Heather Corcoran

Making Learning Meaningful through Information Design

Heather CorcoranHeather Corcoran, associate professor in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, graphic designer and information designer, teaches junior and senior undergraduates. In her classroom in the Communication Design program, students learn how to make information visual. Using an experiential, project-based approach, students develop innovative ideas for a given problem, conduct content research and design appropriate visual solutions in a variety of forms—websites, books, posters, mobile apps and information graphics. “In all of this work, the ultimate test of success is whether the solution is meaningful for its audience,” says Corcoran.

In her work as a researcher and a designer, Corcoran is focused on the impact of design on learning in a variety of settings. For example, as primary investigator on a project funded by the National Cancer Institute, Corcoran and a collaborative, cross-school team produced an online interactive visualization of colorectal cancer data that dramatically increased understanding of cancer rates. This led to the development of a tool for scientists to make data more accessible to the public, called Dataspark.

“Measurable results like that validate the idea that design affects the way people learn,” says Corcoran. “But I think design’s impact on learning can also be methodological.” Based on her own work and teaching, Corcoran sees design as a learning tool for not only those who create communications, but those who receive them.

In 2002, Corcoran launched a program called WashUCity—now part of the Institute for School Partnership—with University City High graduate and senior lecturer in Communication Design Traci Moore Clay. In this program, undergraduates in Communication Design mentor and teach principles of design and technology to University City High School students. “Not only do the high school students seem to get a lot out of the partnership, but our students experience teaching as a powerful tool for learning. The work that we have done to facilitate learning in science has been particularly exciting.”

For example, high school students have designed posters about individual elements of the Periodic Table. In making science information accessible and visually engaging for others, they deepened their own understanding of the science. Corcoran has also been involved in other K-12 experiential learning projects including the launch of the MySci program in 2005.

According to Corcoran, the ability to “sit in someone else’s chair” is a key element of design thinking—especially for projects whose goal is to inform and educate. “Designers who can make information meaningful to others are extremely valuable,” she says.

Corcoran believes there are many opportunities for the Institute for School Partnership across the Washington University in St. Louis campus and beyond. “I see opportunities to use design to facilitate learning in new ways, as we build on existing relationships with K-12 schools. This connects to the university’s ambition to facilitate learning at large by making our research as accessible as we can.”

Heather Corcoran, MFA, is an associate professor in the Communication Design program at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. Her courses include Word and Image, Information Design Studio, and a senior seminar course in Informational Books.