Meet the Programme Lead for Digital Design and Communication
Dr Dian Li is the Programme Lead for the online Digital Design and Communication Masters course delivered by the University of Leeds. With almost 20 years of teaching experience at the University of Leeds, Dian has the expertise and knowledge to help digital designers and creatives realise their full potential and succeed in their careers.
In this Q&A, we’ll learn more about Dian’s journey and experience, and you’ll get an insight into what it’s like studying at the Leeds School of Design. We’ll also explore what skills you’ll learn on the course and discover some of the top roles graduates from Leeds School of Design have gone into.
Read the full conversation below.
Q: Please can you start by introducing yourself?
A: Hello, my name is Dr Dian Li, I’m a Lecturer in Graphic and Communication Design at the University of Leeds, and I’m also the Programme Lead for the online Digital Design and Communication Masters/Postgraduate Certificate (PGCert) course.
Q: Can you tell me more about your experience and your professional journey?
A: Sure. I started my journey by studying interactive multimedia design. After that, I studied a Masters in Animation before completing a PhD in Information Design at the University of Leeds.
I’ve studied lots of different areas which we’d now consider sub-topics within digital design, so my experience over the years has really been made up of a cross-disciplinary approach to learning and teaching. This experience has been so important for me, as I’ve been able to build up a solid foundation of knowledge and contribute to what we know about digital design today.
I’ve actually been teaching at the University of Leeds since 2003, which I can’t believe is almost 20 years already! A lot of that time has been spent teaching on the MA Design course, and the learnings and teachings from that course have provided the foundation for this new online Digital Design and Communication MA/PGCert.
Q: What drew you to digital design and communication?
A: I started out my journey by studying interactive multimedia design, and then later interaction design, so I’ve been interested in digital design from day one. Thinking back to the very early days, it’s been so fascinating to see how everything has changed over the years, what advancements have been made, and just seeing how people have embraced this new digital era. I remember when everything used to be printed, and digital assets were still novel. Now almost everything is digital. It’s been so interesting seeing how different forms of media have grown from print to digital. With how quickly things have changed, and with all the innovations happening in the field, it seemed so natural that I would be drawn to an ever–changing industry with so many opportunities, and I also love seeing new and emerging trends, and digital expressions.
Q: Can you tell us about your research interests?
A: My interests are focused on digital media and using data-driven designs, but apart from this, I’ve been very interested in bilingual typography, and the reason is quite simple – I’m bilingual! I speak both English and Mandarin, so it seemed like a natural fit. When I dived deeper into this area, I also realised that there hadn’t been a lot of research conducted about when English and Chinese typography meet, and for me that was so exciting because it meant that I could explore a very niche and interesting topic that was also quite personal and relevant to me and my experience, and that’s been so rewarding.
Q: Can you tell us about the Digital Design and Communication course?
A: The Digital Design and Communication course is a unique course that integrates digital design with communication. We have a wide variety of interesting and exciting modules on offer, and they’re tailored for a range of levels. For example, we have foundation modules which allow students to develop fundamental skills around design thinking, practices, and research. So, whether you’re new to design, or an experienced designer, these modules will help you hone your skills before transitioning to the more advanced modules – no matter your background, there’s always something new to learn!
We also have development modules which allow students to explore different topics in more depth. An example would be the ‘Human-centred Design’ module where students learn about the theory behind designing for an audience, and how to practically apply this knowledge to their own designs. It’s that blend of theory and application that makes the course so interesting and beneficial to students’ careers.
Then there are other modules, such as ‘Digital Design Trends’ which is such a unique and valuable module. Digital design and communication is an ever-changing field that’s driven by innovation, and it’s so important that students have the skills to be able to identify and engage with emerging trends to stay up to date. If we think back only two years ago, it was hard to imagine the role AI might play in design, and now anyone can use a free online generator, pop in some text, and get an image! That just shows you how quickly things change, and these cutting-edge advancements can go live in a relatively short amount of time.
It was important to us that our modules reflect the innovative and fast-paced nature of the industry, but also that students have the necessary skills to think about the future of design, and how to become familiar with, or even predict new trends, and it’s that commitment to lifelong learning that really makes this course stand out.
Q: Who is this course for?
A: I like to think that everyone is interested in digital design and communication. Even if you don’t realise it, it’s something that we interact with every day in one form or another, and it can shape and influence the decisions we make. I’m so proud that this course caters for a wide variety of students who will all likely have very different motivations for studying it.
Broadly speaking, I would say there are three categories of students who would benefit from this course:
- Those who already work in their preferred area of the design industry.
- Those who want to move from one creative sub-sector to another.
- Those who aren’t currently in the industry but want to get their foot in the door and develop a thriving and rewarding creative career.
So, for students who already work in their desired area of digital design, this course will help them take the next step in their career to progress to management or senior management roles. In that respect, the communication aspect of this course is so valuable, with modules like ‘Design in a Dynamic Team’ teaching students how to work across different cultures and even time zones. Students will develop their networking skills and forge strong working relationships with their peers. The course really emphasises the importance of applying theories to design work, so throughout the course students will have numerous opportunities to develop their presentation and leadership skills, which they can then directly apply to their career.
For students already working in the creative sector, but not necessarily digital design, the course will provide them with the transferable skills they need to make that transition. For example, if students previously studied graphic communication and worked with print media, then this course is a great way to fill in those knowledge gaps and learn how to adapt to the new ways of digital working. It also gives students the flexibility to be able to work across different sub-areas in digital design as the industry is always changing, so it’s important that students upskill to make sure they have the creative and technical skills to be able to explore different creative career pathways.
Finally, this course will help prospective students who aren’t currently working in digital design and communication to gain the necessary soft, creative, and technical skills required to work in the industry. Students will be able to reskill on this course, and they’ll start with those foundation modules so that they understand the fundamentals of digital design before moving on to more advanced modules. Again, this course places such a strong emphasis on key transferable skills.
Q: You’ve spoken a bit about the skills students will gain. What other skills will they learn on this course?
A: Apart from all the skills I’ve mentioned previously, students will also learn many subject-specific skills, for example, design process and concept design skills like creative and strategic problem-solving skills, which will help them drive innovation in whichever career path they choose to follow. Other subject-specific skills could involve professional design production skills like prototyping, which will enable them to take on design responsibilities. This course lends itself so well to online teaching, and again, these key digital and communication skills that students will gain can be directly transferred to their careers.
When I refer to design-specific skills, this encompasses many things. It includes skills commonly taught in design courses like ideation and design production, but also other skills that are important at work but not often taught in universities, for example user-oriented thinking, trend analysis and design research. In the foundation modules, students will learn about research in design – what research has been done, what were the findings, and how to do their own research using different qualitative and quantitative methods. They will learn how to use research to help them create solutions that can solve design challenges more effectively.
Apart from the key creative skills I’ve already spoken about, students will become familiar with different types of software. For me, this component is so interesting because this is where that independent learning really comes in. There are so many different types of software available, and a lot of the choices around which one to use really comes down to user preference, but with access to resources such as LinkedIn Learning, students will be able to do tutorials so they can really find out which software works best for them. This is so great as they’ll then have so many opportunities throughout the course to practically apply this learning to their own designs.
Then there’s the other side to design-specific skills, which is more of a blend of creative, technical, and communication skills, and that includes things like interpreting industry briefs, understanding what your clients require, or what they might really mean as it’s not always clear. It’s vital that students learn how to approach this and communicate and present their solutions.
When I was creating the course, I did some research as to which skills employers valued most, and it was a bit surprising to learn that many employers ranked transferable skills (e.g., managing people and projects) and soft skills (e.g., aesthetics, attention to detail) higher than technical skills. So, in this course we responded to the need to help students develop those transferable skills that aren’t usually emphasised in design courses, but also learn the technical side which is still valuable. For example, students will develop their technical management skills which they can use to ensure a good working relationship with the client and other stakeholders.
Although students will learn how to work in diverse and dynamic teams, they’ll also learn how to work independently. They’ll develop crucial organisational and time management skills, which are important skills when you’re working across different teams in a virtual environment or independently. I think it’s great that this course combines collaboration with more independent studying – it’s such an empowering way to learn.
Finally, I think it’s important that this course is taught fully online so that students will learn how to work effectively and efficiently in a virtual environment, as well as learning online communication management.
Q: You’ve mentioned that this course is taught fully online. What’s that like for you?
A: I think it’s so natural and appropriate that a course called Digital Design and Communication is taught fully online. It really prepares students for what it’s like working in a virtual environment, which has changed dramatically due to COVID-19.
Teaching online isn’t something that’s new to me. I have done quite a lot of teaching online with years of experience teaching in this format. This has been such an amazing learning experience. When COVID-19 hit, the School of Design was already in quite a good position to pivot to online teaching. It’s also meant that over the years we’ve been able to tailor and tweak our course content based on what we think works well, and what I’ve noticed is that for some modules and topics, students were learning more efficiently online. So, when I developed this course, I was able to collate all that experience and knowledge to develop a course structure that really lends itself to online study.
Q: How do students adapt to fully virtual learning?
A: I think the online teaching format works well for students. Flexibility is built into the course, so students can balance their studies with their job, and gain an affordable qualification that will boost their career prospects. Students will learn through different teaching and learning methods, and we’ll guide them through the key learning components of the course. I like to think of the course as quite circular, in that students will learn something, reflect on what they’ve learnt, practically apply this to their own designs, and then analyse their work and grow from this.
With each week of learning students will have the opportunity to reflect on what they’ve learnt in collaboration with tutors and peers. So even though the course is online, students will be able to foster a deep sense of community, which is important when you’re collaborating virtually, and again, it will prepare them for the digital working environment.
Q: What are you hoping students get out of this course?
A: By the end of the course, I hope that students will feel confident in combining these skills and applying them to their own digital designs and their careers moving forward.
I think that all students will bring their unique sense of creativity to the course, and for many of them, being creative will come naturally. We want to expand on this creativity and show students how important it is to combine their creativity with other skills. Throughout the course, the students will have picked up so many valuable communication skills, so they’ll be ready to work in diverse teams and be able to navigate working in a digital environment. They’ll also learn leadership skills which are incredibly important for students who want to progress to management and lead and implement new strategies. If students can successfully combine these skills, then they’ll have access to a global market of careers and opportunities, which for me is so exciting, and we really want to make sure students are able to take advantage of all these amazing opportunities when they arise.
Q: Why did you decide to join the University of Leeds?
A: Firstly, it has a fantastic reputation both in the UK and internationally, and that attracts so many talented and interesting people. The University itself has a very active and open atmosphere, which I find so uplifting – it’s a nice thing to see and be around, and this extends to the online communities.
I’ve been teaching here for almost 20 years, and it still amazes me that I’m continually learning new things! There are academic experts from so many disciplines, and they all bring their unique experiences which enriches the learning environment. The University has a great collaborative spirit, and I love working with colleagues from different backgrounds and cultures – we have researchers from the UK, the United States, Hong Kong, Iran, Greece, and Portugal, to name just a few! Everyone has been so friendly and welcoming, and it truly makes a big difference.
Q: What’s it like being a part of the School of Design?
A: The Leeds School of Design is a place where art, design, and technology coexist. For me, this makes it such an exciting environment to work and learn in. There’s a wide range of disciplines that overlap. Even just walking down the corridor I can bump into someone interested in 3D printing, and then next door to them will be someone researching textile technology, and then there will be someone else down the hall interested in colour psychology or fashion design.
There’s such a vibrant atmosphere, and people are always so excited to share new advancements with everyone, so I’m constantly having my mind blown by things I’ve never seen or thought of before. It’s really a place where I draw so much inspiration from, and that is largely due to the amazing people.
Q: What have some of the previous graduates of the School of Design gone on to?
A: Our graduates are now professionals working around the world. Some have set up their own design studios and businesses, others are now freelancers, and some work for top creative companies. We also have graduates who work in other areas such as tech, and research and development, which is so exciting. People don’t often realise how impactful digital design and communication can be, but it’s something that all successful businesses need. A lot of our graduates are in leadership positions, and it’s been so rewarding to see them apply the skills they’ve learnt to drive innovation and strategy.
I’m also delighted that many of our students have continued their studies and pursued PhDs. I think it speaks to the positive experience that they’ve had, and many have gone on to work in academia at a variety of top universities. There are so many choices!
Q: Finally, if you could give one piece of advice to someone considering studying this course at the University of Leeds, what would it be?
A: Openness and curiosity are great gifts, and it would be nice if you could bring them with you when you join us. Let’s explore the challenges and embrace change together.
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