Design matters in education. Instructional design–the design of learning experiences–matters.

“Design matters because it is an intrinsically humanist discipline, tethered to the very core of why we exist. It frames our conception of power; informs our beliefs about personal dignity; piques our curiosity about fiction and fantasy; highlights our yearning for beauty and romance; and engages our eternal appetite for narrative…[design] does not matter because it is pleasing to the eye, even though we applaud its beauty and its purpose and its presence in our lives. Design matters because of the why, not the what; the sentiment, not the acquisition. Design matters because people matter…”
~ Jessica Helfand, Design The Invention of Desire”


Design is not a neutral activity. We design through our own lenses, assumptions, politics, goals, beliefs about the world–through our own humanity. Instructional design is no different, whether you are someone with an Instructional Designer title, or someone who does instructional design as part of their work (e.g., a faculty member). Our instructional designs–both digital and analog, implicit and explicit–embody what we believe about students, about education, about the goals of learning. Taking the time to recognize and critically visit our design principles can help us to be aware of how they influence our course designs.

In our Critical Instructional Design track at the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute (Fredericksburg, August 8-13), Amy Slay and I encouraged participants to reflect on and make visible their implicit and explicit design principles.

We did this, first, with a carousel activity that encouraged our 20 Design track colleagues to share their responses to various questions written on white boards around the room. Here are their responses to a question about implicit and explicit design principles.

Very cool, right?

Notice the word palimpsest right there in the middle of the board? That term came out of a discussion we had earlier about my own instructional design principles. I had heard about palimpsest as a design idea in a WNYC interview with Jessica Helfand (author of the book I quoted above), and was really taken with the idea.

If you are not familiar with the term palimpsest (I wasn’t either), let me briefly explain. According to Wikipedia (that’s right, I went there), palimpsest “derives from the Latin palimpsestus, which derives from the Ancient Greek παλίμψηστος (palímpsēstos, ‘again scraped’), a compound word that literally means ‘scraped clean and ready to be used again.’” The word can be used to refer to something that is reused but that still retains the character or traces of its original designs or uses. For example, medieval manuscripts often reveal traces of previous manuscripts written on the same parchment. Since parchment was expensive and difficult to make, it may have been erased and reused several times, each time retaining characteristics or traces of prior writings.

Design and architecture communities may think of palimpsest as the layering of multiple elements, styles, or designs across time. A restaurant, for example, may be a palimpsest of the various owners who have decorated and designed that space. A sidewalk might be a palimpsest of construction markings, spills, remains of departed structures, damage, and art.

Flickr image by Doc Searls, CC BY-SA

Your list of personal goals may be another palimpsest. As time passes, you cross out completed goals; you add new ones. The list might have traces of coffee you spilled on it that one day. Perhaps a doodle from a boring meeting. You wrote then erased something. According to Helfand, these layers of information and context are special–not something to be eliminated. List palimpsests are a signal of our humanity; “ephemeral though they appear to be, their persistence provides a tangible record of our own physical endurance” (Helfand, Our Shopping Lists, Our Selves).

I am taken with palimpsest as a design principle. It intentionally values what is being brought to a design conversation (a user’s experiences, previous design work, etc) rather than trying to always disrupt, destroy, or replace what was previously created. It highlights complexity as a design feature, not a bug. It respects history. It makes space for the past to play a role in the future.

In Helfand’s WNYC interview she notes that she is banning post-it notes (which she says are limiting, de-contextual, easily discarded) from her design classes and, instead, is asking students to use tracing paper as they design. She adds:

[quote author=”Jessica Helfand, WNYC interview” source=””]

“Tracing paper is forgiving and it allows you to see what came before. It’s like a membrane. You can actually understand that a process of evolution of an idea can be lateral, it can be layered; it’s like a palimpsest of an idea. As opposed to this notion that everything we think, and produce, and make is a composite of squares. That idea that geometry is the container through which all ideas must work and become modular–I mean, one could argue it comes out of the Industrial Revolution, it comes out of the International Style–but it’s not forgiving, it’s not porous. And it’s not, I think, organic in terms of a process that design can bring to bear on a number of questions, and ideas, and problems.”[/quote]

In learning, palimpsest as a design principle resists templates and control mechanisms that modularize, limit, or remove student opportunities for agency and creativity. It makes visible and values the worlds that students are bringing to a class.

Palimpsest can frame how we think about student learning–that it accrues and traces on individual students’ histories and humanities–what they already bring to the educational environment. We can recognize that students will build and connect learning across the time they engage with us and with our institutions. That’s why portfolios projects that focus solely on creating final products (something that can be shown to an employer) miss the point. Palimpsest in student portfolios would allow students’ previous work and thinking to color the “final product.”

I’m continuing to reflect on how palimpsest may be a design principle we bring to the work we do in the Office of Digital Learning. As always, we welcome your ideas and provocations.

As a final word, I wanted to share reflections by some of our Critical Instructional Design track participants. May they be palimpsests on which we continue to build (will add more as I find them):

Fighting Post-Workshop Inaction: An Action Plan by Lisa Becksford

Implicit Design Principles: One Does Not Merely Sit by Jennifer Roth-Burnette