One of the things Amy asked us to think about during our Design for Change track at Digital Pedagogy Lab was what our design principles might be. We didn’t need to have an answer, but she wanted us to start thinking about it, especially since we had begun to build our toolkit and to discuss broader questions surrounding design. Before sending us off to contemplate our personal design principles, Amy shared hers with us:

  1. Indispensability
  2. Togetherness
  3. Embodiment
  4. Wonder & Delight
  5. Emergence
  6. Palimpsest
  7. Agency

I had no idea what my design principles might be—I wasn’t even really sure that I was a “designer.” How could I have principles for something that I didn’t think I engaged in? Or, at the very least, that I wasn’t sure I engaged in?

By the end of the week, I saw myself in a different light. I am a designer, though perhaps not in the traditional sense. A turning point for me was when I realized that my own definition of design was rather short-sighted—I didn’t consider myself a designer because I work with programs that have a pre-determined course structure, and I don’t consult with faculty as they’re creating assignments, class activities, and the like. For me, design was exclusively related to course content and after had a concrete product that you could point to, such as a syllabus or an assignment.

But during our discussion of design principles and questions, Amy told us that design doesn’t ultimately come down to creating a product—it comes down to creating an interaction. Design is crafting an interaction between students and faculty, between students and an assignment, between students and course materials, between people and ideas, and between people and technology. Design itself is an interaction, a coming together of people to create even more interaction. With this new understanding of design, I could absolutely call myself a designer.

The vast majority of my job, then, particularly with COPLACDigital, is designing interaction and helping faculty and students design their own interactions. I consult with our faculty and students to determine which digital tool(s) would be best for the research they’re trying to showcase. I help them learn how to use these tools. I help them navigate issues of web design and how they can showcase their research in a visually compelling but academic way. Thinking about each of these acts as an interaction, or a series of interactions, I’m constantly designing: designing how students communicate research and information, how students interact with and think about digital tools, how students interact with and interpret archival materials and local history. I’m designing how faculty work with each other and translate their interests into a digital space, how they learn to work with digital tools, how they help students work through research and digital issues, how they can give their students agency in learning and designing.

Now recognizing myself, as a designer, I can certainly say that I have design principles. Some of these principles are new to me, gained from Design for Change, while others are principles that have always guided my design—my interactions. My design principles are:

  1. Indispensability
  2. Value
  3. Wonder & Delight
  4. Excitement
  5. Safety
  6. Perpetual Beta
  7. Flexibility

I’ll briefly explain each of these principles, what they mean to me, and how they guide (or will begin to guide) my work.

  1. Indispensability — The idea that everyone in a learning space is indispensable. Every single person matters, and if one person is removed from the equation, it drastically changes learning. (I wrote about this idea more extensively in my last post.) I believe that seeing each person as indispensable is critical, but practically, I’m not certain as to how I can consistently implement this principle. Perhaps my following design principles will get me there.
  2. Value — I think value is inherent in the idea of indispensability, but it bears repeating on its own terms. Each person and their contributions are valuable. Without them, we would lose value.
  3. Wonder & Delight — These principles are self-explanatory, I think, and they are feelings that we should feel as we are designing, as well as feelings that our designs should elicit from others (not in an extracting manner, but in a realizing manner) as they experience our designs.
  4. Excitement — This principle is also self-explanatory, but I want to explain why I included it as a principle separate from Wonder & Delight. Excitement is something that I have experienced for years as I’ve interacted with digital tools, with research and archival materials, and with anything that I’ve created, and it is what keeps me coming back to the things that I do, whether those things are creating websites with WordPress or with knitting baby blankets. Excitement is an essential part of the design process, and it leads me to want to share my designs and experiences with others—with the hope that they, too, might experience excitement.
  5. Safety — Safety means different things for me, and each of those meanings is encompassed in this principle.
    • Safety means a space where students and faculty have control over their digital identities and their data. They should be able to critically question each tool they use, and they should be able to take measures to protect themselves (using a pseudonym, etc.).
    • Safety means a space where students and faculty feel comfortable with experimenting, and most importantly, with failing. So often, I have students and faculty with high levels of technological apprehension who are afraid to do almost anything in digital spaces without having a set of very detailed instructions. They are afraid to try something for fear of “messing up” or failing, or they are afraid to publish any work because it’s still a work-in-progress. I want my students and faculty to feel that the spaces we ask them to work in are “safe” spaces, where they can experiment and fail. And when they do fail, they know that it is okay—that failing is part of the learning and the design process.
  6. Perpetual Beta — This principle is related to my second definition of safety, and is one that my good friend and colleague Jerry talks about. It’s akin to Amy’s principle of palimpsest: that something can be altered or used for a different purpose, but traces of the original work remain. The idea of a “perpetual beta” is similar: our work, our designs, are never in their final form. They are always in progress, in a state of perpetual beta, because our world (and technology) is constantly changing, and so too, must our designs. Who we design for is constantly evolving, so our designs must do the same.
  7. Flexibility — Flexibility is what I was looking for when I came to DPL and began Design for Change, so it’s something that I hope I can carry into my future designs and can help others design. Like indispensability, I think the rest of my design principles will help myself and others design with flexibility in mind.