Themes are subject matter categories that guide core topics and institution-specific structures for their delivery. Topics are particular content areas within themes. Thus, a theme such as Representational Approaches might contain topics such as Computational Models and Multidimensional Scaling.


Three categories of themes and topics: core, specialized, elective

Some themes and topics are fundamental for all design disciplines (Core), while others are more advanced and extend knowledge under specialized or elective study (Specialized). A third group of topics (Elective) are optional, providing flexibility for students.

The initiative’s working groups will structure each theme into core topics that every program should teach, specialized topics that address advanced, elective, or disciplinary-specific content, and learning outcomes that describe what students should know and be able to do as a result of instruction.

The material and depth of coverage of courses within any theme, whether core, specialized or elective, will vary with the institution’s type to fit the students’ background.


Core themes and topics contain general knowledge that every designer should know; that every program must teach and require as understanding of the foundational concepts of design.


Specialized topics are built from Core topics at a more advanced or disciplinary-specific level.They are not part of the core curriculum but are required by the student’s sub-discipline.


Electives are optional topics that allow students to expand their knowledge.

Student learning outcomes

describe what students should know and be able to do with respect to each topic, and should include the level of mastery expected by students.

Levels of learning mastery

Topics can be learned at three different levels of mastery:

1. Familiarity: The student understands the concept and what it means.

2. Usage: The student can apply the familiar concept, often in a context other than in which it was taught.

3. Reflection: The student can demonstrate appropriate usage and the ability to answer why a particular approach was selected from among alternatives.

Different institutions might require different levels of study and performance. Thus, for any given topic, a 2-year school might only require familiarity, a traditional design curriculum might expect mastery of usage, and a research university might expect reflection.


The Steering Committee and working groups together determine the lists of themes and their constituent topics, and designate which themes and topics are core, specialized, and elective. At the start of this process (in December 2020),over twenty themes were identified, listed, and described below:

Representational approaches

Applications range across the design process, from exploring and framing problems, negotiating possible actions, and communicating outcomes to others. New forms of dynamic and interactive representations and those involving a variety of technologies and sensory modalities should be included (for example, augmented, virtual, and mixed reality).

Systems thinking

Problems as interconnected elements, people, and activities organized in ways that produce patterns of behavior over time. Design increasingly takes action at the level of networks, systems, platforms, and communities.Systems thinking links structure to behavior in the pursuit of goals.

Implications of new technologies

Novel technologies such as materials, sensors and actuators, smart products, big data, biological and electronic control mechanisms, pervasive communication, and artificial intelligence already impact design practice and production methods. New technologies enhance human sensory, physical, and intellectual capabilities. These innovations alter how we work, learn, and play, but with ethical challenges and biases.

Tools, materials, and technologies

There are multiple trade-offs in the choices of traditional and new tools, materials, and methods, so designers must understand inherent characteristics. Some tools will radically alter the work of designers. This theme addresses how we train designers to master new methods and ideas, thus enhancing their abilities (as opposed to allowing technology to replace the need for designers).

Organizational processes

There are transformative processes, enablers, and cultures through which organizations achieve goals. Questions arise concerning the structural levels and components through which design can intervene. Under this theme, there are two major concerns: how organizations operate within existing governing structures and limitations and how new organizational structures respond to changing contexts and stakeholder goals.

Product and service development

The process of developing and implementing products and services, including software, has changed. More and more products and services must adopt a systems perspective, from initial design to product reuse or recycling, with special concern for methods and materials that could harm the environment (while also helping the company maintain profitability). This requires designers to understand competitive and strategic goals in order to create entirely new processes, policies, guidelines, and principles that differ from those that currently exist.


Design methods at all stages of the design process are critical for successful results. Designers must understand how each method contributes to the eventual outcome, standards of evidence, and ethical considerations that guide practice.

Community engagement: designing with, not for

Communities often have members who deeply understand the issues they face and who have creative, viable ideas. There are ways designers can work with communities so that the result is designed with them (as opposed to designed for them): a modification of co- and participatory-design.


Contemporary viewpoints assert that the cultural context of design is plural, participatory, and distributed. People are always immersed in space-specific networks of interactions that result from their social and cultural histories.The imposition of artifacts and systems designed by Western practices can disrupt design of cultures that have aspirations to be defined by their values, beliefs, and ways of being.


All designs have the goal to change or enhance human or societal behavior, but by anticipating consequences when the future is unknowable. Forecasting and foresighting are two methods for preparing for future events.Forecasting predicts the likely future while foresighting anticipates trends and forces that could produce multiple futures. Designers will need both tools, often using planning strategies and scenarios.

Measurement and evaluation

Measuring and monitoring the short- and long-term impact of all the critical components of design and final implementation is a challenge and critical to ensuring continual improvements in design. This theme addresses how we collect relevant, trustworthy evidence of our work’s short- and long-term impact. Not everything that matters in design can be measured, and even when measurement is possible because design deals with people and society, many techniques fall prey to subtle biases. Moreover, the measurements are often noisy, probabilistic, and unstable. Designers have to understand data analytics while working with data science professionals. And important information is often qualitative, coming from observations, videos, interviews, and stories. These are important issues for which we need answers.

Design histories

Design has its origins as a tool of industrialism, which has led to major social, cultural, political, geographical, technological, and economic forces that shaped 20th and 21st centuries. We study history to guide the future, so this theme needs to include precedents and cultures outside of the industrialized nations and cover design’s expansion beyond products and services into complex systems and the ability to address major societal problems. Design history shows that ignoring social and environmental impact has led to today’s critical conditions that require immediate attention.

Teaching basic research

This theme addresses the research community in academia and industry that works to uncover new design knowledge and theory, including research methods and standards of evidence comparable in rigor to those of more established fields. This theme considers how to organize, direct, and supervise evidence-based PhD programs, as well as training new design researchers. It should not be confused with reflecting on one’s own design work, library retrieval, or the field research that aims to understand customer needs in order to enhance product and services. Basic research contributes to advancing empirical and theoretical foundations of the discipline.

Social and human behavior

Models of interactions among people, organizations, and technologies by individuals and groups are essential to aHuman-Centered design approach. Designers need to know about people’s sensory abilities and limitations, differences between conscious and unconscious actions, the importance of emotion, and limits of rational thought as a model for human behavior. Similarly, knowledge of group and organizational behavior (often studied in business schools and in the military academies) are essential. Applications of this knowledge range from the safety features of products to the interactive qualities of digital tools that support user creativity and resilience.Because design is an applied field, the models used by researchers are often unnecessarily detailed for our use:we care about major effects, not the subtle ones so necessary for the research theorist.

Themes defined by the teaching context

Some design education occurs outside of college classrooms. Instruction is defined by context, rather than content competencies. These issues deserve attention through additional working groups and include:

Primary and secondary school design education

How design might be taught in primary and secondary education is not the focus for this initiative, but as major studies call for creative problem-solving as a 21st century skill, it is important to consider how design can assist in achieving this goal. A second reason for this concern is that design graduates may engage with primary and secondary schools as teachers or volunteers.

Certificate, boot camp, and non-degree design programs

Many students do not wish to get a formal degree, but rather simply to learn specific design skills. This group includes people who do not have any tertiary education, people with degrees in non-design fields but who wish to enter design, and designers seeking continuing education to acquire new knowledge and skills. How certificate or other noncredit courses factor into traditional education is increasingly important as these opportunities multiply.

Internships, cooperative education, and sponsored projects

Some institutions integrate applied experiences as fundamental parts of the curriculum. This theme covers the value, frequency, conditions, and responsibilities under which students engage in some form of design employment for college credit.

Types of institutions

Different institutions have different purposes, structures, and approaches to curriculum. There are a wide variety of issues that differ among: two-, three-, and four-year degree programs; single discipline (art/design/architecture) academies versus multi-discipline universities; liberal arts versus research or polytechnic institutions; non-profit versus for-profit schools. This theme also recognizes the challenges of creating design programs in economically developing countries.


The recommendations of this design initiative will undergo evaluation by governmental and professional accrediting bodies. We need to work with accreditation agencies to make it possible to pass through their requirements (or to have them change their requirements). Without approval of accreditation agencies, this effort may fail.

Cultural representation

There is systemic discrimination within institutions, design professions, and society that influences classroom and workplace culture, hiring and promotion practices, and authenticity in reflecting the full range of stakeholders for design. There are special challenges and obligations for designers who work in and with cultures other than their own.