Threshold concepts and the transport and product design curriculum: reports of research in progress

JANE Osmond, Karen Bull, Michael Tovey

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This journal article recaps on the identification of the threshold concept and explores preliminary thoughts on how the identification of hitherto tacit knowledge can feed into the design thinking and solutioning process. From this, the article offers some implications for the enhancement of teaching and learning within the design curriculum (from the discussion in the article): Typically then, design problems are ill-defined, ill-structured, or ‘wicked’. When designers embark on a piece of design they do not have all the information that is necessary to solve the design problem. In fact it is argued that they almost always lack a proportion of it, and that by their nature design problems are not susceptible to exhaustive analysis. Experience indicates that ideally the only practicable way forward is to produce a draft solution, so that the problem can be kept within manageable bounds. This approach seems to be core to designing and implies a whole way of understanding the world and responding to it. This has been characterized as the ‘Designerly Way of Knowing’ by Cross (1982), a mode of thought that has five aspects: 1. Designers tackle ill-defined problems 2. Their mode of problem solving is solution focused 3. Their mode of thinking is constructive 4. They use codes that translate abstract requirements into concrete objects They use these codes to both read and write in the object languages
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)169-175
Number of pages7
JournalArt, Design and Communication in Higher Education
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2009

Bibliographical note

Author's note: This article appeared in a special edition of this journal, which was devoted to the CETLs that were funded by HEFCE in 2005.
The article recaps and then details how there is a very particular transitional stage (or threshold concept) that design students need to pass through in order to feel confident enough to quickly produce a draft solution. It is possible that the uncomfortable and troublesome ‘explosion in the head’ needs to not only take place, but be accepted by students as a routine – but nonetheless exciting – part of the process of producing draft solutions. That this stage is well documented in the literature indicates that professional designers recognise this experience, but up until this point this knowledge seems to have been tacit in relation to student design education. As a result, discussion was on-going on how to best develop support frameworks to help understand how curriculum development can be influenced by the identification of the threshold concept; with the intention of introducing learning objectives into modules that specifically address and legitimise the students’ experience of uncertainty in solving design problems. In addition, the development of a model that calls upon knowledge of the critical points of the design process is in discussion and this model would site the toleration of design uncertainty in the pre-concept design stage where exploration of the ‘design problem’ takes place.
This article represented a jumping off point for a subsequent paper, published as part of the Design Research Society’s 2010 conference proceedings. This subsequent paper brought together the research and detailed how the identification of the threshold concept – the toleration of design uncertainty – led to a complete redesign of the industrial design curriculum at Coventry University.


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