The studio is, above all things, a learning environment. It allows designers of all levels to work together, promoting constant knowledge sharing, critique, and collaboration. This increased teaching has allowed me some time to reflect on my own education, and what I want my students to learn. Art and Design school was an interesting experience, one that strongly shaped my view of life and work. It forces you to think deeply about your work, the way you work, the environment in which you work, and what it means to succeed. I’ve come to realize that there are three main components to design education that are incredibly important to my daily work as a designer.
1. The Journey
Design school is really a journey. You start as an inexperienced novice, and leave with four years of intensive practice in the foundations of design. Over that time you learn to use certain tools naturally, you unconsciously competent with your tools. The first courses in design school help you learn expression and exploration. Through focused study in art and design history, open ended creative exercises, and self-directed projects you learn how to answer questions by making things. During this period students make an absurd number of objects, be they photographs, paintings, drawings, sculptures, videos, or anything else. Many design schools have adopted the practice based methods of Rowena Reed-Kostellow, who had her students make hundreds of models to explore the different aspects of 3D space. The second, complimentary, part of this early education is the idea of deconstruction. Deconstruction is where students take a formed object, or design solution, and take it apart to learn how it all works together. It also involves learning how to thoughtfully edit you work. Understanding what to leave out, how to remove it, and how that impacts the final product is an integral piece of the design practice. What students are really learning when they practice exploration, expressing, and deconstruction is how to tune their intuition. Intuition is a designers best friend, it’s what allows you to understand when you have a correct solution, when something is aesthetically pleasing, and how to put the pieces together to get there. Jon Kolko has done some great work to popularize the idea of abductive reasoning, and that is where all these early design school exercises should get you. Reed-Kostellow’s repetitive exploration methods help students internalize the forms they are building, thus giving them a strong intuition about when that type of form is “right.” Synthesizing various inputs and coming out with a new idea or object is the core of design practice, and all of design school is setup to help students internalize this process. One of the most important skills students learn from constantly making things is creative stamina. An art or design student is expected to be able to be creative on demand, and consistently. Students must be able to show up for a 3 – 6 hour studio session and create interesting and useful things that help them explore their topic. You quickly learn how to force creativity and inspiration, even when you’re tired, hung over, and have been doing this every day for weeks. As a practicing designer these are the core skills that I use every day. Exploration through making things, learning and synthesis, creating new knowledge form a variety of information, and using my intuition and history to understand when I’m on the right track. All of this comes together in the second big thing I learned from design school: The Studio.
2. The Studio
The environment in which design takes place has a huge effect on the output of the designers within it. Design schools consists of a number of environments – lectures, social activities, and more. However, the most important environment learned in school is the studio. The studio is a place to create, learn, share, critique, and collaborate. In a design school most practical work, either in groups or alone, takes place in the studio. A studio is a lot like a professional kitchen. There are a number of requirements to create a functional studio:
- Tools and materials for making things must be readily available and setup in an organized way. A studio will quickly fail if people have to search for their tools and waste time that could be used making things. Students (or working designers) should be able to jump right in and get going with the minimum of setup.
- A studio environment must be open enough to allow of serendipitous critique and collaboration, but also give people space to focus on their own work. This is a hard balance, both in schools and in professional design studios.
- A successful studio will have designers of different levels working in the same space and encourage a natural form of mentoring. More senior practitioners, in schools this would be either professors or higher level students, can use the openness of the space to give feedback and help to more junior designers, as well as lead by example. The ongoing critique and the ability for junior designers to watch the more senior people work makes this an incredibly strong learning environment.
The studio is where students go to do their exercises, explore ideas, learn from and talk to other students, receive instruction from professors, and make their projects come to life. The creative stamina learned from hours of exercises is what allows them to enter the studio and create things until they get it right. The studio, and the rest of the design school experience, teaches designers to constantly create in order to understand the design problem at hand, and eventually come up with a solution.
The final element of design school that I’m going to talk about is foundation. A great studio, and learning how to explore, deconstruct, and intuit solutions, is all fairly useless without the foundational elements that let students actually create things and understand why some solutions work and others don’t. Foundation gives us the basis for critique as well as creation. The shared language used to describe elements of a design solution makes it possible to discuss designs based on a common understanding and intent, while still leaving room for different perspectives and styles. These elements include things like time, colour, 2D and 3D space, line, feedback, and more. Design schools teach students how to use these elements and talk about them in a critical way. The other aspect of foundation are the hard skills designers need in order to explore and create designs. The most important of these is visual thinking and communication. Design is created and communicated in primarily visual media – sketches, drawings, models, videos, etc. Students learn how to sketch in a constructive and deconstructive way, refine those sketches into models, drawings, and diagrams, then create prototypes using sculptural or interactive materials. Learning how to think by sketching, for example, is an integral part of design education. It allows students to create outputs that clearly communicate their intent and can be discussed and critiqued using the share language of the foundations. Learning these skills is a combination of practice, instruction (i.e. life drawing class), and reflection. Once learned though, they form the basis of design communication and creativity, setting up the student for success in the studio and beyond.
Design school teaches people to be comfortable with the unknown. Tight deadlines that require large amounts of creativity and output teach focus and discipline. The studio environment gives students a safe place for exploration, learning, and critique. Visual thinking and communication lays the foundation for taking ideas and making them real. These are what I’ve taken away form my time in design school, and hope to pass on to those that I teach and work with. A successful design business is a lot like a school. It should help the designers within it learn, grow, and create good work; it should support collaboration and serendipity; and most of all it should encourage designers to explore ideas, solve design problems, and teach others around them.
If you didn’t attend design school, and are interested in getting a taste of what it’s like in a way that you can immediately bring back to your daily work, Matt will be giving the workshop ‘What You Missed When You Skipped Design School’ with Dave Malouf at Interaction 12 in Dublin.