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Using Portfolios to Tell the Design Backstory

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Design Tools & Methodology II

Tagged Division

Design in Engineering Education

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.1631.1 - 22.1631.14



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Paper Authors


Josh Tenenberg University of Washington, Tacoma

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Josh Tenenberg is a Professor in Computing and Software Systems at the University of Washington, Tacoma. He employs the behavioral and social sciences in analysing and designing the relationship between people and technologies. He is Co-Editor-in-Chief of the ACM Transactions on Computing Education.

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Using portfolios to tell the design backstoryThis paper is about how I have had students use portfolios in carrying out design project work inan Interaction Design course. There is nothing novel about portfolios, consisting of designartifacts with related commentary. They have been used extensively in teaching, assessment, andprofessional work. The novelty here is in the way in which I asked students to use portfolios totell the backstory of their design projects. Kees Dorst, the design educator, researcher, andpractitioner, emphasizes how this backstory characterizes expert design work: “When youdesign, you are actually creating two things in parallel: the design itself and the story behind it.This story consists of all the choices you have made during your design project and thearguments that you used in making them.”'In this paper, I tell my backstory of how I came to use portfolios in this manner. The shortversion is that previously, I had students hand in project reports that used the “academic essay”form for describing their design choices. Students hated doing these, the quality was low, and theindustry professional with whom I collaborated to teach the course so no value in them. I choseportfolios for telling the backstory based on my previous experience with them and severalsources of inspiration drawn from the research literature.In instructing students about their use of portfolios, I emphasized the importance of story, whichwas one of the themes that was interwoven throughout the course. Story appears first in thewritings of Bill Buxton, whose book Sketching User Experiences served as one of the coursetexts. Buxton describes how designers should not simply provide a technical view of theirdesigns; rather, they should use sketches, prototypes, videos, and other media to show how suchdesigns—if implemented—affect human and social life. These representations are thus stories ofenvisioned use. This was reinforced by my collaborating industry professional, who repeatedlytold students that one of the most important jobs of the designer is to “tell the story” of what theyare designing so that others can envision it. And finally, I discussed the importance of Dorst'sbackstory as a parallel story that they need to be able to tell so as to convince others that theirdesign meets the needs of the people for whom they are designing and the constraints of thecontext in which their design is to be embedded. Portfolios for storytelling were thus not an alienform, as the academic essays were, but rather a representation drawn from professional practiceto unify the different senses of story that ran throughout the course.I provide artifacts drawn from my work and that of my students to illustrate how portfolios serveto mediate professional and academic practices outside the classroom while also mediatinginterpersonal interaction inside the classroom. I conclude by showing that portfolios documentstudent work, help students reflect upon their own creative process, and make this process visibleto others.

Tenenberg, J. (2011, June), Using Portfolios to Tell the Design Backstory Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18455

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