Reconceptualising the design studio for today’s students

November 14, 2014

How do educators design the collaborative studio environment to suit 21st century practice? A topical article by Dr Nicki Wragg, senior lecturer in design at Swinburne University of Technology.

Above image: The Design Factory at Swinburne University is part of the Advanced Manufacturing Centre (AMC) on the Hawthorn campus.

Since the establishment of an amalgamated higher education system across Australia in the early 1990s, the specialist design school has not had a seamless transition to the university context.

The recent uncapped environment has intensified the challenge of reconciling a traditional studio education, with more students taking design courses. Design schools have repeatedly adjusted their teaching to changing conditions, which has relinquished key aspects of their being and identity.

The studio, an integral component of design education, is an educational and social space for design students. It’s where students are encouraged to approach creative experimentation as normal and comfortable, inspiring each other beyond the parameters of a formal class. The studio is a community of practice and practitioners.

Since the incorporation of design schools into universities, there has been a steady decline in participation among students and staff due to significantly reduced contact hours, larger student cohorts, teaching spaces scheduled around back-to-back classes and changing student expectations.

The solution is not to rebuild an idealised model of studio education, which is unachievable in the current context. The task is to align the best aspects of the design studio with multiple contexts and meet the ways in which design students are consuming education today.

An idealised notion of the studio

Underpinning the studio is a community where students meet future colleagues and experience success and failure. Design educators hang onto their memories of the studio as a physical space and the networking opportunities it afforded, but the nature of community in a contemporary university is vastly different.

Student’s expectations are changing. They want flexibility, connectivity and the capacity to work in a way of their choosing. Observations from a teaching perspective show students attend a studio class and mostly go home to work on a computer in their own space, no longer experiencing the shared learning and social environment that came with hanging out in the studio in the hours around formal classes working on projects, often late into the night.

The number of design students in programs has greatly increased. With a growing recognition of the benefits of design thinking, design studio classes are often populated with non-design students, increasing anonymity and social isolation.

Larger student numbers have forced back-to-back use of classrooms. Keen, ‘social’ students are resourceful and find other spaces to work together in, but most students drift off to work at home alone. Juggling university and work has also significantly impacted the time students have to be together and further developing themselves as designers.

Reconceptualising the studio

To tackle the erosion of the studio model of education, many design schools have introduced blended learning where students can engage with content and experiences delivered online and by attending a studio or lecture.

This intersection of traditional practices and new delivery methods requires design educators to reflect on the valued core of a studio and balance this with the needs and expectations of the contemporary design student.

At a time where flexibility and immediacy are prioritised, an online environment provides an ideal context for large numbers of students to experience the serendipity and social dimensions of the historical design studio.

An online studio allows students to be in the same conceptual space, to share and critique project work regardless of their physical location. Dynamic and vital conversations about design fundamentals and practices can occur in student’s own time, removing the strictures of crowded timetables and the juggle between study and work and life commitments.

On-campus design students have been using the web to collaborate since the early 2000s, creating their own versions of digital studios. Translating design curriculum for online delivery has been a logical and necessary step in a review of design education and practice.

Aligning the studio with online delivery does not make the physical studio redundant. The need for a physical space will remain, but for the most part it is the community that may not remain in the space as students increasingly access the social aspect online at their convenience.

Social connection is one of the most important aspects of design education, which we know can be fostered online. This is vital as students feel the pinch of time and move their work to their own spaces, often at home.

The studio is really a state of mind where students continue to learn through a process of doing and socialising. As growing numbers equate to declining attendance, design educators need to embrace every space with the same rigour so students maintain a sense of community, no matter where they are.

Dr Nicki Wragg is Director of Design Programs at Swinburne Online and Senior Lecturer in Design at Swinburne University of Technology.

Read our article on the Swinburne Design Factory.

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