9 timelines arranged 3 rows of design quality and 3 rows of expertise level
Design timeline of an expert engineer with a high quality design

Examples of design timelines from freshmen and senior engineering students and from expert practicing engineers. The lower right timeline (high-performing expert) is shown in detail.

CELT Design Soundtracks

At the University of Washington’s Center for Engineering Learning & Teaching (CELT), a key aspect of our research into engineering design has been the development of rich visualizations of the design processes of the engineers who participated in our studies [1, 3]. One of the most successful of these representations has been the design timelines (to the right). Repeatedly, timelines have proven successful in conveying our research findings to colleagues, researchers, and the engineering community, and these successes encouraged us to explore and demonstrate their effectiveness as pedagogical tools for use with engineering students [4].

We continue to explore other representations of our design data [3], and one direction we took was develop and study auditory versions of our timelines. Inspired by comments from viewers that the timelines reminded them of notes on a musical staff, we decided to create design soundtracks (DSTs) of the timelines. These DSTs are an auditory equivalent of the visual timelines in which the time-series data is converted into notes and sounds. This music is then played alongside the corresponding timeline.

The Soundtracks

As part of our work for the eighth Design Thinking Research Symposium (DTRS8), we developed six versions of design soundtracks [2]. These versions were developed iteratively through sessions with CELT research staff and from feedback from the design instructors interviewed as part of the DTRS8 study.

These four versions are literal translations of the timeline data. They feature a simple, direct mapping of each activity to a corresponding sound or instrument:

These other two versions are interpretive in that they go beyond a literal mapping of the data. In these versions, we intentionally adjust the audio to emphasize selected aspects of the data such as by increasing the volume of selected activities at certain times in the soundtracks. We applied this approach to two of the above versions:

Listening to the Soundtracks

From the links for each soundtrack version, one can select among nine participants' timelines by clicking on the highlighted timeline. This will take you to a page where our custom timeline player will let you see and hear that participant's design process. On the same page will be a description of the soundtrack version and samples of the sounds mapped to the design activities.

If you experience any difficulties with the player or the sample sounds, check that you have a recent version of flash player installed. Flash-blocking software may need to be disabled for this site, but the pages should still give you notice that the flash is being blocked. This site was optimized for modern versions of Internet Explorer (8+) and Firefox (3+).


We would like to acknowledge the efforts of Zachary Goist for his work in developing the design soundtracks and the flash player. We also thank Katherine Deibel for designing and implementing this website. We also wish to acknowledge the following software we utilized in our efforts:


  1. Atman, C. J., Adams, R. S., Cardella, M. E., Turns, J., Mosborg, S., & Saleem, J. (2007). Engineering design processes: A comparison of students and expert practitioners. Journal of engineering education, 96(4), 359-379.
  2. Atman, C. J., Borgford-Parnell, J., Goist, Z., Deibel, K., Blair, J., Bodle, C., Kumar, V., Roesler, A., Tanimoto, S., & Zachary, M.(2010). Seeing and hearing design: Exploring how visual representations and sound tracks could be used to teach design. In Proceedings of the Design thinking and research symposium 8 (DTRS8) (pp. 25-37).
  3. Atman, C. J., Deibel, K., & Borgford-Parnell, J. (2009). The process of engineering design: A comparison of three representations. In Proceedings of the 17th international conference on engineering design (ICED’09) (Vol. 1, pp. 483-494).
  4. Borgford-Parnell, J., Deibel, K., & Atman, C. J. (2010). From engineering design research to engineering pedagogy: Bringing research results directly to the students. International journal of engineering education (Special issue on applications of engineering education research), 26(4), 748-759.

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