Design Center: An Enhanced Vision

In late November and early December 2015, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign hosted a series of Town Halls to announce the receipt of a major gift commitment to fund the construction of a new building that will house a campus-wide, multidisciplinary Design Center. As stated on the Illinois Design Center website: “This will be a central facility for undergraduate students to experience design thinking, making, and learning by addressing a wide variety of human needs in project-based collaborative teams. Conceived in 2009, the Design Center has been the subject of great effort over the course of the past year—with broad participation from across campus.” The below statement, “Design Center: An Enhanced Vision,” was generated following the November and December campus town halls.

Date:  December 11, 2015

To: Edward Feser, Interim Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs

From: The Center for Digital Inclusion, Graduate School of Library and Information Science; The Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning Director, Michel Bellini; CU Community Fab Lab, Illinois Informatics Institute; Makerspace Urbana; Office of Undergraduate Research; Recovering Prairie Futures, IPRH Research Cluster; Undergraduate Library Media Commons and Undergraduate Library Head, Professor Lori Mestre

Subject:  Design Center: An Enhanced Vision

cc:  David Weightman, Professor, School of Art and Design; Andrew Singer, Professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering


The Town Hall meetings for the new Design Center have been a unique and galvanizing event on this campus. It is a testament to the timeliness of design as a topic that discovery of new peers and common values took place even among attendees of these meetings.

That said, many of us are also concerned that the Design Center is not on a sound path to success. Without a stronger intellectual core, more attention to the social and learning infrastructures necessary to collaboration, and better connection to existing campus efforts, the Center will miss a chance to make a truly global mark in this competitive area.

The enclosed proposal is a response to this need, one that grew out of an existing campus network of stakeholders in design, education, and learning. As you will see, it is premised on a central theme of current scholarship about design process and methodology – that sound products with deep integration into human life require an inclusive approach to the composition and conduct of team-based cooperation.

Design Commons: An Enhanced Vision for Designing Differently

Vision: In the planning of the new Design Center, we — the multi-disciplinary, cross-campus and community signatories of this document — strongly affirm the principles and processes of human-centric design thinking to address grand social and educational challenges of the 21st Century. We call for strong social and learning infrastructures to complement and inform the design of the physical spaces and technical infrastructures of the Design Center. We emphasize here the use of design thinking endorsed by design leaders like IDEO[1] that stress the importance of diverse teams working together to solve difficult problems. This approach for using multiple perspectives has proven successful, but is extremely difficult to do. It is indeed much cheaper, easier, and faster to select and work with people you know and who are like you. But to get expanded insights from diverse teams requires patience and learning. The Design Center’s social infrastructure presents a defining challenge and great opportunity to develop a program on Inclusive Design at Illinois, central to the success of the Center, and that can be considered in parallel with the architectural innovations already underway.

Why Inclusive Design?

Innovative STEM-based companies, campuses, and fields can be well-resourced and highly desirable sites to work or study, but they have been culturally-challenged in drawing in and retaining students of diverse profiles. The campus’ Inclusive Illinois statement[2] reflects a strong commitment to fostering inclusion and diversity, and priorities in “creating, building, and sustaining spaces, places, and environments that are welcoming, inclusive, and affirming, whether in the classroom, the office, the lab, or the athletic field.” The Design Center can be an exemplar in this mission, and work to solve a central challenge of innovation sectors.

  • Studies reveal the continuing need to build inclusive cultures of innovation and technology design in both business and higher education. A 2013 “Gender Diversity in Silicon Valley”[3] study found that 80% of large Silicon Valley companies (with more than 7500 employees) had just one woman director or none at all. Companies like Facebook and Twitter have also received high media attention and been critiqued by prominent civil rights leaders like the Rev. Jesse Jackson for their striking lack of diversity in staff.[4]
  • Higher education has been equally challenged in diversifying STEM. In 2010, while 57% of undergraduate degree recipients were female, less than 20% of engineering degree recipients were female, and less than 14% were underrepresented minorities.[5]
  • High media attention to discrimination lawsuits in Silicon Valley and “bro” cultures in IT and design-based fields are likely already alienating certain students from STEM.
  • Large design opportunities are missed when “design doing” is unevenly represented.[6] A study by Deloitte[7] shows women’s choices impact up to 85% of purchasing decisions and up to $4.3 trillion of total US consumer spending of $5.9 trillion.[8] A report[9] by Parks Associates also shows more women than men are downloading movies and music, and do the majority of game-playing across some platforms. Further, studies show communities of color are disproportionately active as social media publishers.[10]

All of the above opens opportunities for creative programming inclusive of “designing differently” that can build upon Illinois’ unique mission as a public land-grant university serving diverse populations and generating new design opportunities in the Midwest.

Building Multidisciplinary Inclusive Design at Illinois

As a multidisciplinary team of scholars committed to design studies and practice, we draw from key learning experiences and cases to envision the future of inclusive design:

  • Fields like science and technology studies, participatory design, and critical information studies have developed 30+ years of research and methods on inclusive design and multidisciplinary collaboration now used by professional and academic designers alike.
  • Intel’s Genevieve Bell, Xerox PARC’s Lucy Suchman, Helen Nissenbaum, and Susan Leigh Star (among other design practitioners and scholars) are highly regarded within industry and the academy, with their analysis on gender bias applied in multiple fields.
  • National trends in undergraduate research and learning are moving towards cross- disciplinary models that aim to serve a global society. Such trends include building collaborations to extend engagements with communities, organizations, and underrepresented groups to address problems of local, national and global import.
  • Today’s students seek and value environments and experiences that allow them to actively explore new knowledge by tackling real-world problems and exercising multidisciplinary knowledge sets. Authentic tasks that present meaningful, realistic challenges create conditions conducive to student learning.[11] But this cannot happen without direct intention, planning and curricular scaffolding. Design-focused campus service learning programs, like Action Research Illinois, and the popular course LINC_Learning in Community, can inform this kind of activity in the Design Center.
  • Work in enhancing multidisciplinary curricula at MIT and Stanford lead them to be ranked in 2015 among the top three universities worldwide (with Harvard) for humanities and arts education by the Times Higher Education. Stressing the importance of inter-connected curricula, Melissa Nobles, Dean of MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, notes: “The world’s problems are so complex they’re not only science and technological problems. They are as much human and moral problems.”
  • The Council on Undergraduate Research notes that institutions striving for excellence should embrace opportunities for “integrated,”[12] peer-to-peer practices and inter- disciplinary teamwork to foster a community of student research scholars.[13] To get these students into the Center, we must provide diverse types of tools in integrated pedagogies, informed by what students from multiple backgrounds indicate they need.
  • Illinois’ own campus has fostered exemplary models for inclusive design practice, ranging from the CU Community Fab Lab to celebrated cases in design history, like the origins of DRES in the 1940s, the Experimental Music Lab’s (EML) early developments in electronic music in the 1950s, PLATO as the first educational computing and multi-user video game platform in the 1960s, and the pioneering work in cybernetics at the Biological Computing Lab in the 1970s. Such cases connected students and researchers across the campus in multidisciplinary innovation spaces celebrated for their advancements in design thinking, doing, and culture.

An Enhanced Vision for Inclusion

We thus echo the goals stated in the Design Center Proposal, and expand upon them with reference to Illinois’ own history, existing campus assets, and its Report on Campus Conversations on Undergraduate Education[14] to point to opportunities to innovate beyond existing models for inclusive design:

  • Connection across people and disciplines. Supporting discovery-based engagement for all students, particularly for those who are not already self-identified as engaged with “design” fields, is essential. The development of electronic music and the EML at Illinois demonstrates the value added to design when innovation bridges fields and supports the entry of new actors into design practice.
  • Inspiration at Illinois. Cases like PLATO showcase how the heritage of making at Illinois included physical and social PLATO’s strong multidisciplinary, community-driven culture allowed diverse student developers to collaborate to build unofficial, but successful innovations – including highly popular multi-user video game platforms – far ahead of their time. The Design Center can continue such commitments.
  • Implementation of land grant mission. The CU Community Fab Lab demonstrates UIUC’s ability to develop cost-effective and scalable models for introducing learners of all kinds to rapid prototyping and digital fabrication. Its work to foster digital literacies has expanded to local, state and national levels through building active partnerships and inclusive models of engagement that can also benefit The Design Center’s growth.
  • Openness and transparency, physical and virtual. Design practitioners stress how openness and transparency require an understanding of the “radical asymmetries” in knowledge that exist between different user groups about physical, virtual and networked environments that can “profoundly limit possibilities for interactivity”[15]. The Design Center can strengthen open and transparent design approaches by accounting for users’ differing levels of knowledge in its design of physical and virtual spaces.
  • Generosity of support and spirit. Makerspace Urbana demonstrates how social generosity and support in developing new technological literacies involves not only the sharing of certain forms of “technical” expertise, but recognizing the multiple expertises that can and should be shared. Expertise is not the province of faculty, staff, and self-identified technical experts alone. Informal and multi-directional learning must be promoted to cultivate a truly inclusive and supportive community of designers.
  • Bias for action. Inclusive Design should support thoughtful action that integrates theory and practice. Particularly when new, powerful, and under-tested technologies are involved, history suggests inclusive spaces of debate and reflection are key assets to consider consequences before technological actions take place. Theory and practice must be reflexively connected for an ethical approach to social and technical action.
  • Part of the whole. For the Center to fulfill its vision of serving as a connector to many campus units, structural support to develop, enhance, and bridge curricular connections across campus should be leveraged. Similar to units like the Illinois Informatics Institute, that connects courses in many disciplines around the theme of applied computing, the Design Center could help facilitate connections between design-related tracks in many majors. This would provide a framework for students to truly use the Center as a hub to link to new buildings, units and people across design spaces on campus.
  • Immersion as innovation. Virtual reality can support student exploration and interaction in places around the world. But they can also facilitate similar engagements in local sites, like north Champaign or southern Illinois. Students’ technologically immersive experiences can be complemented by culturally immersive ones. Technology-based immersion should be balanced with, and not come at the expense of, social immersion.

Recommendations for Enhanced Leadership and Staffing

We echo the Design Center’s stated need for dedicated leadership and programing that “bring expertise and resources from across campus into the Design Center.” We stress the need for:

  • Leadership from faculty and academic professionals that prioritizes leaders who have “a proven ability to form connections and linkages” across large institutions”[16] and who also understand the need to diversify design thinking across disciplines and student groups. Further, “Intra-University” links should understand the permeable nature of our campus-community boundaries and the benefits of engaging with non-University constituencies. Such considerations have great potential to enhance fundraising capacities.
  • Center staff who are dedicated and attuned to the imaginative mixing of ideas across campus will be crucial in growing the Center’s diverse and supportive community. A “lean staff to support programming, event planning, and facility usage” should not disadvantage students who already face challenges to inclusion in design spaces.
  • Advisory board(s) that bring expertise and connections from across campus and community networks. Such boards should address as key themes: 1. programming for humanities and social science fields; 2. new pedagogical engagements with design thinking; and 3. the inclusion of underrepresented groups in STEM.
  • Steering groups for specific issues that balance the interests of the whole campus. A steering groups on Immersion and Virtual Reality, for instance, can be balanced with groups focused on themes like Integrated Curricula and/or Public Engagement.
  • “Technicians” – or “Creative Technologists” – that have a fourth role (in addition to the three already identified around supervision, maintenance and technical advice) around service as connected learners and collaborative teachers. Such roles could help foster communities in the Design Center and direct students to resources across campus.
  • Organizations from all units engaged in design to be enrolled as partners in offering student support. While the current proposal cites only business or engineering units for roles like “office hours,” the signatories below – and interdisciplinary student groups like Design for America, Makers UIUC, or the Society of Women in Engineering, the NCSA Culture and Society thematic area, Laboratory for Audience Interactive Technologies (LAIT), and community groups like the Urbana Makerspace, can also be enrolled.


We are committed to enhancing inclusive, participatory, student-centered design in the proposed Design Center. We draw from the legacy at the University of Illinois to enable the development of multidisciplinary design – represented in the celebrated histories enumerated above. Such projects on our campus grew as much from the social innovations and cultural mix of disciplines, as from the success of material innovations. We aim to continue that tradition, and echo the campus’ stated values while taking seriously the issues of inclusion that have been central concerns of industry, the academy, and student bodies alike who engage with STEM fields. Generating a safe, inclusive environment for students and users of the Design Center, and nurturing an empathic culture where students can thrive, requires planning beyond architecture — though that too is very important. We are committed to continued interactions around the programs and planning of the Design Center to support its success and growth within and beyond our campus.



The Center for Digital Inclusion, Graduate School of Library and Information Science

The Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning Director, Michel Bellini

CU Community Fab Lab, Illinois Informatics Institute

Makerspace Urbana

Office of Undergraduate Research

Recovering Prairie Futures, IPRH Research Cluster

Undergraduate Library Media Commons and Undergraduate Library Head, Prof. Lori Mestre





[4] Twitter employs just 49 black people out of a total US workforce of 2,910. The number of African American staff – 35 men and 14 women -represents just 1.7% of Twitter’s US staff:


[6] Studies show that cognitive diversity is an essential element to collaborative and divergent thinking, which undergirds the process of ideation and creative problem-solving.


[8] This makes women the largest single economic force not just in the U.S., but in the world.


[10] Data from the Pew Research Center shows that 27% of African Americans and 25% of Hispanics use Twitter, compared to just 21% of Whites:

[11] Stefanou, C., Stolk, J. D., Prince, M., Chen, J. C., & Lord, S. M. (2013). Self-regulation and autonomy in problem-and project-based learning environments. Active Learning in Higher Education, 14(2), 109-122.

[12] Nancy Hensel, ed., (2012) “Characteristics of Excellence in Undergraduate Research, p. 2”:

[13] UIUC is a member of Imagining America (IA); that consortium has launched the Publicly Engaged Design Initiative that links various campus efforts:


[15] Suchman, Lucy. 2007. Human-Machine Reconfigurations: Plans & Situated Actions. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge U. Press. p. 5.

[16] Design Center Project Prospectus and Program Summary, August 2015, p. 14.

[17] Although the need to rapidly generate and submit this document following the campus Town Halls held until the week of December 7, 2015, did not grant us enough time to get approval on this statement by many significant groups in town, we nonetheless want to acknowledge the key roles played by: public libraries and schools, as well as other University units, including Beckman Visualization Lab, Detail + Fabrication in Architecture, and Theater, among others.