Q&A with Instructor Kevin McDonald from argodesign


November 29, 2018
Student presents an idea with the class

Kevin McDonald was an instructor for ITD 170: Making Real World Design @ argodesign, a course taught off campus at argodesign’s studio in South Austin this fall. McDonald is a seasoned interaction designer. In the five-week class, students were divided into interdisciplinary teams and asked to design and build a prototype that solved a problem related to gardening. We recently caught up with McDonald to learn more about his experience teaching the class.

Kevin explains an assignment to students

How did this class at argodesign come together?

I had taught two of the "Introduction to Integrated Design" classes in the past, and [Assistant Dean for the School of Design and Creative Technologies] Doreen Lorenzo started talking to us about perhaps doing a class here at argo, just like they'd done at IBM and USAA. That was definitely something we were interested in. We feel like this is a great direction for UT and for the College of Fine Arts.

How did you structure the course?

My co-instructor, Laura Richardson, had created what she calls the “Periodic Table of Play.” Laura is a fantastic researcher and practitioner, and she had completed a side project with some resources at argo to explore play as a creative framework. Her research ended up uncovering about 50 elements of play that can work their way into the creative design process. I thought, "There's something really interesting here.” We wanted the elements of the Periodic Table of Play to be a big part of whatever curriculum we taught. That was our guiding framework. We could have students come in and do journey maps, or we could have worked our way through the design process together. But we felt like there was something here that was unique, and in the end, we ended up molding the Periodic Table of Play into a five-week course that also incorporated those other tactics.

CID Director Gray Garmon and class co-instructor Laura Richardson in conversation

What was the prompt the students were given for their project?

We used an argo client as the inspiration. We knew we wanted to have the students work through a challenge where we ourselves had context and advice to offer. It also felt important to make sure it was diverse, accessible and familiar subject matter.  

argo works with a company that is an offshoot of Treehouse, and is essentially a high-end Home Depot. So, the garden served as our inspiration. We assumed that everybody was familiar with a garden and the different pieces that contribute to it. I think there was something approachable about a garden that also resonated with the success and enthusiasm among the students.

A prototype produced by one of the student groups

What surprised you about the class?

I was surprised by the fidelity of the end deliverables. We spent a lot of time at the start getting to know students. We have a practice here called argo Align, and anytime a new argonaut [an argo employee] starts, we have them fill out an Align form. We had everybody complete one to get a sense of who they were in terms of their work style. Then we took their majors into consideration and started to think about what would make sense functionally. We didn't want five mechanical engineers together—we wanted a mechanical engineer, a marketer, a designer. 

Laura created a casting roster, and we put together four teams based on the elements: fire, earth, air and water. We think that the diverse compositions of the teams and taking a little bit of time to make sure that we asked the right questions was key to their success and enthusiasm and what we saw at the end.

The teams had to focus on what they could accomplish in a short time. It was about the process more so than the actual end prototype. We told the students, "You should feel comfortable with having to throw away your prototypes, if need be." We didn't want anything to be too precious or too focused on perfection as part of this process.

Given the sheer variety of prototypes we saw in the end, it still felt like everything was incredibly valuable and a worthwhile process. What ended up happening—and what was so pleasantly surprising—was that all four teams realized that it was okay for them to have varying levels of final products. 

How important is it for students to work in a space of ambiguity where the answers aren't always clear?

From the start, even in my other classes, I've always been very clear to say, "There is no guidebook. We're trying to expose you to as many tools and practices as possible so that you can make the decision to customize. That's how we do our work. We take proven ways to solve problems, and we twist or combine them with other unexpected tactics.” That's what we were trying to get across to the students.

Part of it was letting them know it was okay to come into the final class without some sort of 3D rendering. We wanted them to focus on the process, rather than the end result. In doing that, their end results turned out to be really interesting.

We could see the discomfort on a lot of students' faces like, “I'm not quite sure what you want me to do.” And we're like, "Welcome to our world."

We want to prepare students for that ambiguity earlier in the process—or at least getting a bit more comfortable with it. There is a fine line between ambiguity and giving up, so we want to make sure we are exposing them to this notion that design is a series of tradeoffs. It might not necessarily be formulaic, despite efforts to make it so. Whatever the context is, a lot of the time you just have to think about the best way to move forward.

Student group presenting their final project

What were your goals for argo coming into this course? What did you hope that argo would get out of this partnership?

I think we wanted to determine if we could just conduct this type of course—to have it here in studio, and host it in a way that would be meaningful for the students. We want to be responsible and involved contributors to the community, and we feel like this is a wonderful way to do that. 

Will it yield potential employees? Perhaps. Obviously, it's a multiyear investment. The program is growing. But I'm less focused on that and more invested in making sure that we're paying it back and paying it forward. Making sure that we provide similar opportunities and chances to younger students that we’d been given earlier in our careers.

Part of what Laura and I get out of this experience is the opportunity to work with a cohort of people who we don't have in great numbers here. People who are in college and thinking differently than we do. It's just a matter of the technology and tools that they have. For us, it was wonderful to see alternative viewpoints generationally and understand how those can inform the design process.

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