“Shared understanding” is one of the key elements that design projects reference as the device enabling innovation and progress (Patton, 2014). This week, in our design project, we seem to have temporarily lost this helpful device. So we would like to reflect hier briefly on the understanding that allows us to progress in a design project, and the roles that course leaders and students take in producing and maintaining this understanding.

“Shared understanding” may even be a tautology (Doppelaussage). Knowledge does not rely on one person alone, but knowledge is always a social process which is already defined through the relationship between the person knowing and their surrounding community (Gherardi & Nicolini, 2006). Rather than describing understanding – knowing – as a linear process of a person – a teacher – imparting knowledge on another person – a student – it is possible to conceptualise understanding as an image, held together by the people who produced it. Knowledge is not the product of a transmission of a substance from actor A to actor B. Much rather, we are interested in looking at knowledge as a relationship that exists between actors. Therefore, we view knowing as a thing that is coproduced between people.

We run this research project on the basis of several student projects around innovation. For one design project (on sustainable clothing), we pooled the hours of two courses together. We (the course leaders) wanted to increase the hours available for the project, and we also had a particular concept in mind, when defining this format. Our aim was to use the first course, “Service Design”, for defining and learning the method, and to use the second course, “MxD Studio”, for the actual design work. This was in line with the curricula of both courses. We had arranged the time tables accordingly, so developing the method would take place during the first half of the semester, and the design work would take place in the second half. As the leaders of these courses, it made absolute sense for us, to run the student project in this way. Our devices – the initial planning at the beginning of the year, the time tables, and the brief catch up conversations in between, were enough to assure us of our plan and how we would follow it. It was not until a month into the course had passed, that we realised that we had not done our best in sharing this understanding with the students. We realised that things were moving a little slower than usual, and we heard students complain about the lack of time for the project and how frustrating that was. A little alarmed, we were glad when the students approached us for a talk.

It became obvious that, what we had taken for granted – the vision we had for the project, and the amalgamating of two courses – was not what the view from the side of the students. They had worried that they would run out of time designing a useful solution in the “Service design” course, and then having to begin designing the next thing in the “MxD Studio” (this was the understanding they had built amongst themselves). The students have their own communication channels, such as WhatsApp, and it was on these – for us course leaders inaccessible – channels that they had built this understanding. We realised how we had mis-communicated; as the course leaders not making our pooled-hours concept accessible; at the same time as the students keeping their worry about time-waste to themselves. We had each built an understanding which was not accessible to the other.

When we finally spoke about this miscommunication, one of the authors had the following metaphor from basketball to share: When a basketball pass fails, then it was neither the thrower, nor that catcher, who is responsible alone for the failed pass, but both are responsible together. To equate successful course communication with a basketball pass, course leading does not mean to be responsible for throwing the ball well, while students are merely responsible for catching the ball. But course progress / a pass happens in the relationship between the thrower/leader and the catcher/student. Knowledge creation, learning, and course progress happen in the relationship between leaders and students.

Being offered a concept of how the project is going to be run – the leader’s concept of pooling hours, and of doing ‘method first’ and ‘design after’ – does not need to be received by the students in a passive fashion, especially when it is represented in an ambiguous way.

Ambiguity in plans may not be a liability – it may be an opportunity that allows for creativity.

A plan, where not all elements are defined, can be appropriated and turned into a thing one shares ownership in. A concept that is offered up as an insufficiently defined plan can be used as an unfinished item waiting to be completed, and one’s own elements can be added into this plan. The power to decide how a project will be run is relational between people and the devices of negotiation. Elements in the plan are negotiable in the enactment of the plan. It is within this negotiation that the possibilities lie for one’s own ideas. To conceive of understanding as relational (between actors) instead of located with individuals, allows greater contributions to outcomes of proposed actions. There is an important space between conformity and freedom in which one’s own ideas can become a crucial and defining part of a project (Harman & Bohemia, 2007).

Just as the successful basketball pass exists in the relationship between the thrower and the catcher, so lives the successful project progress in the interaction between the course leaders and the students. Important are the artefacts of communication: the communication channels, and the representations of the project progress plan. A leader’s version of a plan may be offered by the leaders, but an ambiguous representation can, instead of allowing it to be the source of frustration, be appropriated by students to be made their own.


Gherardi, Silvia, & Nicolini, Davide. (2006). Organizational knowledge: The texture of workplace learning. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Harman, Kerry, & Bohemia, Erik. (2007). Another way of thinking: Creativity and Conformity. Paper presented at the Creativity or Conformity? Building Cultures of Creativity in Higher Education, Cardiff.

Patton, Jeff. (2014). User story mapping: discover the whole story, build the right product. Cambridge: O’Reilly.