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  • Writer's pictureTingbin Tang

Monopoly - An Experimental Design Education Approach

Design Education is nothing like the education of any other subjects. Other subjects, the graduates will be expected to work in a very vertical industry; however, a designer may work in any industry, target a special group of customers, and solve different problems. Design is a horizontal subject compared to any other subjects. Designers need to know art, so they can design beautiful products; Designers need to know psychology, so they can design user-friendly products; Designers need to know manufacturing/production techniques, so they can design a product that is feasible; Designers need to know material, so they know the right material to use based on its characteristic; Designer need to know marketing and branding, so they can design the products with corporate identity and winning in the market… As a result, for all other subjects, they are grooming specialists, however, design education is to nurture generalists.

Acknowledging the unique features of design education, most design schools nowadays have set up courses which including drawing, rendering, color theory for students to understanding aesthetic; human factors course for students to understand people’s physical, psychological, cultural, social and cognitive needs; material course and production techniques courses for students to understand material and production; research and branding courses for students to understand the market, target users and corporate strategy… However, even the best graduates from the most famous design school may face such a problem when they really enter into the industry. Which is, they think themselves have designed a most beautiful, user friendly, production feasible product and it is aligned with corporate identity, yet, their design solutions have been denied by the managing team. Why? Because for any company, the actual situation can be much more complicated. For company leaders, their decision making is mostly a decision of trade-offs. Different companies may at different stage and situation, they have to consider the budget they have in hand, they have to consider the difficulties/challenges to develop the product, they have to consider the human resources they have, they have to consider the competitors’ situation and reaction, they have to think about ROI return of investment, they have to analyze the risks and be ready for the consequences of a failed product launch… The problems a designer in the industry faces are many new kinds of problems at scales quite different from those in a school project.

So, how do we fix the gap? How do we educate design students that can handle the complexity of a real industry project? Besides collaborating with the industry, to get some company sponsored projects, sending students for internships in the industry; at the School of Design at Pearl Academy, as a new dean for this school, using design thinking, I brought in a creative design education solution - Monopoly. We all know Monopoly is a board game, players can learn how to make money (token) and do investment, and learn how the economy works. We can borrow this method and apply it to design education.

1. Define the scenarios

Any real project in the industry will have a scenario. For a school project, it should be the same. So for the faculty, besides the syllabus, when he/she assigns students with a project, a written outline of project background should be provided, as well as details of the plot and individual scenes. Design is not like art, design is for the public market. A good design is the one that sells. A design project inside a company, can be an iteration of current existing product, in order to refine and fix some problem that came up, or meet emerging requirement from the market, solve some customer complaints, or stay on top of the styling and/or tech trends. It can also be a totally new product that cuts into the market from an innovative angle, meet user needs and solve problems or inefficiency with current existing products in the market by applying new material, new technology, new way of operating, and many other perspectives.

2. Set the market environment

There is no project or company that will exist in the market alone, there will always be other stakeholders. There will be partners, suppliers, share holders, customers, competitors, or regulators from the government or industry associations. A school project should also be put in such an environment. A faculty should set such a market environment, by inviting representatives from such organizations, or by assigning students to act in that role. If possible, we can invite regulators from the government or associations to be involved in the project. Or invite material suppliers, manufacturing partners, distribution partners, to be involved in the project game. All our students are their real clients or partners in the near future, I am sure many parties will be willing to contribute and be part of our school projects. Or if not, we may have students act as the other stakeholders. Many schools will divide students into teams, but those were just project teams; now our teams can be competitor companies, suppliers, or partners. For customers, I would still strongly suggest we invite real customers to be part of this school project game.

3. Set the role

In the past, student teams for school projects were design teams, so their roles are still design roles. Some students might be mainly in charge of researching, some students doing modeling/prototyping, some work on the presentation, etc. Now the roles will be a simulation to a real company. There will be CEOs who make decisions; there will be CFOs who are in charge of budgets; there will be marketers who will be responsible for promoting the company and the product/service; of course, there will still be designers who will come up with the design solution. We no longer equally divide the students into teams, there will be small or big companies/teams; there will be start up companies/teams, they will be at different stages.

With the roles being more like that in a real company, the project conversation within the team will be more like what will happen when they actually get into the industry. If we all remember the famous Prison Experiment that was conducted at Stanford University, during which the participants were assigned to the role of either guard or prisoner. Even if it is just an act, the role play will actually put different roles into their context, then speak, think and behave like the role he/she represents.

4. Distribute token

The token will be very important in such a gamification way of design education, because that is how in reality the market works. We pay suppliers, customers pay for our products/services if they are willing to purchase, employees receive salaries, shareholders share the company earnings/bonus, competitors compete for the profits. A token which represents the money/fund, will be distributed to each role.

We can also design different tokens which represent different assets a company/project team has. It can be properties, equipment, cash flows, debts, raw materials, and so on. These tokens will be distributed to different teams, which will make the whole system much more similar to the real market situation. The team can use their tokens to trade as well, so that they can get the raw material they want, or hire/steal talents from competitors, or pay the suppliers. And the customers, no matter if it is the actors/actresses or actual customers we invited into this game, can also pay tokens to purchase their favorite product.

5. Simulate the competition

Since the faculty has defined the target market, the project teams will be aiming at the target market, to best understand their problem, their needs and expectation, their unsatisfied requirements, the personas’ living environment, habits and purchase capabilities, hence the competition team will provide different product solution, with different marketing strategies, yet best allocate the resources and equities they have, to reach their goal of achieving revenue, profit, and market share growth.

Through such gamification and competition, the project teams will do their best to ensure that the new product they are designing provides potential customers with a compelling reason to purchase the new product over the competitive products, and they also need to consider other factors in a real market environment. With all those factors have been put into consideration, and students get to learn more beyond product design itself, but also all factors that affects product design; hence when they start to work in the industry, they will be capable of designing a product that really sells, and put themselves in the same page with company owners, shareholders and so on.

6. Wrap up and report

The final wrap up and report/presentation will also be different from final project report/presentation in the past, now students will be summarize what they have learnt from a different perspective, maybe he/she was a shareholder, was a CEO, was a CFO, was a partner role, in this project, he/she will be present from his/her point of view. The success team is the one that makes the best sales. Since they are different sizes of team with different equities and also costs, they will also need to calculate their ROI return of investment, compare their market shares… Project team will also get a chance to look back and introspect what they could have done better.

The criteria for the faculty to grade students will be different, they will not just based on the design concepts the students have come up with, but also based on their market performance, their ROI, their budget control, their market share, etc. The customer, regulator team can be like a jury team to give their feedback and score as well, and the faculty will be like the judge to announce the final winner.

In history, many design schools only focused on the surface appearance of artifacts, but the market has given design education more requirements, because besides aesthetics, the product should also be user-friendly. Hence human factors courses, design research courses were added into the curriculum. Nowadays, designers are often asked to address new kinds of problems, from different areas/perspectives, yet at scales which are quite larger and different from those of the past, which brought new significant challenges to design education. For example, social innovation design to address social problems and helping some special communities; service design to help organizations or even government departments to come up with people-centered public services. Designers have to think of design from a much wider range of perspectives in a systematic way, instead of a simple product environment, but with many complicated yet connected, related and interacted parties.

To help students be better prepared for new requirement and challenges from such trend, and be ready for the real industry environment, and be able to work with different parties in the network, that is why we are experimenting this gamified design education approach, which utilizes the Monopoly way of thinking, to make the classroom more engaging, more fun, yet more practical and similar to the actual industry environment. With this approach going forward in the School of Design at Pearl Academy, we will document the process, refine the algorithm of this “game”, share our insight and learnings, and hopefully can promote into design education in other schools, to benefit the whole design industry.

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