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DESIGN 582 A: Design Graduate Studio

Meeting Time: 
Th 8:30am - 11:20am
ART 122
Karen Cheng
Karen Cheng

Syllabus Description:

This course is required for first-year graduate students in the UW Masters of Design program. Selected UW MHCI+D students are also accepted. If you would like to enroll, please email me ( and explain why you want to take the course. In your email, please describe your background/prior education and ambitions in the field of design. Please also provide a link to a portfolio of your design work (e.g., your website or a PDF file.)


Available as a Google spreadsheet (subject to revision as needed):


This graduate studio is intended to help you identify, explore, and develop your own personalized and distinct way of thinking and making. The course also encourages you to:

—establish an open, exploratory approach to designing
—enlarge your knowledge of the principles and practices of visual design
—expand your critical judgement of both form and content
—increase your ability to generate design work independent of a brief or assignment

Our quarter-long studio is based on the “Object” project developed by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Director of the Yale University Graduate Program in Graphic Design, and Susan Sellers, founding partner/executive creative director of the design firm 2x4 and Senior Design Critic at the Yale School of Art.

Sellers and de Bretteville are deeply engaged in exploring and analyzing material culture through design. In a 2011 interview in Graphic, they discussed their belief that design can be a significant tool to explore, research, provoke, reveal, elaborate, and excavate the cultural narratives in the world around us.

The “Object” project asks students to see and discover multiple stories inherent in the form and context of a material entity. Students are asked to develop new forms, narratives, and/or experiences that reinvent the original article through personal reinterpretations.

The main output from the “Object” project is a series of designed visualizations or narratives that are often thought-provoking, diverse, and multifaceted. However, perhaps more importantly, the project encourages students to build their own individualized, iterative design methodology based on content that they self-determine/self-direct. Sellers and de Bretteville consider this personalized design process to be the essential and defining aspect of the Object project.


Week 1 > Start by choosing your object.
The object must be a singular, specific, tangible thing that you can physically bring to the graduate studio and set on a table.
It can be difficult to select one object from vast (perhaps infinite!) options. Therefore, on the first day of class, I encourage you to bring three different objects that you are considering: 

—an object that attracts you (perhaps something that fascinates you, even if you don’t know why)
—an object that is common, practical, functional, and even mundane (perhaps something that could be considered “Super Normal”)
—an object that is evocative (perhaps weighted with personal significance for you in some way, due to being part of your cultural or personal history)

At our first class, we will discuss and evaluate your objects as a group. You are, of course, empowered to make the final selection. If you wish, you can ask our group (or a different group, or a specific individual, etc.) to select your object for you, with or without constraints. Your selection method itself can be part of your personal design process.

To prepare for the next phase of the project (see below), you will work during class in rotating pairs to generate a mind-map and a list of questions about your object. Pairs should also brainstorm a list of audit activities that corresponds to the map and questions.

Week 2 > Present a close reading of your object’s
To begin the project, you will need to create a robust dataset from your object. You will be recasting and reordering this initial dataset—and possibly subverting or disrupting it—with your own reinterpretations.

To build this initial dataset, you will need to conduct a thorough audit of your object. The audit is a deep study and documentation of qualities, meanings, and potential themes/narratives inherent in the object. For the audit activity, the object is not only what it is, but also what it suggests.

Because this is a visual design studio, your focus should be on how both the concrete and implied aspects of the object can be expressed visually. Towards this end, your audit could show:

—the personal meaning that the object has for you
—the form and material of your object
—the function and uses of your object (for you and for others)
—the context and historical precedent (and real/imagined future) of your object
—current and potential users or audiences for your object, including yourself
—associations, values, and cultural meanings surrounding your object (these may change depending on audience and context)

You may need to consider varied states of the object. For example, the object at rest may have different properties compared to the object in motion. The object may also change relative to its context. It may take on new meanings for you vs. different users/audiences. The object might also have reduced or extended functionality when it is connected or adjacent to other objects.

I am delighted to announce that during Week 2, we will be joined by visiting designer Manuel Miranda.
As a senior critic in the MFA Graphic Design program at Yale University, and as an alumnus of the Yale program, Manuel has both personally experienced and taught the Object project. You are all cordially invited to a Manuel's free UW talk about his design practice on Thursday, October 6th at 6:30pm in Smith Hall, Room 205.

For our class with Manuel on the morning of Thursday, October 6, please construct a 2-to-4-minute scripted screen presentation of your object audit. Following your presentation, you will have 6-to-8 minutes to solicit feedback and suggestions from Manuel and the group. Be specific and proactive in requesting input that will help guide your future work.

Audit Presentation
Your presentation should be a sequence of images accompanied by live narration (or pre-recorded audio). Please practice your live script to ensure that you can keep to the strict time limit of 2-to-4 minutes. This ensures that each student has 10-12 minutes total. I will have to stop you if you exceed this time allotment.

You can use any visual media that you wish. The audit presentation is an excellent opportunity to explore and catalog a wide range of graphic representations, including:

—gestural or perspective drawings, representational or abstract
—diagrams or storyboards (i.e., to show how the object is constructed, how it functions, etc.)
—photographs or illustrations
—video or 3D scans
—color swatches or other color/material palette representations
—quotes, poetry or prose related to the object
—collections of historical/contextual information (e.g., archival news or advertising images from newspapers, magazines, television/film, etc.)

The goal of the presentation is for you to provide (for both yourself and our group) a nuanced and evocative representation of your object’s essential material and visual qualities. By conducting the audit and creating the presentation, you should be able to pinpoint substantive themes that can be visually elaborated in the next phase of the project.

To get the most out of our class, you need to engage the entire group in helping you to find methods and/or strategies that can express and extend the ideas you have discovered in your audit. While it is possible to present your audit as conventional user research or as a typical design brief (a collection of visual comparisons, interviews, statistical analysis, etc.), this is not likely to be the most compelling approach. Please do not read bullet points from a Power Point presentation—that is profoundly uninteresting.

Instead, consider how you could experiment with the content and the telling of your story both visually and linguistically. Be inventive and efficient. The level of execution should support a thoughtful and provocative presentation of your objects attributes.

Embrace the personal and self-authored nature of this project. Imagine yourself as both a researcher and a visual storyteller. Help us see and understand your object—the protagonist/agent of your story—in new ways.


Weeks 3-7 > Develop a series of visual projects based on your object.
Express and extend the ideas set forth in your audit presentation by creating a series of visual projects. You should focus on creating and developing a wide range of visualizations.

Note that your visualizations may not literally resemble your object, because your goal is to capture the essence of the object (not to depict it realistically). You are moving from concrete, direct representation towards abstract, indirect, metaphorical translation. Dont hesitate to take risks and experiment with new ways of thinking/making. In the design studio, we encourage and normalize failure. “Bombing is a normal and even welcome outcome from creative experiments.

To stimulate your form-giving practice, I will present a general visual strategy each week for you to employ. During our class session you should use the presented method (and related visual design principles) to create at least a few of your weekly visualizations. The methods/visual strategies to be covered include:

—photography and formal composition
—graphic/formal abstraction (e.g., point, line, plane, shape, and texture)
—type and typography
—color and material palettes

You are expected to create 6-12 visualizations each week using either the presented method or an alternate method of your choice. Strive for at least three distinctly different concepts/approaches (not 12 images that are minor variations on the same theme). Again, do not worry if some—or even all—of your weekly visualizations are not successful. If you persist in the design process with an adequate volume/quantity of work, your efforts will eventually bear fruit.

Please use a foam-core board or a pin-up space (by your desk or elsewhere in the studio) to display printouts of your weekly visualizations for group and peer critique. On your display, actively solicit the specific feedback that you wish to receive from the class. For example, you could post a specific question or prompt that we can respond to with sticky notes or sketches.

I encourage you to view our class critiques with joy, humor, and positivity rather than anxiety or trepidation. Critiques are essential to learning; they also enable you to test how others read and respond to your proposed designs. Furthermore, critiques are your chance to practice giving and receiving open, honest, encouraging, and helpful feedback and suggestions. One of the key attractions of graduate school is the opportunity to work with and learn from inspiring and committed colleagues.

Weeks 8-11 > Edit and consolidate your visualizations into a final production.
In the last three weeks of the quarter, you will synthesize your work and design process into a single, more complex production of your choice (for example: a publication, an installation, video, etc.) You should self-define a specific audience, medium, and communication goal for this final product.

Consider how best you might structure and weave a story, a narrative, around your object. How can you communicate the meaning of your object through the telling of its form? Is there a subtext (underlying themes) that should be present in the telling? Does your analysis of the object suggest or provoke a discussion around the nature of your own design practice—or the profession of design at large?

Please plan to present at least three different options for your final product on Thursday November 17th. We will be once again be joined by Manual Miranda, who will provide feedback and suggestions.

This final project is the culmination of all of your work during Fall quarter. Refine and revise the details of your visualizations and strive for the highest level of execution.


Available as a Google spreadsheet (subject to revision as needed):


Grading is based on:
—The quality of the final work, both formal and conceptual
—The extent of exploration (both depth and breadth) completed during the design process
—Class participation, both verbal and written
—Presentations of your proposed project, both in-progress and final

3.8–4.0 is given to a student who has exhibited the highest possible performance in all aspects of the course—the final projects, design process and overall participation are excellent. This student independently seeks out information and is highly committed/passionate about their work.

3.4–3.7 is given to a student who exhibits superior performance in all aspects of the course— the final projects, design process, and participation are uniformly of high quality. This student has a thorough understanding of all concepts presented, and is motivated to improve and succeed.

3.0–3.3 is given to a student who has good performance in most aspects of the course. This student follows a thorough design process, has good design work, and consistent participation that reflects  a clear understanding of almost all concepts being presented.  

2.4–2.9 is given to a student who has fair performance in the course. The final work is adequate, with a design process that reflects the minimum effort needed to complete assignments. This student has moderate participation and motivation.

0–2.3 is given to a student with poor performance in the course. Projects are incorrectly prepared, incomplete or missing. This student does not understand the majority of concepts that are presented and rarely participates in class. This student is not prepared for subsequent courses in design.  

Note that a minimum cumulative GPA of 3.00 is required for a graduate degree at the University of Washington. Courses graded less than 2.7 do not count towards the total credits.


This course is being taught in-person. Students have the best learning experience when all class members are on time and prepared with their work at each course meeting. However, if you become infected with COVID-19 or any other transmissible illness, please do not come to class; follow the guidelines on this UW COVID-19 flowchart.

Note that masks are strongly recommended at UW in the first two weeks because case counts typically spike at the start of the quarter, when more than 12,000 students arrive at UW after traveling nationally or internationally. Masks will remain recommended at UW afterwards, as long as case counts remain low.

If you have a personal or medical issue that causes intermittent or chronic lateness and/or insufficient preparation, please let me and your classmates know as soon as possible so that we can adjust our expectations and accommodate your needs.

In the event that you need to miss class, please let me know as soon as possible via email. Also, please be sure to have the contact information from at least two other student colleagues in the class so that you can review any missed discussions or assignments. If your absence is caused by an unexpected illness or personal emergency that will have ongoing impacts, I am happy to discuss providing appropriate accommodations for your situation.


Please read these official policies of the UW School of Art + Art History + Design as well as these additional policies here:, including the form to fill out for after-hours swipe card access at the Art Building loading zone doors. Please also be aware of the UW Design Division Final Exam Policy.

Catalog Description: 
Explores a range of ideas and influences in the context of applied design.
Last updated: 
May 6, 2022 - 9:53pm