Concrete understanding through mobile device mediation

Presented by: Sarah M. Urquhart

While many challenges face the contemporary interior design classroom, a major issue that educators at all levels of education are grappling with is the introduction of mobile devices into the classroom. Although arguments exist for inclusion and exclusion of devices in the classroom, data about mobile phone ownership make it clear that smart phones are here to stay and that owners are nearly inseparable from their devices (Attewell & Savill-Smith, 2004). When looking at the college population of adults between 18 and 29, 97% own cell phones and 80% own smartphones (Brenner, 2013). Not only are devices available, students also tend to have a significant amount of time invested in understanding the features of their personal devices. This relieves the burden of providing or requiring laptops which are bulky, less mobile and significantly more expensive. Additionally, mobile devices provide technology access to larger class groups where visiting a campus lab isn’t feasible. The power and availability of mobile devices provides a significant opportunity for use in the interior design classroom especially as a tool for teaching and concretizing the principles and elements of design including color theory.

The principles and elements of design form the foundation of design language and communication and have long been identified as a critical part of interior design foundation curriculum (CIDA, 2014). Yet students often struggle to articulate the rationale behind their designs, which often results from a superficial understanding of the principles and elements. Design students must move beyond basic cognition levels (Bloom, 1956) in order to situate their work in the context of design theory and practice (Guerin et al., 1999). However, it is often difficult for students reach deep understanding of ideas like color value for example because they tend to remain abstract in the human experience. Mobile device cameras externalize the viewing process, allowing it to be shared, deconstructed, and analyzed. In addition, cameras do things our eyes cannot, and thus can be used to challenge student perceptions of the principles and elements of design. This study explores the significance of mobile device mediated, experiential activities in teaching the principles and elements of design including the concept of color value. 

During a first year interior design course, students participated in a series of assignments requiring the use of a mobile device camera. The first assignment requires students to discover hidden potential in everyday surroundings and communicate that potential to an external viewer. Students photograph either a found alphabet or a series of found faces. During a series of design theory based critiques, students share the photos on their devices with peers. The mobile device serves as a collection tool and mediates the experience by providing a platform for communication. The devices also provide access to immediate feedback during critique and facilitate peer feedback. Students are able to make concrete improvement suggestions on issues like effective cropping by pinching and manipulating the display of the device rather than talking about ideas in the abstract. 

During the second activity, students construct a multi-color value scale by eye. The goal of the activity is to provide students with an experiential opportunity to concretize color theory understanding through visual identification of value as a separate from hue and chroma. Upon completion, each team viewed their value scale through a grayscale filter on a device camera which reveals the value in each step of the scale. Many (51%) teams adjusted their value scale in response. More than half (57%) of the students (N=143) reported strongly improved understanding while the majority of students (81%) reported moderately improved understanding indicating that device mediation provides significant and concrete interaction with the principles and elements of design.


  • Attewell, J., Savill-Smith, C., Great Britain, & Learning and Skills Development Agency. (2004). Learning with mobile devices: research and development, a book of papers. London: Learning and Skills Development Agency.
  • Bloom, B., Englehart, M. D., Furst, E. J., Hill, W. H., & Krathwohl, D. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational  Objectives Book 1: Cognitive Domain (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Longmans.
  • Brenner, J., Pew Research Center. (2013). Pew Internet: Mobile | Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project
  • Council for Interior Design Accreditation. (2014). Professional Standards | CIDA. Council for Interior Design Accreditation.
  • Guerin, D., Olson, M., Zborowsky, T., & Lim, Y. (1999). Exploring writing-to-learn in design. Journal of Interior Design, 25(1), 26-36.


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