Chapter Three: Design Studio

Structuring time & space

Structuring time

A design studio is typically long. Some run as long as 8 hours. This helps instill a work ethic in students who are likely used to much shorter, burst-style learning. Design takes time, and to achieve a sense of flow and depth, students need to focus on their work and achieve creative flow. The duration of the studio says “creativity requires dedication” and helps students build a muscle memory of expectations around how their work evolves and changes.

A design studio also helps students develop their own pace of learning. In a given studio, they may meet with their team, meet with the professor, take breaks, and work independently. These mirror the types of things they can expect when working professionally, and so they learn how to culturally approach a design problem—they learn a cadence for design exploration.

Because studio projects are self-directed, students need to establish their own timeline. Periodically, students become overwhelmed with the amount they need to do in a studio class, and the loose requirements and ambiguous style of learning. I give them a handout about dealing with chaos:

Austin Center for DesignStrategies for Chaos

Strategies for Chaos

Strategies for helping students manage the chaos of unstructured work.

I act as a guide, giving them a “strawman” of when things should be done, but I leave them to the task of project management—of building a calendar and revising that calendar over the course of the project. Many students have never created a to-do list, never planned a schedule beyond a few days out. I teach them how to create a to-do list at an appropriate level of fidelity, breaking things into achievable tasks. Over time, they learn to self-manage the project. The act of project management helps them “own” the success of the project. When they see that they are running out of time or falling behind, it’s up to them to reconfigure their schedule to better hit deadlines.

Structuring the space

While the studio is an attitude and education model, it’s also a place, and the dynamics and shape of the place impact the way students use the environment. The space belongs to the students, not to me, and that means they have to feel as though they can take charge of it. They need to be empowered to change the space as their needs change, and so the “rules” of the space need to be flexible. And, the physical parts of the space need to be changeable. Here are some of the keys to a dynamic workspace for students.

Perhaps the most important part of their entire space is that students “own” it—they feel they can permanently take control of a portion of the space and customize their area. That owned space doesn’t need to be large. It can simply be a desk and a chair. But it signals to the student that they have control. This is important, because I want them to feel in control of their work, too. Instead of asking me for guidance with projects and assignments, I want them to make their own decisions, even when these decisions aren’t great.

Having their own space and the ability to customize it tells the student “you are in charge.” It’s important that they hear that over and over, so they stop assuming there are invisible rules that will mandate what they do and how they do it. If they want to change the orientation of the desks, they should have the freedom to do that. If they want to bring in a fridge, or a microwave, they are “allowed to”; in fact, I try to remove all rules entirely. If they feel that the space is theirs, they will be more likely to spend time in it.

In order to reinforce to students that the workspace is theirs, I give them free access and large responsibility. All students have keys to the building, so they can come and go at all hours of the day. And, simple tasks like ordering coffee or taking out the trash are left to the students. This isn’t laziness on my part. Instead, it further says to the student that this is their space and they need to self-organize to take care of it. And they do self-organize. Typically, one or two students will begin to pull together the other students to take care of simple chores or to prepare the space for class.

A dedicated workspace means that students can pin up their work and leave it there. As a design project grows, students produce more and more artifacts. They reference these artifacts throughout the process of synthesis and ideation, and so they need to spread out. An interesting part of sensemaking is the relationship between physical space and ideas. When someone places an artifact in a space, that physical space becomes a shortcut to the idea. Simply by glancing at a particular area of the desk can trigger thoughts about the artifact that’s placed there. If the materials are constantly removed, that sensemaking is short-circuited. There’s no “muscle memory” for the area of an idea, making it hard to dive back into work after a break.

In addition to a dedicated workspace, design studio should have space suitable for pinning work up as well as a large number of whiteboards. Pin-up space is important for both formal and informal critique. My classroom walls are covered in a material called homasote. The material takes pushpins easily, and can be painted and repainted; it’s also fairly inexpensive. Additionally, I place as many permanent and rolling whiteboards as I can within the space. This indicates to students that they should be externalizing their ideas and working collaboratively whenever possible.

Some of this collaboration is purposeful, such as in a group project, or including their peers in casual conversation about an assignment. But equally important are serendipitous meetings of students, late at night, where they reflect on the nature of their studies. I’ve overheard these reflective conversations, and they often are deeply introspective. Students show their vulnerability to one-another. They’ll describe their frustrations and their passions, and start to realize that their concerns and fears are shared by their classmates. This form of conversation rarely comes from a scheduled meeting. Instead, it’s shared when students have their guard down, often after working hard on a problem and making little or no progress.