Tell Me About it: What is Design? (Part One)

By Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, September 20, 2007

Grade Level

  • Middle School


  • People's Design Award

Subject Area

  • Arts
  • Language Arts

Lesson Time

One to two fifty-minute class periods


What role does design play in everyday life? In this two-part lesson, students are introduced to diverse aspects of design. In the first lesson, students will participate in a jigsaw learning activity to learn about specific fields of design that include interior design, architectural design, landscape design, fashion design, theater design, and graphic design. In jigsaw learning activities, students work in small groups to conduct research on a specific topic and teach their classmates what they learn, thus completing the “jigsaw puzzle.”

National Standards

Common Core Literacy for Other Subjects 
Common Core English Language Arts 
Language Arts - Reading
Language Arts - Writing
Working With Others
Visual Arts


Students will:
  • create a graphic organizer
  • participate in small-group and large-group discussion
  • work collaboratively in small groups
  • conduct internet research on varied fields of design
  • create a class presentation demonstrating an understanding of one field of design



  • Computer with internet access


Building Background

Activity One: Introducing Design Concepts The purpose of this activity is to provide students with an introduction to design concepts. 1. Tell the students that they are going to learn about the world of design and design education. To provide some basic introductory information about design and design learning, share the following paragraphs with the class:
  • Learning through design invites students to be active and reflective learners. Students gain an increased awareness of design in diverse areas of their everyday lives. They may notice how the color, lights, and fabrics in their room create a mood, or how their community was planned with an array of parks, grocery stores, and offices. They may look more closely at the everyday products that surround them, and question the design of a computer mouse, a picture frame, a flower garden, or a pair of sneakers. They may notice the spatial arrangement of windows in a downtown building, the symmetry of a webpage, or the ornamental detail on a balcony. They may think about the structure of buildings, bridges, and walkways across rivers. Design-based learning helps students develop observational skills, and question the way things are created.
  • Creativity is at the heart of design. Design-based learning invites students to solve problems, take risks, support their ideas, critique and evaluate their work, reflect on their learning process, and think about the world in new ways.
As a class, view the video entitled “Cardboard Chair Design Challenge” at 2. Tell the class that there are three major components of design. Explain each area of design to your students using the chart (attached). Activity Two: Design Graphic Organizers The purpose of this activity is to help students learn about the three components of design: space and design, graphic and visual communication, and products and things.
  1. Divide the class into groups of three students. Tell the students that each group is going to construct a graphic organizer. A graphic organizer is a visuospatial representation of information. Give each group a copy of the “Design Graphic Organizer” handout (attached).
  2. After completing the graphic organizers, ask each group to share its work with the entire class. Discuss the different categories of design and the students’ choices from the People’s Design Award website (
  3. Introduce the following steps of the design process to the class:
  • STEP ONE: Identify the problem. Brainstorm ideas.
  • STEP TWO: Analyze the elements you will need to solve the problem.
  • STEP THREE: Create your design plan and presentation.
  • STEP FOUR: Evaluate your design. Share your design and ask for feedback and discuss how you might make changes and improvements to your design.
  • STEP FIVE: Communicate. Share your design plan.
As a class, visit the People’s Design Award website. Find an example of an entry and try to apply how you think the designer used the steps of the design process.

Steps for Learning

Activity One: Jigsaw Learning The purpose of this activity is to give students the opportunity to conduct research on a specific design topic and share what they learn with their classmates. Divide the class into groups of five students. Tell the students that they are going to research a specific area of design, and create a presentation to share what they learn with their classmates. Provide the following list of design topics and ask each group to choose one. Try to ensure that each group selects a different topic. Allow students to choose to investigate areas of design that may be of interest to them that are not included in the list below.
  • Interior Design
  • Landscape Design
  • Automotive Design
  • Lighting Design
  • Fashion Design
  • Theater Design
  • Sound Design
  • Industrial Design
  • Graphic Design
  • Jewelry Design
  • Fabric Design
  • Ceramic Design
Have the students use internet resources, library references, and magazines to conduct research about the varied design fields.


Assessment will be in part two of this two-part lesson.

Enrichment Extension Activities

Differentiation for Elementary School
Provide a set of flashcards with different images of design examples and have the students sort them into design categories: architecture, landscape architecture, interior design, fashion design, industrial design, graphic design, etc.
Differentiation for High School
As students begin thinking about future careers, many might be considering work in design. Have your students conduct additional research about the world of design. Create a class website with annotated references of websites, books, videos, and articles about design. Include lists of college programs in design that students may want to apply to. Make your class's research available to other students in your school.

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