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InsightApr 15, 2024

Evolution of the business of design curriculum

Written by John deWolf RGD, Narrative Environments Studio

In this article, John DeWolf RGD reflects on a design business and project management course he developed 20 years ago and how it has evolved.

In the 1990s, NSCAD’s design instructors informally discussed portfolios and a business issues course was offered through the craft department, but it did not meet the design department’s needs. Owing to prior experience working in New York and especially with Parks Canada, to integrate management practices from the private into the public sector for a new National Design Centre, John was asked to develop a project management course to better prepare students for post-academic work life.

John's work for Parks Canada included a project numbering and tracking system, production meeting agendas, a time-tracking system and devising a standardized design process. The practices developed for Parks Canada served as the curriculum’s foundation. 

In the first five iterations of the course (2002–2005), topics covered included time tracking, job/project filing, hourly billable rates, costing for projects, salaries, overhead, insurance, task management, business structures, procurement and receivables and payables.

Nearly 20 years later, when he was asked to revisit the course. Reopening the lectures revealed how design practice tools have changed since then.

Lectures on proofreading marks and how we manage and interact with draft texts and editorial markup have changed dramatically—often for the better, but sometimes not. Other lectures about methods of correspondence clearly needed updating. However, the forms of business, risk and issue management and the determination of fees changed very little.

The revised curriculum has three major assignments:

  • Time tracking (individual work)—Each student tracks their course work, freelance (or part-time) and personal time for ten weeks, submitting weekly timesheets and a final essay on their observations.
  • Simple proposal (individual work)—Students respond to a request to create a logo. The assignment also includes calculating their hourly rate based on overhead and their desired salary and predicting the time necessary to complete the project.
  • Formal RFP (group work)—Students must respond to a formal 40+ page RFP for design services. Each group invents an agency or firm and develops a 25+page response. This is a writing seminar, so content prioritizes layout and design.

Lectures generally run alongside assignments, starting with business types, time tracking to inform project planning, overhead, calculating hourly rates and cost breakdown structures. The course introduces risk and issue management, project management tools and change control concepts. It concludes with project filing, business legal structures, insurance and finances.

On the first day, following a syllabus review, John typically presents a slide with some of his work. Last year, after reviewing 170+ slides of work, he asked if there were any questions and what they hoped to gain from the course. John was surprised to discover that students were eager to see more, and they explained that it gave them insight into various “real-world” scenarios.

As a result of these requests from the students, John reworked the curriculum to incorporate additional real-world examples. In addition to lectures on various business practice concepts and designer-entrepreneur topics, John now presents 1 to 2 case studies dealing with design management and innovation. The examples provide a means to discuss how we engage with other disciplines and solve problems for clients. The lectures illustrate how we can be advocates for society, and help clients solve other societal issues beyond the design brief. With each case study, John shares—through project successes and failures—design management practices across various design disciplines.

In addition to his studio practice, John continues his academic work as an adjunct faculty member and sees teaching as a valuable way to contribute to the profession.

While John continues his freelance practice, he has returned to academia as an adjunct faculty member and sees teaching as a valuable part of how he contributes in the growth of the profession.

John deWolf RGD

Narrative Environments Studio

Throughout his 30-year career, multi-disciplinary designer John deWolf has designed print, exhibitions, signage and wayfinding, brands, and interior environments. His many skills include designing accessible, inclusive communication systems, particularly for diverse audiences. 

Design is not only physical and aesthetic, but also cognitive and experiential. Process, program, system, story, service, and experience are integral to Mr. deWolf's interdisciplinary approach.

As a counterbalance to consumer culture, Mr. deWolf advocates sustainability, inclusivity, and social and community awareness. 

John is driven by a desire to preserve culture and heritage, and develop public initiatives that benefit the community.

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