Through-Line: An Interdisciplinary Web of Design Data

February 15, 2024

As a playful opportunity to boost creative collaboration among design students, the Kusske Design Initiative (KDI) Cohort developed “Through-Line,” an interactive string installation that surveyed the design processes and learning styles of students at Ralph Rapson Hall and McNeal Hall.

"Through-Line,” an interactive string installation that surveyed design students.

 In the fall of 2023, participants co-created an eye-popping display of string art that represented the interdisciplinary community of designers on campus. Traditional surveys can be perceived as mundane and time-consuming. Often conducted online, it can be a challenge for surveys to drum up engagement without financial incentives. For design students with notoriously stressful college schedules, KDI explored simple art materials—colorful string, scissors, and wooden pegs—as a low-tech, creative alternative to drive student participation and enhance the survey experience.

The survey installations were mounted in the common areas of both campus buildings without supervision or restrictions, allowing students to interact with the surveys out of genuine curiosity. The colorful strings integrated visual and tactile elements that appeal to emotions often associated with play. Each response prompted the participant to figure out how to weave and loop the thread around wall-mounted pegs. Each peg represented an answer.

“This is about more than collecting data,” says KDI scholar and graphic design student Joseph Hillenbrand, “this is about giving students an opportunity to have fun and collaborate with people outside of their program. Learning how other designers think is just the cherry on top.”

Each string color represented a different design program: Architecture (pink), Apparel Design (blue), Graphic Design (black), Human Factors and Ergonomics (yellow), Interior Design (red), Landscape Architecture (green), Product Design (blue), and Retail Merchandising (Purple). Together they created a web of interdisciplinary design input that reflects the student body’s relationship to design and each other.

Unconventional by design, string surveys allow participants to share input and visualize the results of the data set at the same time. As the dataset grows, the installation becomes more sculptural and evocative, inspiring more students to contribute.

“My favorite part of the installation was creating this colorful and vibrant representation of our experiences as students in the College of Design. It was the sort of lighthearted fun thing many of us needed during finals week,” shared survey participant and product design student Nicolas Donoso.

The survey questions ranged from learning styles and sources of inspiration to concepts of play and the creative process. From a seemingly chaotic multi-colored spider web of 139 respondents emerged insightful patterns about how students learn and design.

When asked “What is your favorite learning style?” (listening, watching/observing, reading, asking questions/talking, making and experimenting, other), the data showed that the majority of design students expressed watching/observing, asking questions/talking, and experimenting as their most preferred learning style, all considered active forms of learning, as opposed to listening and reading which students unanimously agreed was not their favorite.

Looking closer at the data, KDI found interesting correlations within certain programs. The majority of graphic design (56%) and product design (68%) students preferred asking questions/talking above all else while the architecture students, the program with the highest number of survey participants, had a wider variety of preferred learning styles.

On the topic of play, questions about how students associated play with design and education found that 68% of respondents say that they enter a state of play while they design. Even if the goals of the design are not related to play, the majority of students expressed that the development and ideation phase is the most playful stage in the design process.

“We followed the threads to observe and analyze how participants interacted with the installation,” explained Yiling Zhang, KDI Facilitator and apparel studies doctoral student. Zhang was surprised to find a few responses that embraced the flexibility of the survey by actively reimagining the installation’s format as multiple-choice answers. While some might consider this a flaw in the survey’s methodology, the KDI cohort sees it as a fun opportunity to blur the line between investigators and participants.

Ultimately, “Through-line” wove together the value of active learning across design disciplines and the role of play in the design process. Although playful surveys are prone to a lower degree of control, they are more effective in recruiting participants, enhancing the survey experience, and generating emotionally rich data through multisensory engagement (Krause et al., 2012; Boberg et al., 2015).

Want to learn more about “Through-line”? Join the KDI Cohort on April 12–13 at the Fashion and Play Symposium where students will be addressing play as a catalyst for creativity and an intrinsic human need that reflects our deepest values as individuals and a collective. The KDI Cohort will be presenting their findings along with other students, all sharing a rich variety of research topics centered on the “play of fashion and the fashion of play.”

This article was written by Kusske Scholar and architecture student Jacob Dommer-Koch.

Boberg, M., Karapanos, E., Holopainen, J., & Lucero, A. (2015). PLEXQ: Towards a Playful Experiences Questionnaire. Proceedings of the 2015 Annual Symposium on Computer-Human Interaction in Play, 381–391.

Krause, M., Smeddinck, J., Takhtamysheva, A., Markov, V., & Runge, N. (2012). Playful surveys: Easing challenges of human subject research with online crowds. HComp 2012 Proceedings of the AAAI Workshop on Human Computation.

University of Minnesota students are hungry for interdisciplinary learning experiences that reflect contemporary design practice and tackle the complexity of design in the era of climate change. This was reflected in the unprecedented outpouring of interest in the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2023 Solar Decathlon Design Challenge. Hosted at the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), the decathlon invites college students from around the world to design high-performance net-zero energy buildings that simultaneously promote environmental sustainability and social equity.

The University of Minnesota’s College of Design is pleased to announce that biologist, innovation consultant, and author Janine Benyus will be the featured speaker for this year’s Kusske Lecture & Dialogue on Wednesday, November 1. 

A generous commitment from Manitou Fund to the University of Minnesota’s College of Design will honor the memory of distinguished alumnus Christopher Arthur Kusske (BLA ‘78).