Professor Orkan Telhan’s Design 21 class is much more than a requirement for undergraduate design majors. By taking an inquiry and research based approach to different kinds of design, the course “[discusses] how design shapes society, how new generation designers can learn about new technologies’ relationship to design, and how they can address these bigger challenges based on their own interests, whether that is becoming a designer or using design skills in their own majors,” says Professor Telhan. 

The course, aptly titled Design 21 for its focus on issues involving the design world in the 21st century, is a three hour seminar that meets from 1:30 to 4:30 on Tuesdays this semester. Using readings as jumping off points for discussions, students tackle social, political, and environmental topics that shape everyday life. The class “[prioritizes] the issues first and then teaching a number of different skills so the students feel like they are empowered to address them,” says Professor Telhan. 

Along with discussions, students have three projects to complete throughout the semester. Starting with an analysis of a visual product, the students then move on to reimagine of a pre–existing design that could range from a type–face, article of clothing, or algorithm. The goal of this project is to improve upon the original so that it challenges a larger global dilemma. Finally, the culminating project students must complete is a video proposal of an original design. Professor Telhan’s hope for these interactive projects is that students learn to utilize their own moral compass and values as tools to create high–impact designs derived from their passions. 

The course prioritizes contemporary issues in the design world, and discussions often center on current events. To incorporate the ongoing pandemic into the curriculum, Professor Telhan has included discussions about manufacturing PPEs, the interconnectivity of environmental issues due to climate change, and questions about both the history and future of digital interaction.  

For Mia Kim (C ‘23), the emphasis on the present and future issues the design world faces is the most valuable part of the course. “Something I really appreciate and find very interesting is how we’ve been addressing the role of the designer in class,” she says. “I really appreciate how we are covering a lot of the new and upcoming technologies and keeping an eye on that as designers. [We’re]...being prepared to take care of them when they come instead of being surprised.”

With a Ph.D in Design and Computation from MIT’s Department of Architecture, Professor Telhan jumped at the opportunity to become involved in the Design 21 and Penn’s new design major, which will have its first set of graduates this spring. “If you look at traditional design schools, you go to an art school or a design skill just to learn the skills and the traits of the profession,” says Professor Telhan. “But if you want to learn design in a university environment where everyone can study product design but also humanities, environmental science, biology, political science, Africana studies, and more, and where every student has a diverse background, bringing them all together to design is very valuable,” says Professor Telhan.

The premise that design shapes our lives and is fundamentally important to everyone is central to Professor Telhan’s pedagogical method. Emphasizing his concern for teaching students “design literacy,” he believes the course not only serves future fashion, graphic, and architectural designers, but also students pursuing any major in any undergraduate school. For a student who may not see the intersections of design and another field of interest, enrolling in Design 21 will open their eyes to “understand how design is so diffused into everything they do in their normal life,” says Professor Telhan. For example, Wharton students may learn the influence architectural design has on trading algorithms, as buildings are often designed in ways that entice companies to come closer to the stock exchange. 

When asked about her biggest takeaway from the course, Mia’s answer aligns exactly with Professor Telhan’s teaching goal. “Every little part of design or things we make impact the structure of society. They do have a direct impact on people’s lives and how things will progress in the future,” she says. “So even if you’re working on something that seems kind of small or minor, like the idea of infinite scrolling on Instagram, it actually does have a big impact on people’s psychology and how they behave around themselves and others. It’s really important to not be flippant about the things [you’re] doing or designing.” 


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