Background Engineering design is of significant interest to engineering educators. As yet, how the higher education context shapes student outcomes in engineering design courses remains underexplored. Since design courses are the primary way students are taught the critical topic of design, it is important to understand how the institutional and organizational contexts shape student outcomes and how we could improve design projects, given the context.PurposeWe sought to answer two questions: What aspects of the design education process are salient, or important, for students? How do these salient aspects affect their design practices?Design/MethodWe used a qualitative case study approach to address the research questions because of our emphasis on understanding process-related aspects of design work and developing an interpretive understanding from the students' perspective.ResultsUsing a nested structuration framework, we show that the context of design practices shaped students' outcomes by constraining their approach to the project and by providing a framework for their design process. We provide recommendations for design educators to help students overcome impediments to achieving learning objectives for design activities. Our research questions the efficacy of teaching engineering design when a design problem lacks a context beyond the classroom.ConclusionsThe institutional and organizational contexts influence student design practices. Engineering educators should carefully consider the potential effects of the design projects they implement within a higher education context.