Thresholds Concepts

Those regular readers of this blog may know from my first scintillating post that I am a Lecturer who teaches across a wide number of courses across the School of Design and Technology at London College of Fashion. I am offering you two examples of what I deem to be threshold concepts across my teaching practice (Ambassador you are spoiling us, I imagine the cry.)

Across the various foundation degrees that are within the school there is a brief that is regularly used in various guises and I suspect has been knocking around for quite some years. In which the students are given a name of a Fashion Designer who shows at one of the various fashion weeks (London, Paris, Milan and New York) and asks them to design what they would imagine a collaboration between there given designer and a high street retailer.

The fashion media perhaps warps the perceptions of what Fashion Designers do in the minds aspiring young and in there first year many of them imagine that they will ultimately be designing collections that are only limited by there own imaginations which will then be retailed. This brief introduces them to important threshold concepts the idea of diffusion.

We are bombarded with press coverage about fashion houses collaborating with the high street, this resulting in overnight queues like those seen for the Martin Margiela and H&M collaboration this week. The students are already aware of this and understand the motives. In the research phase we ask the student to unpick the idea further, by comparing the runway collection of the high priced designers and compare how these same collection translate into the various boutiques and high-end department stores that stock them directly.

By asking them to do this we are hoping that they will make the discovery that diffusion happens at every market level. The collections shown on the runway and those available for retail do not always correlate. Many of the pieces are only intended for the shows or loan to fashion magazines to garner press coverage and subsequently raise the brand profile. As they could never be made as the costing would be too high. The collections are often channeled into more commercial pieces and in many instances the collections will have been almost totally redesigned for retail consumption. So when designers are accused of selling out by working with huge high street chains they are not doing anything that is not deeply entrenched within there own labels already.

It is important to introduce this concept at an early stage so they can begin to consider how they may structure their collections outside on the cocoon of education.  Often when students understand this concept they let it empower there future work making more sophisticated and considered collections, understanding both the importance of both brand creation and commercial viability.

This example hopefully fulfils the criteria of a threshold concept as it

Troublesome as it can shatter preconceptions, and anchors Fashion in the design idiom and pulls it away from fine art sensibilities, what may look like artistic statements are often marketing exercises.

Iterative as it exposes the previously potentially hidden mechanics of the fashion industry.

Transformative once understood, its potential effects upon student learning as they understand their role as designers.


I my second example draws upon my earlier teaching career when I was asked to cover a term teaching the students how to do fashion specification drawings in Adobe Illustrator.

Most students are familiar with how to use the program Adobe Photoshop as it use has crept far beyond the realms of photography. When asked to create a spec or line drawing of a garment the usual first port of call would be to open up this program select the brush tool and use the cursor to draw on screen in the same way that you would with a pencil on paper. It can be quite hard to get clean smooth line or curve with the use of this tool also Photoshop is developed for bitmap editing so drawings will appear to pixelate if scaled up much beyond the initially defined proportions.

I had to introduce them to using Illustrator, Photoshop’s sister program which output is vector based. There is a conceptual leap from one program to the other, Photoshop is on the surface more intuitive as it apes mark making on the page where as with illustrator you define a start and end point and pull the adjoining line into a Bézier curve, if a curve is desired (The name is taken the French engineer Pierre Bézier, who in 1962 used the mathematical algorithm to design automobile bodies) These curves can be scaled infinitely and be edited with ease. In essence you are stated where you are starting then stating where you to end and then you define the trajectory of line between.

Using this one tool in Illustrator is the key to unlocking the use of the whole program and those who invest the time reap the rewards. Many students are turned off straight away as it is not how they used to drawing it is troublesome knowledge.

I must confess that throughout my studies I was one such student, I went to one lesion got very frustrated as I had always had a natural ability to draw and using this seemed to hinder that, so I never returned. Professionally I had always managed to find a way to mask this shortcoming. It was not until I was asked to spend a term teaching the students how to use it (as I was understood to be an expert in the area after a fraudulent boast on my C.V) that I had the motivation to learn it.

When I did get to grips with it,  every facet of my practise was enriched.

For me this was Troublesome as it challenged my former approach

Transformative as it forever changed my practise

Irreversible as it unlikely to be forgotten

Integrative as it uncovered the relationship between vector and rasterized graphics that is inhertent to all print and digital design.

8 thoughts on “Thresholds Concepts

  1. I really enjoyed reading this and I am embaressed by my own shying away from learning about Bezier Curves. Do you know the quickest way to get up to speed on those pesky bendy things? Have you been on Is there a YouTube Lesson.

    Thanks for the post: fun to read again and very perceptive.

  2. Hi Thomas,

    First of all I think the title ‘Ambassador’ suits you very well.

    The two examples you have given for Threshold Concepts I think are very clear and illustrative. You have explained you understanding simply and in an easy to read way. The first example, the idea of creating a ‘Diffusion’ is something that I think is crucial to many students before they enter a commercial market place and this could apply to Fashion Photography M.A students too. Many students (myself included on my photography B.A) have a false idea of what professional life will be and often as you say, falsely believe that they will creating according to their own imaginations only. To enable them through a teaching unit/ project, to practice a commercial work ethic and discipline that involves following a brand product and designing for it is a very good example of creating a threshold concept.

    I think your second example is good too but in a different way- as opposed to altering their approach and the way they think about their discipline, they are using tool that will change the actual method in which they produce work.

    I think you have used the Threshold Concept verbs ‘transformative’, ‘troublesome’, ‘irreversible’ to back up your explanations well.

    I would be interested/ curious to see an illustrative example of drawing on Photoshop and Adobe illustrator perhaps but your explanation clear is enough without.

  3. Hi Thomas,

    Thanks for spoiling us! Your post gives a good insight into areas of your subject and also clearly describes some threshold concepts within your teaching practice.

    In your first example, I understand why it is necessary for students to learn their role as commercial designers, but I couldn’t help wondering how students are still able to think really creatively and how it is possible to leave room for the unexpected (with reference to Constructive Alignment), when they start thinking of such limitations at this point? It seems almost as if they are ‘shutting down’ the possibilities, before they have explored what these are? I know that sometimes students respond well to boundaries and restrictions and that when everything is possible, this can actually be almost paralysing. However, I would be interested to know, if you think teaching them about diffusion is just about being realistic about the future or whether you feel that it could be a problem, if some students find it too restricting and difficult to accept?

    My experience of using and teaching Illustrator is very similar to yours in terms of finding it troublesome and transformative and having many students who had the same experience. I still don’t find it as intuitive as Photoshop, but have had some real breakthroughs, when I properly engaged with it (I never had the privilege of someone like you teaching me!). It is quite difficult to explain the difference between Vector-based and Pixel-based, so I agree with Ellen that it would have been good to have an illustration in the post, although luckily I know exactly what you are talking about.

    Do you think that reading and writing about threshold concepts has helped you to identify even more of them and strategies you might try out? I am also interested to know in what ways you assess whether your students’ understanding has been transformed?

    • Hello Anna
      I understand the sentiment behind your comment
      “When they start thinking of such limitations at this point? It seems almost as if they are ‘shutting down’ the possibilities” but they are afforded a of freedom in regards to the course and they can design collections which could never be commercially manufactured and often do, but it is important to make them aware that they are ultimately they will become designers operating in a commercial environment and it is ultimately up to them how they want to do with this knowledge.

      I think my knowledge of this is concept thresholds are definitely going to make me reconsider how I approach things in regards to my teaching practice in future. I am currently working on a lecture about Cross Fertilization in Design and am going to attempt to structure it around what the core concepts are in the regards to the area.

      Thank you for your thoughtful feedback

  4. Hi Thomas
    I really enjoyed reading your blog about Threshold Concepts and the joys of teaching ‘Adobe Illustrator’. As a tutor of illustration, I must confess I have never attempted to learn about bezier curves and all that, even though a software package has been developed in my subject’s name! I can imagine Adobe developing software for other courses – ‘Adobe Geographer’ or ‘Adobe Photographer’ or ‘Adobe Architect’ – I guess I stay on the side of sending students down to the digital technicians to learn about software ins and outs – I sometimes wonder though how much skill and knowledge of technologies and software drives student practice and how much ideas do – they are, I guess, totally linked. I agree with Ellen and Anne, a visual example to describe your point would have been good.

    I thought it was interesting how we all take for granted that our world is known by others – for example, I haven’t heard of Martin Margiela or know what ‘diffusion’ means, so can’t really comment on the detail of how your students respond or understand in your example. I am guessing that it is all about how students imaging of a subject and coming up against the cold winds of the real world! It seems to me that these kinds of things are precisely what ‘Threshold Concepts’ are all about – where a subject is taught, taken for granted, them, ‘pow’ the rug is pulled out from under you, a fundamental realiasation is made.

    I thought you explained the way you found ‘troublesome’, iterative’, and ‘transformative’ aspects key to not only learning what Adobe Illustrator was for, but also understanding how it could be used to develop creative practice.

    • Hello
      I had always though that allot of software was really developed to so people could mask their suspect design skill/illustration skills. I remember on my BA there was a spate of everyone tracing over things in illustrator so that it looked like an Ikea instruction manual, as cod-information design was cool that week. As you pointed out if the technology and craft are not used with strong ideas and there core we just end up with pastiche and clichés.

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