Meaning Making and the Design Student: Fostering Self Authorship in a Studio Based Design Course

Presented by: Kat Keller

The designers of our future will enter the work force at a time like no other. Globalization has created an interconnection between cultures and diversity has become a social norm. Political and economic crises erupt on a daily basis and climate change has become the focus of worldwide concern. The rapid change in technology provides an endless supply of new knowledge and brings these complexities to our daily lives. The students that enter design school today will have no choice but to make meaning of and navigate through these complexities in order to respond to the ever-changing needs of the clients and stakeholders. To adapt to these changes, the design industry itself is calling for design education reform. The calls for reform describe a designer with new skill sets, such as capability of complex thought, autonomy, and an ability to make meaning in the context of experience. Research indicates that for the student to make meaning of these complexities, they must develop a complex meaning-making framework. Self-Authorship is one theory, derived from student identity development, attempts to define the complex meaning-making framework. The Self-Authored person has the capacity for reflective judgment, intellectual power, the ability to make mature decisions and solve problems in context, the ability to recognize and comprehend social issues, hold respect for self and others identities and cultures, empathy, confidence and awareness. Since these are also the desired traits being called for in design education reform, it is clear that the shift in design pedagogy must move in the direction of the development of the whole human being. Building on the current literature for fostering Self-Authorship as well as alternative pedagogies, this thesis explores how to foster the complex meaning-making framework in the context of the studio based design course. This was an interventional study spanning two consecutive semesters for which I was the primary instructor. The course plans were developed independently of one another, allowing for flexibility for modifications to adapt to unforeseen conditions. Semester 1 was an introduction to design theories, methods, and form making with emphasis on visual language and visual encoding practices. The course provided a thorough basis in research, principles, methods, form and meaning of two and three-dimensional design. Objectives included primary meaning making of how theory influences design, awareness of multiple points of view, articulation of critical thought and awareness of self. Semester 2 placed emphasis on discussions of domesticity and space making, as well as methods in analogue modeling of architectural space. Utilizing complex design theory, students worked through the linear phases of the design process to develop a three dimensional architectural representation of space. Objectives included making meaning of complex design theory and application, understanding process, articulation of theoretical constructs and the development of a design voice. Fourteen sophomore interior design students participated in the intervention and were assessed both pre and post study to determine their level of meaning making. Each participant experienced varying degrees of development ranging from minimal to high levels. Grounded theory method was used to analyze which methods and techniques utilized throughout the intervention fostered positive results toward development. Through this analysis, a model and framework were developed as a tool for fostering Self-Authorship in a studio based design class. The framework has implications for both current and future design students as it provides the design educator a blueprint for implementing a variety of techniques for fostering development into the current curriculum. The framework was designed to be flexible so that it could be modified and evolve with unforeseen conditions and the changing needs of the design student.


  • Baxter Magolda, M. (1999). Creating contexts for learning and self-authorship: Constructive-developmental pedagogy (Vanderbilt Issues in Higher Education).” Vanderbelt University Press.
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  • Jones, S. R., & Abes, E. S. (2013). Identity development of college students: Advancing frameworks for multiple dimensions of identity. San Francisco: CA: Jossey-Bass.
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