This past semester, my friend Andres and I got to teach a course about a topic we’re both very passionate about — digital product design. We started this class because we noticed a huge gap in academia-taught digital design compared to what’s actually out there in industry — most focus was on visual principals, graphic design and/or outdated trends without bringing in knowledge of new technologies, tools and practices. Since both of us (and several of our friends) got into design by way of startup culture, side-project collaborations and real-world experience, we created a weekly, project-based course at the University of Maryland to help others do the same.
The idea of getting to teach a class that would test us on our craft and on our ability to communicate was both thrilling and crazy intimidating — both of us are self-taught with little formal coursework to reference when it comes to our knowledge as product designers, and even less experienced when it comes to teaching others in a formal setting. Despite the challenges and initial worries that came with embarking on something new, we went in full-steam ahead and learned so much from this experience!
Looking back I can think of some key things that made a huge difference — here’s some reflections on teaching, learning, and motivating others to learn as well.
1. Define What Success Looks Like
I remember the first time we sat down to plan exactly what we were going to talk about in our class —we had a few debates on what should be taught, how it should be taught and if it’d be ideal. We sat on a couch in what used to be an old art studio/my summer home with laptops strewn out, hands waving about declaring “visual is important! We should focus more on that!” or “maybe we shouldn’t have any assignments! Idk!”. While it was definitely energy-draining this debate was important because it forced us to come up with a goal. It made us retrospect on why we were teaching this class in the first place.
By defining the purpose we were able to think about what would make us as instructors satisfied in the end. We could then clearly define what success would look like in the context of our students. This is important especially when teaching something that’s broad and ambiguous like product design — with no “right” methodology to follow, we ended up basing our instruction on what we hoped students could take away. A couple of our goals looked like:
Students can create designs that could be made by designers in industry, or could be an actual product
Students feel confident in using tools and strategies common in industry
Students feel empowered and inspired to grow as designers outside of class
When making hard decisions these goals grounded us and gave us clear direction — while some of these were harder to measure than others, it was striving towards them that made a huge difference.
2. Take Care of the Necessities
In the beginning, it was super exciting to think of all the things we’d cover in our curriculum but it was also overwhelming. After some planning we realized there was simply not enough time in the week to cover everything in the semester. One way we overcame this was first asking: “What can we absolutely not leave out so we don’t “cheat” our students of what they need to do well?”. In other words, narrow down what is definitely needed to empower students and go from there. This to us, meant what was completely necessary for a product designer in industry to know about (user research, low-fi ideation, testing, visual etc) and less about trendy or over-complicated topics we thought were cool. For example, we initially had a class planned for micro-interactions that we zapped out later after realizing we needed to spend more time on foundational principles.
The same applied to planning time-blocks in our classes — what part of this lecture can we absolutely not ignore? What will everyone need to know by next week? Spend the bulk of your planning time arranging to teach absolute necessities, then fill in any extra gaps with supporting/extra/fun material. You’ll realize a lot of things are actually not necessary at all and commit better quality to the things that are.
3. Feedback Early and Often
In design, this goes without saying: the most relevant feedback you can get is from your users. In our case, it was from our students. Create opportunities for people to express how they feel about their learning because often times things go over our heads, so honest and clear feedback is super valuable. You can organize a formal retrospective activity or online form to get this information. For us, we used an in-class white-boarding session with three columns for positive, neutral and negative feedback, and had students place post-its accordingly. Something worth noting though, is that sometimes the most valuable feedback are things unsaid.
Observe how people interact and behave, and don’t be afraid to chat with people individually about their life outside of class, how things are going and how they feel about their learning. This helps you build empathy and understanding that can help you anticipate real-life scenarios such as school-stress and career preparation. Was the work quality not what you expected? Maybe requirements/expectations weren’t clear enough, or maybe students had trouble fully understanding the last lesson. Being open to insights about students’ experiences allowed us to change direction in curriculum and motivated us to keep our lesson plans more dynamic and flexible to their needs.
The same goes for positive feedback too! The first time we did stand-up in our class we learned people really liked the experience. If you don’t know, stand-ups are meetings where individuals in smaller groups each briefly share what they’re working on, progress made and any roadblocks they need help with. After some investigation/reflection we learned that this worked well because it was an easy, engaging, and constructive way for students to participate in a judgment-free space. We continued to implement stand-ups in all other classes afterward with great results.
Whatever form of feedback, don’t shy from it. Take it in, investigate it, understand it, empathize and try something else!
4. Get a Little Weird
As new instructors, it can sometimes be tempting to stick to conventional rules, even if you’re the one who set them. In the beginning we were reluctant to break structure or norms; after all, what if everything falls in shambles? What if students think we’re a joke? What if no one shows up next week? Shush up these thoughts and challenge yourself to express yourself and explore! Going back to #2, as long as you have the bare necessities you know that things will at least be alright. Anything random or unexpected you add on after that will only make a more memorable if not valuable learning experience for both you and students.
An example of this is when our faculty advisor Meenu challenged us to move from our modern, open layout classroom to an older, blander one in another building to learn how to manipulate space. At first, we were against this idea because we were terrified of boring or annoying our class. After some thought, we decided that this was a risky change worth taking if it meant we could go all out — and so we did!
While unsure of how it actually went I know we definitely don’t regret making that change because it inspired us to take more creative risk afterward. Not to mention now Andres and I are improv masters — the spirit of spontaneity is strong, flourishing and forever pushing us to be our best selves.
Every time you catch yourself from shying away from an idea because it seems silly or unconventional, run towards it faster! It only gets better from there.
5. Progress is the BEST!
After the first couple of weeks we started to see some general student ‘types’ in the class — those who were enthusiastic vs. those more nonchalant, those who were more experienced vs. beginners. In the beginning, it’s easy to be enthusiastic with passionate people who jump right in the material, but what we never expected is that the most valuable feeling ever is when you see someone who started off slowly take off! We immediately learned that progress trumps perfection when it comes to creative learning and it’s immensely satisfying to watch someone grow in their knowledge, confidence, or appreciation for something they might not have before. In fact towards the end, Andres and I would basically gush over our students progress anytime someone made a huge leap in skill, provided interesting insight, or answered questions before we asked them. This is honestly the most amazing and validating feeling, so be sure to share these feelings with your students at some point because they should feel proud too!
I remember seeing students present their final product presentations at the end of the semester, seeing their process, where they started, and where they ended. It was very grounding to see this growth and fascinating to see their work in its finest form after three busy months. Be sure to create opportunities for students to document their work as they progress and to share out in a concrete way so their work can get the audience it deserves!
I’m very happy and grateful we got the opportunity to learn together in IDEA258z. I learned so much that I didn’t expect to, and it makes me only more excited to grow even more when it comes to communicating design to others. If at any time you get an opportunity to teach something you’re passionate about TAKE IT! You won’t regret it, in fact there’s a high likelihood you’ll learn a lot and have a good time while you’re at it.
Very special thanks to STICS, UMD’s awesome program that makes it possible for student-taught courses like ours to exist. And to Meenu, our faculty advisor and Ishaan, who founded STICS — you both shared so much knowledge and support as you guided us through this entire process and for that and more we’re super grateful!
To everyone who took our class — thanks for hangin’ in there with us, we hope you learned something valuable about product design this past fall and can’t wait to see what you create next 🙂 And thanks to our friend Andy for coming in to support/help our class and to deal with our shenanigans!
And finally, thanks to Andres for being a supportive friend, the dankest co-instructor and improv master of all time.