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Constructivist Approaches to Sense-Making About Design Theory

Format: Maps & Exhibits, RSD11, Topic: Learning & Education

Michael Arnold Mages

This exhibit contains exemplar concept maps from the Northeastern University course: Information Design Theory & Critical Thinking.

Over the course of the semester, 12 students produced nearly 200 concept maps representing a close reading of a variety of design theoretical readings.

KEYWORDS: Concept Map, Design Theory, Visualization

Concept Mapping Design Theory

Graduate students attempting to engage meaningfully with the body of design theory are like people who have come too late to a party with a new group of people. The histories that preexist the party are opaque. Who has dated who, who have been friends for years (or enemies), who worked together for a decade or more, who share common ideas, who share common background knowledge or ways of working — these nuances of relationship are hidden and can only be discovered through engagement, over time. In the context of an evening party, conversations have been ongoing, interest groups have been formed, and people have chosen their place in the conversation. 

In the context of Design Theory, first stepping into reading theoretical work can be similarly disorienting. A number of techniques drawn from literature-based fields can be useful: close reading (North 2013), text annotation, note-taking, and critical analysis. These are all techniques that can be used successfully with a variety of students and are familiar to most. Yet these approaches do not leverage visual and spatial sense-making capacities that a design education seeks to build upon. Map-making can be a successful alternative to linear note-taking approaches and offers opportunities for students to build their analytical skills using visual and spatial approaches. (Novak, Gowin 1984) Through this practice, Information Design students gain additional opportunities to represent meaningful relationships graphically. In the Spring semester of 2022, 12 graduate students in Information Design took the course Information Design Theory & Critical Thinking.

In this course, students explored concept mapping (Dubberly 2009, 2010) as the key approach to engage with a range of design- and design-related theoretical design readings drawn from architecture, linguistics, anthropology, and cybernetics. Over the semester, students produced 16 weekly maps (at a typical pace of 2/week) that modelled ideas represented in each reading, as well as a larger, more comprehensive concept map that engaged with a theoretical issue for the course final.


Dubberly, H. (2009). On Modeling: Models of models. Interactions, 16(3), 54–60.

Dubberly, H. (2010). Creating Concept Maps. Dubberly Design Office| March, 26, 2010.

North, J. (2013). What’s “New Critical” about “Close Reading”?: I. A. Richards and His New Critical Reception. New Literary History 44(1), 141-157. doi:10.1353/nlh.2013.0002.

Novak, J. D., & Gowin, D. B. (1984). Learning how to learn. Cambridge University Press.

Final projects


Dominique Alvarado, Qinzhe Chen, Naveen Cherukuri, Yixuan Ding, Leila Do, Daniella Fernandes, Kathleen Foley, Purti Hardikar, Anushka Harne, Joli Holmes, Tanvi Modi, Andrew Noe

Enlarged view of final projects

Concept book binder

12 books – use controls to see contents and download




Citation Data

Author(s): Michael Arnold Mages
Year: 2022
Title: Constructivist Approaches to Sense-Making About Design Theory
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
Volume: RSD11
Article No.: 197
Host: University of Brighton
Location: Brighton, UK
Symposium Dates: October 3–16, 2022
First published: 1 September 2022
Last update: 30 April 2023
Publisher Identification: ISSN 2371-8404
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