Welcome to the first installment of our new series, Inside Design School, where we’ll highlight the professors and mentors shaping the next generation of designers.
We sat down with Stephanie Castilla, a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), to discuss how she provides holistic feedback, what skills will be most valuable for tomorrow’s top designers, and her tips for fellow design mentors.
What do you teach at RISD?
I teach Point, Click, Drag: Designing the Digital Interface. It’s an introduction to interaction design, and about 80 percent of my students are completely new to this type of design.
What types of challenges do you face in the class?
Meeting the needs of different experience levels and learning styles. Some students learn by doing, and they’re very eager to jump in and just start creating things. Others prefer a theoretical approach and need more background knowledge before they feel comfortable jumping in.
There can be some technical challenges, too, in that not all students are familiar with installing and running new software.
What’s your approach to providing feedback on student designs?
My 3-part feedback process touches on 3 aspects of the design work: the conceptual, the interactive, and the holistic.
On the conceptual side, we might ask:
- Did the designer fully explore all the user needs?
- Did they identify a strong problem?
- Were they tackling that problem in creative ways?
- Were there things they might have missed?
Then we look at the interactive side, thinking about user workflows and how effectively the student mapped them out. We ask questions like:
- What workflows does the design feature, and what do they accomplish?
- How are the interactions either supporting or challenging those flows?
- What areas of confusion might the user experience, and how can these be addressed?
The third part of our feedback process looks at the student’s work holistically, asking questions like:
- How did the designer manage and execute project planning?
- What was their design approach?
- What methodologies and strategies did they employ, and why?
Once students understand this process, they move on to other projects, applying this framework when assessing their own work or their peers’.
Overall, we try to instill a culture of co-creation and sharing prior to any big reveals, focusing more on ongoing iterative development.
Do you have any tips for presenting designs?
Presentation forms a big part of the class, in part because presentation can be a big design-driver—the way that you tell your story can actually lead to more insight.
I often give students a presentation outline to work off of to make sure they hit all parts of their story. Depending on how a student thinks, they may focus too much on 1 part of their story over another. They might talk a lot about the how but neglect to articulate the why.
Presentation can be a big design-driver—the way that you tell your story can actually lead to more insight.
Our framework helps get them up and running so they can practice telling the complete story of their design process. We also share examples of different ways to visualize an idea.
Where do you see the design industry going 5 or 10 years from now?
I think the fields of UX and UI are booming thanks to there being so many interesting, engaging problems to solve out there.
I’m looking forward to seeing how we’ll be able to prototype increasingly gestural and environmental types of interactions. I can see prototyping tools continuing to push these boundaries forward for designers.
As for growing specialization in the field, I think there are a lot of design students who prefer to think holistically about problems, so they’re not necessarily committed to only designing user interfaces—they just love the idea of solving a problem and using UX/UI as 1 of the possible solutions.
Which skills are most likely to get a student a great job?
It depends what stage they’re in. I can’t stress enough how important the hard skills are—you need to be able to turn concepts into reality. Maybe because of the nature of the economy and the industry right now, students who know how to prototype and execute designs stand the best chance of succeeding.
Beyond that: the soft skills of being a self-starter, curious, and driven to learn. The curious students do well because they’re always asking questions that lead them to insights.
Students who know how to prototype and execute designs stand the best chance of succeeding.
Where do you, as a designer, get inspiration?
I love to explore other people’s work. I spend lots of time looking at different websites and apps and unpacking them.
I think that’s how I learn best—unpacking things that are already out there. Dribbble’s great—you can share ideas and works-in-progress, and people are generous with comments. I love the sense of community there.
People outside of the design world sometimes think design is this very cutthroat, competitive world, but in reality, it’s this wonderful community of folks who just really want to see other people succeed and are willing to unpack their work and explain why they did something.
I also use Envato, a marketplace that sells components of designs, a lot. I teach my students that it’s a great resource for looking at so many iterations in web design in 1 place.
What tips would you share with design mentors and teachers?
Take time to truly understand where a student is coming from before critiquing their work. We often make lots of assumptions about the nature of their design process and where it’s headed, and that can get it in the way of truly engaging with the work itself.
Always start a critique with a question. This gives the student an opportunity to answer that question themselves. I find this is more effective than just telling them what they did wrong or what they could do better.
The more you can encourage a culture of sharing, the more your class becomes this dynamic, rich environment where students are really helping one another grow.
I also recommend that instructors develop more transparent evaluation models. In art school, evaluation can become very subjective. It helps create a stronger culture in your class if you’re able to provide clear rubrics of how you’re evaluating.
What’s the most exciting part about teaching the designers of tomorrow?
College can be both thrilling and anxiety-inducing—you’re always worried about that next step. On the positive side, you can tell when somebody has found the process that really lights their fire and drives them, and allows them to feel like they’re 1 step closer to their dream job.
Seeing my students’ discover their strengths is the best part about teaching.