Challenges and Opportunities in building an undergraduate Experiential Design program

Angela Iarocci
Sheridan College


This paper provides an in-depth overview of the process in developing the Bachelor of Experiential Design degree (BXD) in the Faculty of Animation, Arts and Design (FAAD) at Sheridan College, located in Oakville, Ontario, Canada.

The proposed BXD program will be the first of its kind in Canada and will provide leadership for further expansion of similar degrees and curriculum at other academic institutions. It will build on existing programs at Sheridan in visual arts, design, craft, film, digital media and architectural technology while also integrating pedagogical approaches focused on interdisciplinary and collaborative practice. Design for sustainability and inclusive design principles and practices are also core values within the program.

In addition to an overview of the development process for the BXD degree, the unique opportunities afforded by the Experiential Design program to investigate curriculum models and delivery that question entrenched approaches in design education will be discussed.

Experiential Design synthesizes a diverse range of motivations, values, methodologies, platforms and media. The goal is to create a comprehensive and rigorous program that will prepare graduates for an extremely dynamic area of practice that requires a high level of resiliency and adaptation. A primary consideration is that cultural and technological shifts are occurring faster than institutions and governments can respond. Our key challenge is to foster students to be active and engaged citizens who are sensitive and responsive to people and to the world around them, demonstrating their commitment to the betterment of society within a complex global context.

Description of methodology used

Sheridan College was established in 1967 and offers more than 130 programs leading to degrees, certificates, diplomas, and post-graduate diplomas delivered at three suburban campuses within the Greater Toronto Area in Ontario, Canada. The college has the largest art and design faculty in Canada with 5,600 students and is one of two faculties in Canada to achieve National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD) membership status.

Sheridan is on track to become a university by 2020 with a specific focus on undergraduate education. This transition has motivated the creation of new bachelor level degrees at the college. The Bachelor of Experiential Design (BXD) program is currently being developed within the Faculty of Animation, Arts and Design with an intended launch date by the fall of 2019 or 2020.  (Figure 1)

Program Definition and Naming

One of the key challenges in the development of the Bachelor of Experiential Design (BXD) program has been developing a clear definition of this area of design practice for a wide range of audiences both within and outside the college. While Experiential Design has long established roots in Environmental Graphic Design it can be seen as an emerging area of practice, at least from the perspective of non-designers.

Differentiation from other bachelor degrees at Sheridan College including graphic, interaction, interior and industrial design is also necessary to support the program proposal for administrative approval and also for promotion to potential applicants. Given the generally competitive landscape for post-secondary students in the creative fields and other disciplines, it is important to distinguish the Experiential Design program from the other well-established art and design programs in the Faculty of Animation, Arts and Design.  

These considerations influenced the naming of the program, which was initially “Experiential Graphic Design”, but further on in the development process the team settled on Experiential Design. Although the affiliation with the SEGD is significant, “Experiential Design” addresses the differentiation from graphic design and particular expectations and associations. The naming also emphasizes the spatial, multimedia and narrative aspects of XD practice.

The proposed program will encompass a variety of areas of Experiential Design to reflect the full range of academic and employment opportunities within the field:

  • Wayfinding
  • Exhibition Design & Interpretation
  • Placemaking & Identity
  • Public Installation
  • Themed and branded environments
  • Event Design

As part of the process in defining Experiential Design, the team developed a diagram which went through several iterations to capture the essence of XD and to highlight three key dimensions: space, multi-sensory communication and materials and media. This diagram will continue to be refined. (Figure 2)

The Venn structure visualizes the interdisciplinary nature of Experiential Design, which is a key strength but also poses a challenge to clearly explaining what an experiential designer does. It is important to qualify the communication dimension as “multi-sensory” to acknowledge the range of holistic communicative possibilities beyond the visual that include in part, time, movement, haptic and aural elements.

Program Development Process

The process to develop college degrees in Ontario requires extensive research and internal and external consultation to ensure that new programs demonstrate a high level of feasibility in terms of both academic and employment landscapes. Differentiation of programs within the college and with other regional, national and international academic institutions that can be perceived as competitors is essential. Feasibility must also be demonstrated in terms of the range of local and global employment opportunities available to ensure there are sustainable career pathways for graduates. 

The development team consists of an associate dean and faculty within the Faculty of Animation, Arts and Design. Curriculum consultants from the Centre of Teaching and Learning at the college guide the team through the development process and help to prepare the required documentation for various levels of approval.


The process to launch a bachelor degree at an Ontario college can range from three to five years depending on the amount of time required for final approval by the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. There are four key stages within the development process involving both primary and secondary research methods. We are currently completing Phase 1 and will be moving into Phase 2 as of September 2016. (Figure 3)

Feasibility Study

This is an internal phase involving a range of research methods including a review of bachelor degrees offered in Canada and internationally in various design fields to determine the gaps and opportunities within the academic landscape. The proposed Experiential Design program at Sheridan College will be the first available in Canada and there are a few similar degrees offered in the US, Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Therefore, the college has the opportunity to provide leadership in this area of design education nationally and potentially internationally.

The research also identified that there is a diverse range of pathways for graduate studies in Experiential Design and affiliated areas with the majority of these programs offered outside of Canada and the US.

Additionally, twenty employer interviews where conducted to help determine the professional opportunities for potential BXD graduates. One key finding from the interviews is that young designers with degrees in graphic, industrial design or architecture may be missing the full spectrum of skills required for Experiential Design practice and thus more time is necessary for on-the-job training.

Another important finding from the interviews is that client demand for Experiential Design is increasing and that there are many opportunities to continue to grow XD business. Since there is a lack of data in Ontario and Canada about the design disciplines in general, this information has been helpful in determining the potential employment landscape. 

Finally, an online survey was sent to post-secondary students by a third-party research group to gauge potential applicant interest in the Experiential Design program. In general, the survey results were quite positive with 54% of respondents indicating extreme to moderate interest in applying to the program. A high percentage of survey participants responded positively to Sheridan College’s capacity to deliver the program based on the institution’s strengths in art and design education.

Phase 1: Establishing the program vision

Phase 1 involved extensive internal and external stakeholder consultation including interviews with various college departments including the registrar, research office, student services, accessible and e-learning, career and library services in order to identify specific institutional considerations for the structure and delivery of the program.

Concurrently, the development team produced a set of eleven key program learning outcomes (PLOs) to help define graduate attributes and to provide direction for more in-depth curriculum development. This process involved a comparison of core professional competencies from a variety of design disciplines such as the SEGD, AIGA, Canadian Architectural Certification Board (CACB), the Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA) and the Bachelor of Interaction Design program at Sheridan College.

The program learning outcomes were also informed by a set of core values determined by the team to establish a vision for the curriculum. These values are as follows:

Creation of meaningful experiences
“Meaningful” refers to experiences that are memorable (possibly transformative) that have the potential to engage, educate, inform and/or elicit delight.

Collaborative and interdisciplinary practice
This requires specific skills and knowledge and the curriculum design and delivery needs to facilitate and support this type of learning.

Creative application of current and emerging technology, materials and media
Understanding of social, cultural and historical context for the application of technology; solid grounding of knowledge about a wide range of materials and media and how they can be applied within a wide variety of environments.

Design for sustainability and inclusive design principles
Understanding of the broader consequences of design practice; importance of considering and integrating the social and human dimension in every endeavor; focus on design as an agent for positive change.

Another important aspect of this phase is the establishment of an ad hoc Professional Advisory Council (PAC). This committee is comprised of practitioners in Experiential Design and affiliated art and design areas. The role of the ad hoc PAC is to provide insight into employment opportunities within XD as well as to provide input in terms of core skills and knowledge required of graduates. Since the professional design landscape is often in flux and is subject to rapid change, the focus is on fostering transferable knowledge via the curriculum so graduates are as resilient and adaptable as possible.

Currently the Bachelor of Experiential Design program curriculum in the first and second year includes subject areas within communication, materials, spatial design, interaction and motion, research methods and design studies which run in parallel so that students can create linkages between specific skills and knowledge. This approach will be reexamined in more depth within the next phase of the program development to help ensure that connections between subject areas are as transparent as possible and that opportunities for cross-platform and collaborative experiences are fully explored. (Figure 4)

The third and fourth year will have studio options within three main areas of Experiential Design practice: wayfinding, exhibition design and public space. The fourth year will have individual and collaborative capstone (thesis) studios along with more elective options.

The Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities requires that twenty percent of the total credits of the program consist of breadth or general education courses. For the Experiential Design program, students will be required to take eight courses over the four years, two per year. Currently there are a wide variety of breadth courses offered at Sheridan College in the humanities, social sciences, global culture, political science and science and mathematics.

A professional internship of 14 weeks (420 hours) is also mandatory and is typically completed between third and fourth year.

Phase 2: Full program development

Phase 2 will begin in September 2016 and involves in-depth development of the curriculum using the conceptual program map created in Phase 1 as a starting point. Course syllabi are developed in detail and budget, space and resources are also determined.

Approvals are required from college administration at all levels including the Senate and Board of Governors. The ad hoc Professional Advisory Council is consulted several times regarding the curriculum development to ensure their valuable input is integrated into the process.

Phase 3: External approval and Program Launch

In this phase, all the documentation developed in Phase 2 is refined further and prepared for submission to the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. The approval process at the provincial government level can take from one to three years depending on the political climate and other factors.

Once the ministry approves the program, a year is allocated to develop promotion and marketing strategies for applicant recruitment as well as to procure resources and prepare spaces for curriculum delivery. 

Contribution to the field

The Bachelor of Experiential Design program offers opportunities for reflection on design education and how disciplinary boundaries can be examined and questioned within the context of institutional mandates and protocols. The constraints inherent in the development process need to be balanced with a clear vision of how an education in Experiential Design can prepare graduates for an extremely complex and dynamic area of practice given the social and cultural transformations afforded by digital media as well as other environmental, political and economic factors.

While the development of the BXD program at Sheridan College follows a specific process mandated by the provincial government there are universal considerations that are relevant for other institutions engaged in undergraduate curriculum development in Experiential Design.

Given the complexity of contexts and societal challenges on both local and global scales, it is clear that design graduates must have the capacity to synthesize a variety of skills and knowledge from different domains so they can participate in and facilitate collaborative ways of working. These abilities are essential in a world of increased integration of people, technology, data, devices and spaces. Boundaries between types of media are also blurring and the application of specific media within individual design disciplines is also becoming more fluid. Design outcomes are no longer solely focused on physical artifacts — experiences, services, strategies and relationships are being integrated with the tangible aspects of form, space and communication. Because of this, time, movement and speed have become increasingly salient design parameters.

Implications for theory and practice

These current and future trends within design practice and education have had a significant role in shaping the core values and direction of the Bachelor of Experiential Design curriculum up until this point. There are three main areas that require further examination that raise important considerations for the subsequent development of the program and Experiential Design undergraduate education in general. 

Interdisciplinarity and Collaboration

As noted previously, the context for design practice and education is increasingly complex and presents unique challenges in addressing ambiguous and wide-ranging problem areas. Established design processes and methodologies may or may not be appropriate and often skills and knowledge from a range of disciplines and domains need to be accessed and synthesized to achieve some measure of progress. Experiential Design presents an opportunity to explore pedagogical possibilities for interdisciplinarity. While many design programs offer collaborative courses or learning experiences for students that bring together various design disciplines these can have adjunct status within a more traditionally structured curriculum with courses isolated within specific concentrations or streams. As Meredith Davis states:

“Educating design specialists for the challenges of interdisciplinary engagement is an unfinished curricular and pedagogical project that calls for focused attention.” (26)

Given particular institutional protocols and logistics, it can be difficult to develop consistent opportunities for design students to work with faculty and students in other disciplines such as in the humanities, social sciences, geography, engineering or science. While experienced professional designers can appreciate and may seek out connections with others, students may not be able to build these types of relationships outside their own discipline due to a lack of time or other factors. Thus it falls upon curriculum design and delivery to provide the framework for these interactions to happen. 

Donald Norman has been critical of the lack of knowledge of the behavioural sciences, technology, business, science and experimental research methods in design education. (“Why Design Education Must Change”)

While he feels that design students should have more exposure to these areas he acknowledges that the experimental methodologies of the social and behavioural sciences may not always be appropriate for design issues or applications. There is an opportunity to develop new methods of inquiry, analysis and evaluation that acknowledge the specific aims of design research and practice and that also integrate diverse skills and knowledge. Norman states:

In today’s world of ubiquitous sensors, controllers, motors, and displays, where the emphasis is on interaction, experience, and service, where designers work on organizational structure and services as much as on physical products, we need a new breed of designers. This new breed must know about science and technology, about people and society, about appropriate methods of validation of concepts and proposals. They must incorporate knowledge of political issues and business methods, operations, and marketing. (“Why Design Education Must Change”)

Experiential design graduates will require a strong foundation in collaborative methods and models and need to be prepared for roles as both participants and leaders within interdisciplinary contexts. This can be achieved through continued application of theory to practice and creating an appropriate curriculum structure to facilitate rich, engaging and meaningful learning experiences. They also need to be well versed in different types of collaboration and have the ability to critically evaluate and learn from each experience. Meredith Davis has addressed the variations in collaboration as follows: (20-21) (Figure 5)

Fostering the ability to build and maintain relationships will be essential for students to engage meaningfully in collaborative work. As Julie Thompson Klein has noted, “Compatible personalities, common interests, and a common vocabulary are essential for successful interdisciplinary work.” (185)

Sustainability and inclusiveness 

In Design for the Real World, Victor Papanek wrote:

“Much recent design has satisfied only evanescent wants and desires, while the genuine needs of man have often been neglected by the designer.”

In the 45 years since Papanek published his influential call to action for socially and ecologically responsible practice, there has been continued refinement of human-centered design methodologies and growth in the application of sustainable design principles in education and practice. It has also become increasingly important for designers to directly address diversity within populations and to foster various levels of customization within products, experiences and services.

In design and many other areas, there are indications of a shift from corporate and consumer agendas to those centered on the environment, community and citizenship.

Tony Fry advocates for a complete re-conceptualization of design toward “redirective practice” which moves design from a service industry concentrated on producing finite artifacts, to one that is engaged in process, holistic thinking and transformative action. This approach situates design as an agent of change focused on the betterment of society. 

“Redirective practice serves futuring and so aims to secure and extend time in the face of the defuturing momentum of unsustainability; at the same time, it also announces the imperative of ‘designing in time’ as a crucial methodological aspect of the practice.” (Fry 147)

Most undergraduate design students have some grounding in ethical research methods involving human participants and may take general education courses in the humanities, psychology, anthropology and/or sociology to inform their studio work. The challenge for students can be in integrating the practices, theories and experiences from these generalist courses with design processes, thinking and making. The question arises if we are doing enough to fully engage students in understanding human experience and providing them with adequate opportunities to connect and engage with people, not just with other students, faculty or experts from other disciplines, but within their communities and beyond.

Stephen Sterling has outlined an integrative approach to education that is focused on “ecological” thinking. He explains that,

“Ecological thinking is essentially relational or connective thinking but it’s also more than that: it is ethical, valuative, and expresses our humanity.” (78)

Sterling distinguishes between ecological and systems thinking noting that the latter is not necessarily ecological. Systems thinking can potentially counter the aims of ecology but on the positive side can contribute by facilitating “…critical reflexivity —or deep questioning of assumptions.” (78).

In the following table (Figure 6) he compares traditional thinking to an ecological approach. He notes that it is not a matter of choosing one or the other, both are valuable, but we must determine their most appropriate application, especially in the context of complex or intractable problems.

Ecological thinking encompasses sustainable and inclusive design principles and is at the core of true interdisciplinary practice. All of which are central to Experiential Design education and can be addressed in part through applied research, intensive field work and learning experiences situated outside the classroom that involve engagement with a wide range of constituents.

Technology and connectivity

How we experience the world is constantly transforming due to increased proliferation and integration of technology and digital media. The open data mandate of governments, institutions, and individuals has provided increased access to information and this has had a significant impact on the design of spaces, objects, services and experiences. Data can be integrated within built and digital environments through visualization and other means and this can create deeper levels of engagement to facilitate the communication of information and the transfer of knowledge. Interpretation and analysis of data are also required to provide metrics for assessment and evaluation, which can then lead to more human-centric and customized experiences.

In her article “Interdisciplinarity and the Education of the Design Generalist”, Meredith Davis addresses the impact of the iPhone (25):

“Its real value resides in the qualities of communication relationships its technological platform establishes between people and people, people and information, and people and the services and activities they see as essential to life in the twenty-first century. These relationships don’t depend on the radius of the device’s corners or Helvetica as its system font, but on the interactions with the world it enables and the match between users’ conceptions of those interactions and how the system actually works.”

Experiential Design students will need to engage directly with the complexities of networks and physical, social and virtual connectivity by developing a facility with a wide range of tools, materials, platforms and media at different scales and speeds. A theoretical foundation in the economic, social and cultural impacts of technology from both historical and speculative perspectives is also necessary. Undergraduate students may be expert users of digital devices, media and interfaces but the ubiquitous nature of technology does not necessarily translate into a critical awareness of its impact and significance from the individual to a communal perspective.

In terms of specific skills and knowledge of an experiential designer, another consideration is the level of coding or programming literacy that is required. This is not a new discussion since coding has long been integrated in design education. Given that most professional design projects include some aspect of digital media students should have a broad awareness of current and emerging media and technologies so they can assess, along with other traditional materials and tools, what is most appropriate for the challenge at hand and how different elements can come together. Prototyping and working iteratively are an essential part of this process.

The increased connection and communication between spaces and devices has lead to increased automation and development of “smart” materials, objects, environments and cities capable of sensing and responding to fluctuations within components of these systems. While idealized scenarios of connected, seamless, fluid experiences and environments can inspire and motivate new directions in design, we also have to be cognizant of the constraints and unintended consequences of adopting new technologies and be grounded by the “why” of every design action.

As John Thakara states: 

(…) technology has become at best a commodity, at worst an infringement on personal space—a form of trespass event, or pollution. (…) I do not suggest that we have fallen out of love with technology, more that we are regaining appreciation and respect for what people can do that tech can’t. (3)

Thakara’s observation emphasizes that we cannot lose sight of the need to balance the aspirations of technology with the social and environmental dimensions of design activity.  


As the development of the Bachelor of Experiential Design program continues through the subsequent phases, much of the success of the curriculum design and delivery will rely on building sustainable and meaningful relationships internally and externally to be able to realize a rigorous and comprehensive program.

At the same time, the constraints presented by the government mandated development process must also be considered and negotiated along with other institutional protocols and funding restrictions that may present specific challenges to the design and implementation of the curriculum.

The development team is optimistic that the Bachelor of Experiential Design program at Sheridan College can provide academic leadership in a highly significant and relevant design discipline while also fostering resilient graduates with a heightened sense of their agency as designers and citizens in a complex and interconnected global context.

About the author

Angela Iarocci is a professor and coordinator at Sheridan College in the Faculty of Animation, Arts and Design. Angela’s education in industrial design and architecture has been the foundation of a diverse professional practice focused primarily in environmental graphic design, interpretation, information design and wayfinding. Her research involves collaborative and individual projects investigating the intersections between information, space and objects merging architecture, urban design, communication design and craft. She has received several national grants, awards and commissions and her work has been exhibited and published in Canada and internationally.

The author would like to acknowledge the other members of the Bachelor of Experiential Design development team at Sheridan College: Ronni Rosenberg, Donna Braggins, Claire Ironside, James March, Heidi Overhill, Heather Farmer, and Theresa Fraser.


Davis, Meredith. “Interdisciplinarity and the Education of the Design Generalist.” The Education of a Graphic Designer. Ed. Steven Heller. 3rd ed. New York: Allworth School of Visual Arts, 2015. Print.
Fry, Tony. Design Futuring: Sustainability, Ethics, and New Practice. Oxford: Berg, 2009. Print.
Klein, Julie Thompson. Interdisciplinarity: History, Theory, and Practice. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1990. Print.
Norman, Donald. “Why Design Education Must Change.” N.p., 26 Nov. 2010. Web. 29 May 2016.
Papanek, Victor J. Design for the Real World; Human Ecology and Social Change. New York: Pantheon, 1972. Print.
Sterling, Stephen. “Ecological Intelligence: Viewing the world relationally.” The Handbook of Sustainability Literacy: Skills for a Changing World. Ed. Arran Stibbe. Cambridge: UIT Cambridge, 2011. Print.
Thackara, John. In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2005. Print.


1. Overview of Sheridan College faculties and position of the proposed Bachelor of Experiential Design program in the Faculty of Animation, Arts and Design.
2. Venn diagram of three key domains of Experiential Design conceived by the program development team.
3. The Ontario college bachelor degree development process
4. Bachelor of Experiential Design conceptual program map
5. Diagrams developed from text, Davis, Meredith. “Interdisciplinarity and the Education of the Design Generalist.” The Education of a Graphic Designer. Ed. Steven Heller. 3rd ed. New York: Allworth School of Visual Arts, 2015. 20-21.
6. Table developed from text, Sterling, Stephen. “Ecological Intelligence: Viewing the world relationally.” The Handbook of Sustainability Literacy: Skills for a Changing World. Ed. Arran Stibbe. Cambridge, UK: UIT Cambridge, 2011. 81.