I am just back from taking part in a Design Thread workshop at Imperial College, the aim of which was to co-ordinate activity between the various design-relevant courses on the undergraduate civil engineering course at Imperial. Here are some reflective notes as I whiz home, during the writing of which I came up with the notion of ‘secretly teaching design‘.

What we did

What design attributes should graduates have?

We began with defining a series of high-level attributes that we felt graduates from the degree would gain from the design thread. We began this task working on our own, both identifying attributes we talk about for good design and selecting the most relevant ones from a list of more general graduate attributes. We each shortlisted and ranked our top five attributes for design. Mine were:

  • Initiative and self-reflection
  • Creativity
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Willingness and capacity to learn
  • Giving and receiving feedback

My thinking went like this: graduates need initiative and self-reflection in order to identify useful design problems to work on. Having identified a problem area, they need creativity to propose possible ideas, and critical thinking skills in order to assess the merits of their idea. Having waded somewhat into the problem space, graduates might then realise there are skills or knowledge she needs to advance their ideas, in which case they will need a willingness and a capacity to learn. Finally to support their learning, and to support work in collaborative teams, they will need to be able to give and receive feedback.

Listing to my colleagues’ top five attributes, I later realised that maintaining a critical discourse on ethical issues is itself a precursor to initiative and self-reflection: you need to understand the issues of the day and your position with respect to them before you can take the initiative and act.

When we combined everyone’s top five attributes, we came up with a top four composed of the most common attributes, in no order of preference:

  • Team work
  • Initiative and self-reflection
  • Creativity
  • Willingness and capacity to learn

Creating individual learning outcomes (ILOs)

From this shortlist of attributes, our next task was to define a series of twelve programme-level individual learning outcomes (ILOs). To create these ILOs were referred to three useful resources:

  • a list of suggested words for outcome-level statements
  • a list of verbs to describe behaviour, grouped into three categories: knowledge, skills (manipulative, interpersonal) and attitudes
  • a list of verbs for outcomes at the various levels of different learning domains (cognitive, psychomotor/physical and affective/attitude)

We also considered how the various activities we were doing with the students corresponded to the various levels within the qualifications and curriculum framework levels (Level 4 to Level 7).


The challenge of creating learning outcomes for design

One of the challenges I found in creating learning outcomes for design is that the terms used to describe levels of understanding in any field are themselves skills needed for design. For example:

  • Lower level learning outcomes for a subject term to involve researching, gathering and selecting appropriate knowledge. This is in itself a skill for design – designers need to be able to gather appropriate information to support their idea generation and evaluation process.
  • More advanced level learning outcomes for a subject involve suggesting possible problem-solving techniques and analysing their effectiveness – this too is a skill for design: quickly proposing and testing approaches to solving a problem.
  • The highest level learning outcomes for a subject involve creating and evaluating – these skills are at the core of design.

I see two consequences of this observation. The first is that learning outcomes for design risk becoming very wordy and meta very quickly:

  • know of creative thinking techniques
  • select creative thinking techniques
  • create creative thinking techniques
  • evaluate creative thinking techniques
  • etc

That’s a bit of a drag. But the second more positive consequence is that learning any subject presents the opportunity to develop design skills – in other words we can teach design in secret.

Secretly teaching design

A few years ago, when working with engineering departments to embed more learning about sustainability into their curricula that there are often opportunities to use existing learning activities to address new learning outcomes, as long as the opportunity is there for both students and instructors to make these connections.

The same can be said of design. If we take design as broadly a iterative process of identifying a need, developing some statement of a brief, generating ideas, critically evaluating these ideas through modelling and testing, there are plenty of opportunities to develop all of these skills while undertaking the existing subjects in the curriculum, as long as the instructors and the students are aware of these connections.

Here are a few ways that typical teaching activities that commonly exist on civil engineering could be leveraged to also teach design:

  • Ethics – conversations about engineering ethics can help to identify need and shape design requirements, they also inform subjective decision-making.
  • Health and safety – of particular relevance to defining appropriate design requirements and tests for the adequacy of a design.
  • Sustainability – (if it is taught as a separate subject, which I always council against) – supports identifying statements of need and appropriate design briefs. Reference projects can inform idea generation. Various measures of sustainability form part of design analysis, and definition and extent to which sustainable outcomes need to be achieved supports the ability to make subjective decisions.
  • Mechanics (structural, fluid, geotechnical…) and materials – these courses are the technical bedrock of civil engineering but they are fundamental to design, providing the majority of the opportunities to develop analytical skill and objective decision making. These subjects support the selection of appropriate technical design requirements. But as well as supporting analysis, these subjects are also fundamental to idea generation, providing models for rapid idea generation, structural typologies and entire canons of reference projects.
  • Maths – like the technical subjects, maths provides the means to analyse ideas. But it can also be the source of ideas, either being the inspiration itself, or providing the modelling technique with which the idea is created.
  • In-depth research projects – research skills are needed in design to identify needs, to research and develop an appropriate brief, to explore the problem space and look for possible solutions.
  • Group design projects – it sounds obvious that group design projects should present opportunities to learn about design, but I think there are often lots of design learning opportunities in learning that are missed, or at least the connections are not formerly made. For example, the necessary team dynamics for integrated design, how to share ideas in a collaborative and supportive way, how to give non-judgemental critical feedback.

All of these learning opportunities exist already in most civil engineering curricula. All that is needed is for students and instructors to make these connections for themselves in order for to capitalise on these opportunities to develop skills for design.


Thanks to Dr. Tiffany Chiu and Dr. Monika Pazio from Imperial College’s Educational Development Unit who facilitated the curriculum design workshop and to Andrew Phillips for initiating and co-ordinating the workshop.

My thanks to the Royal Academy of Engineering who fund my involvement at Imperial through their Visiting Professor’s Scheme.