Recipe: Making the design process visible

Lawson famously noted that, in observing the design process, “…there is not a lot of action to be seen and what is there cannot be readily understood.” (Lawson, 2005 p.216).

This gives us a bit of a challenge in distance design education: if it’s hard enough to ‘see’ it in a traditional setting, how do we make it visible at a distance?

This recipe shares how we do this in our entry level course at The Open University using concept mapping software, CompendiumDS (which you can even download and use free!)

Using this medium allows a different conversation to emerge between student and tutor at a distance. By focusing on process instead of output a greater articulacy of design presence and personality is evident, allowing tutors to ‘read students’ minds’ (Jones, 2014).

Serve to:
Teachers and students needing to make the design process visible

Varies depending on learning activity or project.

It’s free!

Getting students into the habit of this is the challenge.
Connection: asynchronous; file size can be an issue;


  • A design challenge, project, activity, or other process
  • CompendiumDS: Get it here FREE!
  • Some students


Put the method here. Tell a story of how to do it, or …

  1. Start with an existing design activity or project that can readily broken up into chunks of activity. Ideally each chunk should have some ‘output’, such as:
    • A series of design options
    • Summary of design precedent searches
    • List of changes to make in the next iteration
  2. Create a CompendiumDS template map for students to use in the design project. Include (you’ll find four template maps in the software itself):
    • Sub-map nodes to allow students space to communicate a variety of design processes
    • Specific nodes to capture the outputs identified in Step 1 (Above)
    • Reflection or review nodes to allow students to evaluate their design process and work at each stage
  3. As students go through the project they should record their process using images, text or whatever other media in CompendiumDS (use Sub-map nodes for this), as well as complete the output and reflection nodes.
  4. Students submit a cds map as their assignment for assessment. You may also wish them to submit the final design output separately or in some other way (e.g. to VDS ot portfolio)
  5. Assess students’ design process by reviewing their work in CompendiumDS:
    • Remember that you are assessing process, not product. In feedback, relate the process to the product to make it clear how these relate
    • Make use of tutor nodes to highlight specific feedback points and give feedback.
    • Provide feedback text and summary, bearing in mind that good feedback needs to make a change to enable learning…
    • In feedforward (feedback for the next activity), identify things students could change in their process next time. Even better, follow up on these to check!
  6. Return the assessed map to students and, if your learning model supports it, invite a response or even follow-up discussion (for the latter make use of Tutor nodes to highlight areas of discussion).

Example maps:

Notes and tips:
Encourage efficient and effective communication in student maps – this is a good medium within which to develop this discipline.
Encourage students to use CompendiumDS to design as well as communicate their process.



Jones, D. (2014) ‘Reading students’ minds: design assessment in distance education’, Journal of Learning Design, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 27–39 [Online]. DOI: 10.5204/jld.v7i1.158. On ORO:

Published by Derek Jones

Derek Jones is a Senior Lecturer in Design at The Open University (UK), part of the OU Design Group, and the Convenor of the DRS Pedagogy SIG. His main research interests are: the pedagogy of design and creativity, embodied cognition in physical and virtual environments, and theories of design knowledge.

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