Meyer and Land (2003) define threshold concepts as fundamental building blocks which define key points of understanding in a subject. These core concepts constitute “portals” to knowledge which, once crossed, place the student outside of their comfort zone.
Threshold concepts are defined by five key attributes (Cousin 2006, Meyer and Land 2003). They are inherently transformative, irreversible, integrated, bounded and troublesome. Transformative, because they change the student’s perspective on how they view the discipline. Irreversible, as this changed view is difficult to unlearn. Integrated, allowing the student to bring together and understand a broader range of aspects within the discipline. Bounded, as it helps delineate the boundaries of the discipline and troublesome because it may seem counter-intuitive or strange.
Although threshold concepts confront students with “troublesome knowledge”, once successfully negotiated, students will be able to explore previously inaccessible ways of thinking (Cousin 2006, Meyer and Land 2003). Students may be resistant to this new information and have problems resolving it. As students undergo this transitional phase they are considered to be in a state of liminality. Liminal states are when students are in-between spaces, letting go of a view they feel comfortable with and embracing a troublesome notion. This reconfiguring of a prevailing view presented by troublesome knowledge can be challenging for some students (Cousin 2006, Perkins 2006, Meyer and Land 2003) who may even oscillate between liminal and non-liminal states, exploring new notions, only to fall back on safer ideas. However, if they stay too long in a pre-liminal state they may run the risk of resorting to mimicry (Cousin 2006).
In the field of graphic design, the concept of design thinking is an example of a threshold concept which aligns with all five of the threshold concept attributes defined by Meyer and Land (2003). Design thinking is an analytical and creative process which allows designers to experiment and explore viable design solutions. The process behind design thinking involves a number of stages including research, concept development, prototyping and gathering feedback, with an emphasis on visualization and creativity (Razzouk and Shute, 2012). This has shaped a distinction between planning and problem solving, and the specific artistic and technical skills in any specific design solution (Friedman, 2003).
The concept of design thinking poses a challenge for 1st year graduates in that, once it is understood, it radically changes the way in which they see the field of graphic design and their role as designers. It is transformative and irreversible because it is very hard to revert back to a previous way of viewing the discipline. It also defines the boundaries of what constitutes good design and how the design process and the final outcomes go beyond what is considered to be simply aesthetic. It also serves to illustrate the inter-disciplinary nature of design, challenging the view that meaningful design is primarily an isolated technical exercise.
Therefore, active learning strategies form the basis of my approach in teaching the design process component of the graphic design fundamentals module. Active learning strategies are useful in closing the gap between deep learners and surface learners, and a team-based learning approach will allow students the opportunity to question, speculate and generate solutions within the context of design thinking (Biggs and Tang, 2011).
Following a short PowerPoint presentation giving an overview of the different stages which constitute the design process, students were invited to comment on ways they could modify the process and improve upon it. This served to give me an idea of how the students viewed the threshold concept on face value. I was particularly interested in which parts of the design process the students felt were unnecessary and could be omitted. Although most students agreed the research phase was essential, many believed that using sketchbooks was an unnecessary burden and preferred to move directly to the computer. At this point I introduced a video case study of a design agency which served to give the students a real world context. This was followed by an open discussion analysing the reasons why designers use such a rigorous process and how it actively encourages critical thinking, enquiry and problem solving in the formation of design solutions. After the theoretical session students were then split into groups of four and given a branding design brief allowing them to put the design process into practice. This also allowed me to move from group to group reinforcing the core concept that design thinking puts the focus on the design process itself.
Each group then presented their design process, concepts and final outcomes, followed by peer review and my own feedback. Each student was encouraged to contribute at least one observation about their personal learning experience, or the challenges they faced. This allowed me to deal with any misconceptions, reinforce some of the core concepts, and also reflect on the effectiveness of my own methods.
Most students realized the usefulness of design thinking in terms of creating much stronger concepts. This was evidenced in the student’s abilities to justify their design choices and defend their decisions. However, I observed a tendency of some students to switch back to a pre-liminal state when unable to justify their choices. Therefore, I need to expand on the more challenging concepts within this unit, such as evidence based design.