How I Teach - Reflecting on 15 years in design education
by Jon Kolko

Chapter Three: Design Studio

Interacting with the professor

My studio classes begin with a brief group meeting with the whole class together in one place. We discuss the general progress each team has made since our last meeting, and review our project schedule. I try to keep this meeting to a short period of time, often as brief as 15 or 20 minutes.

Then, I transition the class to a work session. Students are instructed to focus on their projects (usually in teams, as most work is collaborative), and I begin to circulate through the studio.

I meet with each group individually and ask them to show me what they’ve developed since the last time we spoke. The actual artifacts they’ve produced drive the conversation—they pin up their work and they point at various decisions they’ve made. Instead of speaking theoretically or generally introducing concepts, the learning is grounded in the things the students have made. That means the student needs to come to class prepared to talk about these artifacts. It seems obvious, but I need to teach them that they have to actually bring the artifacts to class. Since many students haven’t experienced a studio before, it’s important to set the rules. I tell the students that they need to come prepared with their work—that it’s fundamental that they bring an artifact, not just an idea. And, they learn that it’s their meeting, which means they not only need to be ready to discuss and analyze that work, they also need to have a list of tasks that they want to accomplish or questions they want to ask.

As we meet, we move fluidly between looking at their work, sketching on the whiteboard, discussing the decisions they’ve made, and making real-time changes and explorations. I’ll offer my own opinions and participate in iterations alongside of them, often sketching directly on top of their work.

The expectation for a student is that they participate in the conversation, sketch new ideas, and take notes. Because studio classes are unique and many students won’t have experienced them before, I need to tell them these expectations, particularly the part about taking notes. I’ll prompt students: “This seems important. Do you want to take a second and write it down?” Additionally, since I want students to habitualize making things instead of talking about things, I’ll also prompt students: “Can you show us?” or “Why don’t you draw that?”

As I work with the students, and design alongside them, I provide a commentary about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. This helps students see how I make decisions. They can compare how they would have solved the problem with how I solve it, and in that respect, they learn both specific design practice (these are the steps I take to move forward) and also generalized design methods (these are the tools I use when I do my job). For example, a group of students are working on designing a service and they may have sketched a simplistic diagram on the whiteboard, at a superficial or vague level. I can iterate on that diagram to make it more useful, adding directly to their sketch. As they watch me draw, they may hear me say:

The initial sketch does a good job of showing the high level flow through the service. Let’s add more detail. I’m going to break the structure into phases, here’s phase one. We’ll call that the discovery phase. Most services start when someone learns about them, often from another person. Let’s put a placeholder there to remind us that we need to conduct more research about that part. Then, I’ll move on to the other phases. Why don’t you take the marker, and add phase two: I think it should be something about learning, where the user begins to understand the value of the service. What’s a word that captures “learning” most effectively?

My instruction has several key components.

  • I take over. I see that the students are working only at a vague level of detail, so I begin to show them how detail matters. Instead of letting them drive, I realize they are struggling and I take a more “command and control” approach to the conversation.
  • I leverage my experience. I fill in the blanks on their rough diagram with more discrete elements, and so students see that their original sketch was too broad. I also add a phase called “Discovery”, based on my understanding of how services work. They wouldn’t have thought to add that; I lean on my own experience to show that part.
  • I write and draw directly on their work. It’s not effective to simply talk about changes they need to make—they need to see me actually make those changes in the context of their own work. This helps them see my suggestions in more fidelity, and most importantly, it helps them realize that work is iterative and that what they’ve produced is not “precious.”
  • I discuss what I’m doing as I do it. I offer a running commentary of why I’m making the decisions as I make them, so that students can understand my intent and the thought-process of my decision making.
  • I transition so the student is in charge. When students see forward momentum through my actions, I transition the role of “being in charge” back to the group. This helps them claim ownership over the ideas, even if I’m the source of those ideas.

In addition to working through problem solving with the team, I’ll constantly prompt them with the question “What problem are you trying to solve?” A design problem has so many facets that it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Identifying a specific problem to solve helps narrow scope, and makes a large problem seem less insurmountable. And, clearly articulating “this is the problem I want to solve” helps the team remain aligned. I urge the team to write it down, and to constantly revisit the statement.

Doing it right

I’ve noticed that students become very concerned with checking with me to make sure they are “doing it right.” They see my expertise as a check on their work, as if I need to bless what they’ve made as being correct. This is particularly true for inexperienced students, who want to make sure they are following directions, or doing exactly what I, as the professor, want. It’s hard for them to learn that, in design, there’s no right—there’s only better and worse. I take a specific-to-vague approach to helping them learn this.

At the beginning of the curriculum and course of study, I give students painstaking parameters that describe what my expectations are. I’ll specify the number of sketches to create, the font to use, even the size of paper to draw on. I contain the creative space as much as I can, and I’m prescriptive to the point of minimizing creative exploration. Counterintuitively, this gives students more room to explore, not less. By excluding decisions, they can focus. If they have to use a certain paper size, they don’t need to spend time worrying about what paper to choose. If the “rule” is to only use Helvetica, they don’t need to explore different fonts. Instead, they can drive their attention towards the goal of the assignment. They can isolate that goal.

I write these constraints down in the assignment sheet (I’ll share more about how I write assignment sheets later). When students ask me in these early classes if they are “doing it right”, I refer them to these constraints. They are free to deviate, I explain, but their client (me!) has specific needs, and if they don’t meet them, they better have a good reason. Some students will ignore the constraints anyway. During critique, this gives the group a chance to discuss the nature of client or stakeholder expectations. I use a simple way of explaining the importance of meeting those expectations. If a client asks for a blender design, I explain to the students, and you give them a toaster, the client is unhappy. But if you give them both a blender and a toaster, you have a happy client. You went above and beyond, and they see how committed you are towards meeting their needs. The rules that I’ve spelled out in the assignment sheet are the blender. Meet the rules first, and then, if you want to explore outside of them, build the toaster.

I’m very prescriptive when students begin their studies. Over time, I become less and less specific. My grade sheets will become vague, and at some point when students have progressed to an advanced level, I won’t hand out grading criteria at all. Now, the answer to “am I doing it right?” needs to come from the student themselves. They need to identify constraints (often emerging from the work itself) and then use these constraints to shape their exploration. They need to structure assessment criteria, and seek out criticism. This is a transfer of responsibility. I’m not in charge of the design work anymore. The student is.

The reason I become more and more vague is because design problems are inherently ill-structured. Every single problem a student will encounter as a working professional will have ill-defined and often conflicting requirements. Their job is to make sense of ambiguity and find clarity among the mess. No one will be there to tell them what to do and how to do it, and to help prepare them for this, they need to become comfortable making their own rules. But this only works because they experienced having the rules drawn explicitly for them early in their education. They’ve learned what it means to add structure to a project. They’ve learned that they need to isolate elements, add boundaries, and work within constraints. Once they’ve learned this, they can apply their own constraints in later exploration.

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