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Grading, Critical Thinking, and the Creative Process

Design education should focus on developing critical thinking skills rather than solely relying on grades. Alvalyn Lundgren’s Socratic teaching approach encourages students to arrive at their own conclusions through questioning. She emphasizes the importance of design thinking in creating value for clients, and makes a contrast between offensive and defensive learners. By adopting an offensive mindset, students can enjoy long-term benefits of their education when they enter professional practice.

Topics in this message

Grading philosophy and its relevance in design industry.
  • Grades are important for design students but not design professionals.
Learning vs. grading in design school.
  • Grades do not determine or guarantee success in the design profession.
  • The Socratic method encourages critical thinking and problem-solving through research and feedback.
Using the Socratic method in design courses.
  • Critical thinking and practical application should be emphasized over creating “pretty things.”
Learning approaches in design education.
  • Offensive learners prioritize skill building and practical application, while defensive learners focus on earning grades.
Design’s value is in solving problems and meeting needs.
  • Designers must prioritize problem-solving and critical thinking to create value for clients.
  • Design’s value lies in thinking, problem-solving. The execution must uphold it.

Design School vs. Design Practice

The purpose of grading is that it shows a person where they stand in relationship to a standard or an expectation. Grades are very important to students, especially if you are aiming to go on to a higher level of education. If you’re going from a certificate program into a bachelor’s or certificate program into a master’s grades are very important for students who are looking to go to other programs that require a certain GPA to apply and be accepted.

The fact of the matter is that grades are an indication of how good a student you are, how good you are at learning and applying what you have learned.

The reality is that in the profession grades don’t matter. There are designers who practice who don’t have degrees, but they are successfully practicing as creative professionals.

How we value grades requires context.

No client has ever asked to see my GPA or transcripts. Rather, they look consider the quality and results of our work, and our ability to solve problems and manage projects.

When you’re taking a course when you’re in a program, whether it’s a certificate program or a degree program, the goal in reality is not to earn a grade. The goal in reality is to gain skill and knowledge so that you can practice, and that your work can be of high quality, significant, substantial, satisfying, and it can serve others. Design is a service profession. So the grades you earn in school have no bearing on whether or not you’re going to be successful in your career. 

Now in all transparency, when I was at a four year liberal arts college as an art major, I was an A student. When I transferred at the end of my junior year to an elite design school, I was a B student. Neither have determined my ability to succeed. It’s what I learned and applied that’s determined my ability to succeed. It’s my ability to develop creative solutions to business problems for my clients. 

My Socratic Approach

My approach to teaching is Socratic rather than didactic. I do provide information through  lectures and assigned reading. I make you do research and draw your conclusions. I provide critique and feedback.

So I give you everything you need to be successful in class and every student in my classes receives the same as every other student in my classes. There are no favorites.

My approach is to create thinkers and problem solvers, not learners. So my focus is on critical practice and critical thinking — and that’s not critical theory. It’s very different from critical theory, by the way — critical practice and critical thinking use a lot of logic and reason. You have to imagine before you create so that you create what you imagine. But you have to envision what a design is going to be before you start designing it. All that requires research, critical thinking and self-critique to stay on point and get the problem solved, so that you’re not falling short of meeting the need.

In the Socratic approad I’m not going to tell you what to do. I’m going to ask you questions that are meant to encourage you to think through what to do, and to figure it out for yourself, because once you have figured it out for yourself, you own it, it’s yours. It will never leave you.

The Socratic method is more of a questioning method:

  • How did you come to that conclusion?
  • Why did you do this?
  • Why is this form positioned here and not there?

And in terms of our research and studying the work of others in my courses, we’re taking a Socratic approach:

  • What design principles do they use?
  • Why does this design function this way?
  • Why does it look this way?
  • How do form, content, function, all marry together to be the total expression of this design?
  • How do human beings actually see what’s in their visual fields?

The Socratic method is not  “do it this way”. It is the “What if you did this?”, or “How can you look at this differently?” Or, “Can you take this and that and put them together into something new?”

So to summarize, my approach is to encourage and require you to think things through for yourself because that’s what you’re going to have to do as a design professional.

Design’s value is problem solving.

The thinking. by the way, is the value to the client. It’s not the execution, per se. The execution is the result of the thinking and the problem solving.

We’re not here to learn to create pretty things. We’re here to learn to create things that meet the needs and achieve the purpose that they’re designed to do. And do it in an elegant and beautiful way. So form function together.

Offensive and defensive learning

Offensive doesn’t mean you’re taking offense at something. It means you’re on the offense in terms of pushing toward something to take hold of it. You are pursuing it rather than defensively sitting back and waiting for it to show up or be handed to you. 

Students basically fall into either category — offensive learner or defensive learner.

The defensive learner wants the A. They’re going for the grade. The grade is the most important thing. They’re asking, “How do I earn an A in this class?” They might do all the right things. And they might meet and exceed the requirements.

What will they do beyond the class? If they’re going for the grade, their reward is the grade. Years down the road they may come up short because their focus was on the grade and not on the assimilation of the information, the skill building, the process.

On the other hand offensive learners understand that what they’re learning is preparation for actual practice. So they take in everything. They don’t isolate one project or one course from another. They gather and blend everything, and they exercise curiosity and pursue inspiration and bring it in to themselves. Because they understand that school is for their benefit for the rest of their lives. This is going to make them better designers.

For offensive learners the focus is on acquiring the skill and the knowledge and putting that into practice so that they can succeed at making a living. It’s that kind of approach by the student that helps create thought leaders within the various design industries.

You can be defensive and go for the grade, or offensive and go for the benefits. That’s up to you.

I will say that the majority of students are usually on the defensive side because they’re taking the class to get the certificate or the degree. And they’re often going to look for other sources to do their work for them: AI, templates, Canva, for example, rather than going through the rigorous process of thinking things through. They’ll settle for existing solutions rather than innovate solutions.


Design solves problems and meets needs.

Again, the value of a designer to their clients is in the problem solving and the critical thinking, innovation, the ability to generate insight. All of these things help create trust in the designer from the clients point of view. And that’s important any transactional relationship.

When you are practicing professionally, you are in transactional relationships with your clients, whether you’re employed by a design firm or you’re an entrepreneur. It’s all transactional. You give them value, they give you you value in exchange.

The value of design is in the thinking and the problem solving, not in the execution, but the execution has to uphold the value of the thinking. You can’t have crappy execution of a really good idea because that’s bad design. Neither can you have elegant, refined execution of a really bad idea, because that’s not good design either.

Thinking and problem solving occur at the the front end of your process — the ideation, the concept development, the interrogation, the research, the trial and error. The self-critique you engage in throughout your design process ensures that you’re staying on track and solving the problem, not going far afield. The execution then is the result of all that hard and hidden work up front.

The client sees the execution. They don’t see all your hard work that got you to the execution — the visible result.

To conclude, you are going to be more valuable as a thinker and problem solver than you are as somebody who creates pretty things. 

©2024. Alvalyn Lundgren. All rights reserved.

Alvalyn Lundgren

Alvalyn Lundgren is the founder and principal of Alvalyn Creative, an independent consultancy providing brand strategy design and bespoke illustration for more than 30 years. She is the creator of Freelance Road Trip — a business school and podcast for creative freelancers. She teaches design and design practice on the college level with design schools and programs.