Chapter Three: The Design Studio


Now that we’ve built a class, and explored the foundations of a design curriculum, let’s look at where a class gets taught—in one of the most unique parts of a creative field, the design studio. A studio is a special place. It feels alive and full of energy. A studio usually has sketches and ideas all over the walls, diagrams on whiteboards, natural light, and big, open spaces. It’s not just a physical place, though. It’s also an attitude. A studio culture is one that values creativity and when you enter a studio, you feel a creative “vibe.” It feels different than a typical office that may have a fleet of cubes or conference rooms, or a typical classroom that may have rows of desks. It feels more like a space of exploration rather than a space of “finished ideas.”

A studio is also an educational structure, or a way of learning (sometimes called pedagogy—a fancy word for “teaching style”). The unique qualities of a studio that we’ll explore support the unique nature of learning about creativity. Design education is experiential. The studio exemplifies experiential learning.

The idea of a studio as a learning model is usually new to students. I hang signs around the studio that describe how a studio works; these help inspire students and remind them that they are in a unique working environment.

Austin Center for DesignSigns for the Studio Walls

Signs for the Studio Walls

Reminders to help students think of the design studio as a special place.

It’s not something familiar, because most grade schools and high schools focus on a “butts in seats” model of teaching, where students sit in desks and watch a teacher at the front of the room. Because it’s a new way of thinking, students need to learn how to behave in a studio. They may be used to having an assignment, working on it by themselves, and then handing it in to be graded. This is a fairly linear process: I work, I complete, I get graded.

But that’s not how a studio project works. In a studio, learning is much more organic. Students may have a brainstorming session around a whiteboard, and then break off and sketch individually. Then, they may come together, critique the work, and draw on top of each other’s sketches. A professor might give them feedback, and then they may present their work. This process is fluid. It can feel unstructured, and some students don’t know how to manage that lack of structure.

It’s my job to add structure.

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