Audra Buck-Coleman, University of Maryland College Park

Immigration. Religious differences. Police Brutality. Stereotypes. Prejudice. Racial disparities. Systematic disenfranchisement. Black Lives Matter. Gender inequality. So many messy, conflict-ridden issues permeate our world and can seep into our classrooms. They can also make for rich project content and productive collaborative experiences. But how do you engage undergraduates in topics most adults are reluctant to confront? Further, how can you create opportunities for undergraduates to address these topics with stakeholders directly affected by these issues? This paper will offer a range of different research methods and design project outputs educators might consider to create dialogue and understanding around discordant topics. It will also include the successes of two case studies that attempted to do just this. Each incorporated different measurement techniques to assess their impact.

In the first project, design students worked with campus “Asian Pacific American” (APA) students to create participatory activities aimed at prompting audiences to reconsider the heterogeneous identities undercut by such a homogenous term. Together, the students created an event with participatory activities to celebrate the similarities and differences within the APA community.

In the second project, college design students collaborated with high school students from West Baltimore to create message that addressed the 2015 Baltimore Uprising provoked by the death of Freddie Gray and the one-sided media portrayal of racial disparities. These students spent months getting to know one another and discussing the issues facing the high school students including the Uprising. They deliberated about what messages they wanted to convey most and then constructed the objects and components to communicate them. Their works were installed in an exhibit at an area museum.

Both required students to conduct multimodal research to find out more about the issues facing these communities. Both employed assessment techniques to measure the outcomes. Each project attempted to influence societal norms, to create more awareness of the stereotypes and prejudices that help perpetuate racial inequality, and to empower the underrepresented. Through these processes students can gain deep insights into underrepresented communities and the communities can be empowered though design responses. Both can be buoyed by the collaborative experience. Collectively, these projects can inform design education practices regarding collaboration, assessment, social impact design, and ways to address complex, divisive issues.


Audra Buck-Coleman is an Associate Professor and graphic design program director at the University of Maryland. She has written, art directed, curated, designed, authored, directed, and collaborated on numerous design projects including Sticks + Stones, an international multi-university collaborative design project that investigates stereotyping and social issues. Her design research focuses on social design and its assessment mechanisms, design pedagogy, and design ethics. She has presented her research internationally at the Icograda IEN, the Icograda Design Education Manifesto, the Design Research Society conferences and numerous AIGA Design Education conferences. She holds an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art and is currently pursing a PhD in sociology to bridge to her social impact design work.