Threshold Concepts

Threshold Concepts represents a transformation through learning. The process of learning shifts to a ‘process of becoming’; a student becomes literate / fluent within a system of knowledge or understanding. They are transformed by this access, dialogue and exposure to fundamental practises and principles specific to that system or discipline.

Every discipline within art and design has unique ‘ways of thinking and practising’, for a student to ‘become’ the thing that they are studying they require the necessary tools of that practice and equip themselves with the revenant nomenclature. To communicate successfully within the community of practise that you are studying you need to know the correct language to explain, justify, validate and communicate your ideas.

This notion of transformation and ‘becoming’ reminded me of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need (Maslow, 1943.) in which he establishes the concept of self-actualisation. Self-actualisation can only be attained once the ‘basic needs’ of food, shelter, warmth and love are present, these provide the foundation for an individual to become what they are motived to become; “What a man can be, he must be.” (Maslow, 1943)

This Hierarchy of Need can be transposed to threshold concepts, where the basics needs are the underlying principles, practices, knowledge, nomenclature, understanding a student requires to become ‘self-actualised’ as the practitioner of the discipline they are studying, and to enter into the community of practice.

Within the context of the graphic design pathway on the foundation course, students are introduced to concepts, principles and ideas which are fundamental to the wide gamut of graphic design. Units 5&6 consist of seven one week projects, each designed to introduce a different aspect / principle of graphic design. The first project is titled ‘How to Build an Egg Catcher’; in groups students have to design and build a structure from restricted materials (3 newspapers and a ball of string which will catch an egg dropped from 8ft. They then work individually to produce a set of instructions on how to recreate it.

‘How to Build an Egg Catcher’ introduces to the following concepts, vocabulary and ideas; reduction, semiotics, instruction, clarity, symbolism, visual shorthand and information graphics. Also embedded are specific tasks such as; contextual research, independent gallery visit, drawing exercises, problem solving, reduction; using signs and symbols to communicate and instruct, typography and format. These, hopefully, begin to equip the students with specific and explicit threshold concepts, methods, techniques and language of graphic design.

I found the idea of ‘conceptual transgression’ appealing as it is always a pleasure to see a brief taken on an unexpected tangent which results in something very different. This is always encouraged, as it this freedom of constraint which distinguishes a learning environment from a corporate one.


  1. Hi Paul, I teach Maslow’s Hierachy of needs to my fashion students, and you could argue that as you move up the pyramid, you acquire new knowledge and experience, which seems to me what the students have to do to break through these complex threshold concepts. Learning about threshold concepts has made me realise that what is very familiar to us as experienced professionals in a field, is going to be troublesome for students who may know little or nothing about the ‘language’ of a discipline. It’s made me aware of the fact that I can’t assume that a student is just going to ‘get it’ and that is going to make me think harder when it comes to teaching these tricky subjects. My business students very rarely apply a creative tangent to a brief, so it must be a delight when teaching a design subject such as yours.

  2. Hi Paul,

    I only just heard about Maslow’s hierachy of need last week. I have a student who is currently struggling with the requirements of the course and I just found out that she is homeles; no wonder she has not yet engaged with the course!

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