[image: Maria Rogal - Positioning Communication Design]

Positioning Communication Design

Maria Rogal contributed her reflections as part of the Icograda Design Education Manifesto 2011 update. Maria pinpoints three issues that are important in design education: increasing cross-cultural and transdisciplinary communication and collaboration; preparing students for change; and teaching qualitative and quantitative research methods to solve problems.

The updated Icograda Design Education Manifesto and supporting essays - including this one - is available for download [PDF - 10.77 MB]. To obtain a printed copy of the book, please contact the .

As an educator and practitioner who involves communication design students in local and international projects with research and applied components, I am particularly engaged with the manifesto's aim to deepen the intellectual foundation of the discipline through research and methods. The manifesto calls attention to collaborative efforts and the implications of what and how we design. This position challenges the common misconception that designers are stylists. Whether in communication or industrial design the term "design is most often understood by the public as an artistic practice that produces dazzling lamps, furniture, and automobile" (Margolin, 2002). This revised manifesto is an important step in solidifying our purpose, role and potential in a fundamental way.

In this essay, I focus on three issues that are an integral part of my teaching and research practice. These key issues have long been underrepresented in design education and practice, and are increasingly important in a design education that is pluralistic, ethical and sustainable:

  1. Increasing cross-cultural and transdisciplinary communication and collaboration
  2. Preparing students for technological, environmental, cultural, social and economical change
  3. Teaching qualitative and quantitative research methods (including ethnography) to solve problems

These intrinsically connected objectives are imperative today when the social, cultural, economic and environmental context in which we live - and design - is increasingly more complex and diverse. A major factor influencing this complexity is the development of communication technologies that foster new interactions and connections, and the dissemination and reception of information01. Access to this technology expands worldviews, leads to knowledge sharing and enables creativity02. Beyond the changes in our production and communication technologies, there are multiple social networks for communication designers that promote social responsibility and collective good, including Design21, The Living Principles, Design Ignites Change/WorldStudio and OpenIDEO, the non-profit side of the consultancy IDEO.

Although it is not yet clear what impact the networks and their members will have on the public or on policy, the growing presence of such communities illuminates an increasing interest in social design and design's role in solving complex problems that require collaboration. For communication designers to successfully contribute in the global context, we need to expand our toolkit. We must increase our capacity to collaborate, to integrate research and methods that inform our processes, to develop cultural competencies and to understand design in context (and as systems). The challenge is that we must develop these capabilities in addition to the conceptual, formal and technological requirements of contemporary communication design.

By emphasising research and methods and engaging with clients and the community, we will be better prepared to lead and participate in projects from their inception. Today, communication designers arrive at a project after major decisions have been made, and can often lack a voice. Integrating research will grant our discipline more credibility and add weight to our contributions. In terms of methods, rather than a rigorous 'one-way' of working, we must introduce flexible, contextual and collaborative processes, such as ethnography, participatory design and co-design. These qualitative methods, if appropriately applied, can lead to meaningful, innovative and sustainable solutions to problems (more sustainable and ethical when identified by people within the communities). Human-centred qualitative methods, such as conducting fieldwork in a project environment, reveal how culture and human interaction can shape design processes and outcomes. Teaching students research methods - including how to engage with communities - is critical for the development of informed, empathetic and culturally competent designers.

Practising and learning research skills can occur in and out of the classroom. However, as we advocate research in education, and in the discipline more broadly, we must also attend to the manner in which findings are applied projects. Ethnographer Rob van Vegel notes that research sometimes remains unanalysed and unapplied to problems - even when the designer actively participates in the process - as a result of the chasm between research and design (van Vegel, 2005).

How do we understand our research findings and apply them to our work? Jon Kolko, of the Austin Design Centre, illuminates a concern: 'younger designers fail and waste precious time, becoming frustrated and ultimately rejecting the ethnographic research methods' and suggests synthesis as a way of moving from research to application (2011). Research, fieldwork, design in context and collaboration must be part of education in order to provide students with decision making capacities and an understanding of the diversity of communication design. Students who are educated - and not trained - are prepared for change. Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire's 'critical pedagogy' is an important educational movement where students are involved in the teaching-learning process. As Henry Giroux writes:

Critical pedagogy also insists that one of the fundamental tasks of educators is to make sure that the future points the way to a more socially just world, a world in which critique and possibility -in conjunction with the values of reason, freedom, and equality -function to alter the grounds upon which life is lived. That is hardly a prescription for political indoctrination. It offers students new ways to think and act independently. (2010)

Focusing fieldwork on exploration and discovery leads to, in my experience, empowerment of both the students and the people they come into contact with. Advocating for design to move beyond the classroom (and into the context it will operate in) signifies a shift from traditional studio based education that separates the process and product from the environment in which it will function.

Students need to be guided through this process. They need to understand the value that context brings to the process and articulate this value. In the Design for Development initiative, I collaborate with design students and indigenous Maya in rural communities in Mexico on problems identified by the community, not those we impose from the outside. Students leave the classroom, enter a different social, cultural and economic environment, learn human-centred research methods and apply these to real-world design problems in collaboration with client-partners. Solutions are designed and developed to directly benefit people. The outcomes can be diverse - resulting in the design strategies and products or the identification new problems. With the appropriate concepts, tools and experiences, fieldwork - or working in context - provides a place where students apply design thinking, research and collaboration to identify or reframe problems. Some of this already happens in industry, but there is very little preparation for it in curricula - at least in the United States.

While my context is southern Mexico, similar activities should occur locally, so that students and educators can develop relationships with communities. The results have been remarkable both for students and project partners. Global or local, working in different contexts - especially those underserved by design - evinces the importance of working responsibly to understand the real, rather than projected, needs of a community through observation and participation in daily life. The ability to partner with others and learn through experiences supports the collaborative and multidisciplinary nature of design. Adequately conveying what communication design is and educating citizens about design thinking and its value(s), will be the task of design educators and students as we make this change in our discipline.


  1. Other production technologies, once costly and prohibitive such as 3D rendering, fabrication and digital printing, are now relatively affordable and accessible.
  2. In my experience working with indigenous Maya people in southern Mexico I found that even people one might consider marginalised have access to and participate in networked conversations. INDIGO design network is one example of a virtual space to share Indigenous design from all over the world.



  • Collaboration
  • Context
  • Cross-cultural
  • Ethics
  • Interaction
  • Qualitative and
  • Quantitative methods
  • Collaboration
  • Context
  • Cross-cultural
  • Ethics
  • Interaction
  • Qualitative and
  • quantitative methods

Maria Rogal (United States/Mexico)

[Image: Maria Rogal]Maria Rogal is an Associate Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Florida, United States. Her work focusses on the relationship between culture and design and how to leverage the potential of design, broadly defined, to positively shape the human experience. She has worked in Mexico on the Design for Development (D4D) initiative in which graphic design students and faculty work with artisans, farmers, and organizers in Maya communities to foster small business development and create cultural programs. In 2008 she received the inaugural AIGA Design Research Grant.

From the Manifesto update committee co-chairs

Icograda President Elect 2011-2013, project leader and co-chair for the Icograda Design Education Manifesto Omar Vulpinari has assembled 'An essential chronology of the Design Education Manifesto 2011' with details of the timeline and key contributors to the update project.
Read the chronology

Audrey G. Bennett was asked to summarise the experience of co-chairing the 2011 Icograda Design Education Manifesto. She suggested the one word she would choose is change. The disciplinary and social upheaval of the past decade warranted an updating of the 2000 manifesto, and the new manifesto promises transformation. The word change also illuminates the precise aim of a manifesto - to engender agency in the reader.
Read her full response

About the Manifesto

The 2009-2011 Icograda Executive Board resolved to mark the 10 anniversary with an update of the Manifesto. This update was intended to help steer design curriculum and equip faculty and students to handle current and future issues in design education. Its form and content addressed the participatory, social nature of academic exchange in today's online community, shaped by technological advances.

[Image: Iridescent: Icograda Journal of Design Research - Volume 1]