Carleton College's student newspaper since 1877

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Design in Academia: who is our audience?

<st of us talk about design we think of words like landscape, graphic, interactive, and fashion. These relate to activities that most Carleton grads simply won’t be doing, so what’s the point?  What does design really have to do with the environment, healthcare, politics, or the economy?

Designers only deal in shapes, colors, and sizes. They come in at the end of the process and whip up a beautiful website or layout that will sell millions of copies of our product.  So perhaps that’s where we use designers, to sell our wonderful economical, environmental, and political plans.

Design is about beauty…. right?


Enter game designers. Game designers force us to rethink design as a whole. Game designers aren’t engineers, they don’t produce art, and heck, they don’t even do the bulk of coding or production. So what do they do?

Game designers arrange rules and ideas to create an experience. This type of design might seem incredibly different from the other forms of design, but it’s not really. Design at its heart is the arrangement of a variety of rules in an effort to communicate ideas. 

The liberal arts education is incredibly adept at teaching students how to dissect, analyze, and understand complex systems and structures. Design at its heart is the other part of that process. After a designer understands these systems (systems built on rules I might add), they play with them and create products that fundamentally reshape the way we consider the systems we live within. At its heart, design is about asking the question, “how can we shape our experiences to bring out the best in ourselves?”.

Anything, a book, a movie, a game, a piece of clothing can become an act of design if its creators think seriously about the relationship between the user and the system in which the product is being created. It would be rather easy to say we already engage in this type of thinking, but I’m not so sure.

As students we tend to see work through our own eyes: as a writer, a producer, or a creator. We tend to only make sure we say what we want. But we forget that if we want people to respond to the problem we address, our work must deal with the relationship between the viewer/reader and the problem. As any game designer will explain, you build the rules to get the player to do something and you test it to see if that’s what the player is actually doing.

This does not mean that we have to pander to our audience. Simply put, being a designer means being constantly conscious of the audience one addressing. I think this is the fundamental challenges schools have to overcome. We say that getting an A means going above and beyond, but what does above and beyond actually mean? 

It is this sort of talking to and not talking at that schools have such an incredibly hard time with. Because schools are purposefully removed in both space and time from society, context becomes an incredibly hard thing to understand. 

Most students are taught how to talk at their teachers. Yet this seems like the most limited audience possible. The assignment becomes more of a checklist than a work of art or design. We should be creating things for someone, even if that someone is ourselves. 

Context is incredibly important but it can be incredibly difficult to think about when balancing everything that is going on inside of a pressure cooker like Carleton. We only create things to achieve the objectives that have been asked of us and don’t try to produce something that can live within time and space outside of a class. And while we probably do not have the time to think about these things in every class, perhaps we can focus on one or two assignments and create something that has a time, place, and a targeted audience. 

That’s really what design is at the end of the day. Creating something beautiful with its own home. Whether that home is by Walden Pond or in the heart of New York City is up to us.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All The Carletonian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *