When I develop my design projects for First Year I’m usually looking for a topic that affords students some choice in the direction they take it but sometimes it’s quite a narrow corridor of choice, at other times more broad.
Let’s look at two examples, the projects I outlined in my video.
The first was a simple remote control and then later the choice of a Bluetooth speaker or kettle for blind people. The remote gave people a choice of type of remote but was restricted to those with few buttons and low complexity. This helped us focus on the purpose of the project—to help students learn the iterative design process and concentrate on a tactile experience. If we gave them wider choice some would have chosen to design complex programmable remotes or video game controllers which might have overloaded or distracted them from the task at hand.
In my First Year classes I’m also keen to steer people away from thinking design is just adding bells and whistles, feature overload, and work on mastering the basics of the design process. This means setting early projects that are not too complex for students to manage design iteration.
With the Design Syllabus rather than set products as such you probably want to frame themes or spheres of investigation allowing students to investigate a specific user group and consider a variety of designed approaches (product, garment, interactive media, room, building, exterior, etc.) depending on their interests.
It sounds like you’re considering another approach, one of setting students their own, individual design projects. That’s certainly possible but probably rather a lot of work for you × the number of students. It’s will also probably take a bit more work managing the complexity for them so that it’s challenging but not overwhelming and also balanced across the class.
I may be misunderstanding you here, but I believe that there are technically an infinite number of solutions to any given design problem and usually many ‘right’ solutions. In a practical sense no design solution is ever exactly ‘right’ in the sense that it’s perfect, just an effective compromise within the conflicting constraints of the brief. You never have perfect knowledge of the problem space and thus each decision you make in the design process is just the best you can do at the time.
Design solutions can be ‘right’ in different ways. For example, one student might prioritise aesthetics over usability and create a design which is beautiful while only being reasonably usable. Another might do the reverse and create a solution which is highly usable but perhaps less expressive. Both may be excellent designs but excel in different ways.
I warn my best students that they can feel quite unhappy with their final designs when they reach their deadline because their knowledge and understanding continues to grow even as they past the time they have to act on it. They might have a highly effective design but since creating the detailed drawings/models/renderings they’ve thought of something better but don’t have time to change it. It’s never perfect, just the best you can do at the time. Designers carry this hindsight into their next project and thus increase their abilities over time.
Sorry for this long, rambling post. I’m not sure if it even makes sense. My ultimate advice is build a project around an interesting theme with lots of scope for different approaches. The scary bit for you is that you won’t know what they all are. If you did, it probably wouldn’t be diverse enough. You want to leave your students room to surprise you not second guess the design approach you might personally take. As I say in the video, it’s not our job to know the answers but to help students discover them. As teachers we manage the design project by regulating the complexity of the task, sometimes from week to week, to create a useful learning experience.
It’s kind of wild and a lot of fun.