working by hand, using a reduced number of colors, working digitally). At the beginning of each project, in-class exercises focus on practicing a specific component (design pages) or introduce a new concept (visual composition).

Continue reading “Class Projects”

Students' Progress

Throughout the semester, students write blog posts aimed at demonstrating their understanding on key concepts discussed each week in readings and class lectures. The goal of these blog posts is to help students connect and apply new concepts into practice, and demonstrate their learning. Transferring learning helps build new mental models, stored new knowledge and assimilate new concepts. Some posts help document class progress and work.

Going back to basics for the final project

After a 12-week long course, students have completed projects dealing mostly with complex content for which they explored ways to make that complexity more accessible, without removing important meaning or developing simplistic outputs. Students learned basic information design principles and Gestalt principles, practiced how to organize information, identified relevant from irrelevant content, and put together …

Project 2: Visual Stories in progress!

Students are working on the creation of a visual story that helps convey a deeper understanding of a topic of their choice, provides awareness, reveals unknown information, uncovers needs, and makes areas for improvement evident. They are  also using data to explain and build an argument, show actual evidence and indicate possible ways forward. Here a selection …

Design at Princeton

Teaching Design in a non-design schools is relatively new. A hunger to learn design skills has expanded the offering of design programs and courses from traditional design schools, like Parsons, to non-design schools, Stanford University, Harvard Business School, and more recently, Princeton University.

In the last five years, a similar phenomenon has been occurring at Princeton as students have shown strong interest in learning design. As this demand grows, design and design thinking related courses have been created as elective classes and open to all students from freshmen to seniors.