Embedding Studio Cultures Digitally

My Contribution
Project Inception to Prototyping
Project Details
Undergraduate thesis. 4 months
2 project tutors & co-authors
For my undergraduate thesis, I studied the studio as a method of learning in architecture and design schools. I was curious to learn about potential areas where studio learning fell short with regards to modern curricula.

The entire study revealed that studios operate on cultures that reflect an institution’s design philosophy and approach to learning. These studio cultures ought to be explored and preserved in both physical and digital environments, which traditional approaches to studio learning (heavy on tactile feedback in a fixed location) do not effectively support. The TL;DR is that studio learning should go digital, and the visuals you see below are experiments for what I imagine that digital environment would look like.

Below you’ll find an informal and higher-level overview of my project, read a paper I co-wote with my tutors where I discuss the subject matter more comprehensively here.

Project Inception & Research Approach

Due to my limited knowledge about studio learning and how this method came to be, I decided to study how other schools practiced it. I chose five schools in London to visit, scheduled multiple meetings and focus groups with students and teachers, and tried to see how people interpreted the studio as a physical space for learning. Multiple questions led me in this discovery phase: How did studio learning come to be? How does School X’s approach differ from that of School Y? Did students even value the studio anymore? 

The initial findings of my research were not novel. In fact, multiple interviewees questioned if there was any reason to study the efficiency or relevancy of the design studio. I was respectfully told: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. However, the pandemic redefined my project entirely. The physicality of the studio space was suddenly challenged, proving to be an extremely relevant parameter for my project. From a project that initially aimed to tackle the studio as a physical space, my thesis became an exploration of the studio in a digital learning context instead. The questions of my project then evolved:

How do students learn in the studio? How did COVID-19 affect this? What can we do about it?

These questions acted like a northstar for the entire project, which helped me re-stucture my project goals. They were the following:

  • Define what a design studio is through case studies on existing design and architecture schools. I ended up sampling the Architectural Association (AA), Central St. Martins & Chelsea College of Arts and Design (UAL), The London School of Architecture (LSA), The Barlett School of Architecture (UCL), and The Cass School of Architecture (LMU)
  • Define the elements that create physical in-person “studio cultures”
  • Understand how global lockdown has affected “studio cultures” for these students and educators 
  • Translate these pain points into potential design solutions 
  • Create final prototypes or visual executions that express these solutions

Pre-pandemic, I visited five different architecture and design schools in London to meet with students and staff and learn about how they engaged with studio learning. Post-pandemic, I touched base with some of these people and talked to them about their experience shifting to an online learning environment. 

Research Findings

The comparison of these experiences in studio learning pre-pandemic and post-pandemic revealed the limitations of studio learning as a pedagogy.
The main finding of my research was that students and educators suffer not only from the loss of tangible space, but that of unique and nuanced studio culture with almost no online presence.

“The informal exchange of ideas which the creative process is dependent on doesnt take place using these virtual video tools. It seems to be more formal now.” - 4th Year Architecture Student from the Architectural Association

Based on a survey sampling 100 design and architecture students, 67.8% felt that their institution’s online set-up was not compatible with their education. 87.5% felt that more work could be achieved if they were in their actual designated spaces. 86.21% of respondents agreed that they would be interested in participating in a virtual platform that responds to their specific needs as design and architecture students. From online interviews, students expressed that their virtual learning environments caused them to be disoriented, unmotivated or unproductive.

“It's hard. I have delivered 4 lectures online- student microphones muted, and limited video screens if you are presenting, gauging audience response is nearly impossible. It feels much less efficient, and more tiring. I'm not sure what is gained, aside the obvious.” - Design Professor from UAL

“Due to the time difference, I feel alienated from what everyone else is doing- people who are to be working at the same time seem to be productive together. I feel like they’re progressing, and I’m not.” - 2nd Year Design Student from Unvisersidad de Navarra

My research findings validated the need to create a virtual platform (apps for everything 🤣) that would support architecture and design students in hybrid learning environments.

Designing a Solution

The goal was to create a digital counterpart of a studio that would be ideal for architecture and design students.
The questions that led my entire design process was slightly complex. What unique engagements happen in the studio? How do we digitize these experiences?

Understanding the pain points: I conducted 17 online interviews (10 students and 7 teachers from mixed universities) to understand the pain points of the shift to online studio learning. These pain points led the ideation process of possible solutions that one would find on this hypothetical platform. I then led 10 co-design sessions to prioritize these ideas and identify which ones were of most importance.   

Pulling in references: I wanted to pull in design solutions based on existing models of other online collaboration apps. I studied the functionalities and user interface patterns of 8 different platforms ranging from Monday.com to Miro, and Notion. Inspired by other pedagogical approaches and multiple experimental approaches to data visualization, I was challenged to think of creative ways to bring studio life and studio culture in an online learning environment.

The Design Result

The result is a hypothetical platform I (lazily) named “Interact”. The product’s mission is to help architecture and design schools localize their studios and build culture online to optimize a hybrid learning environment for their students, faculty and staff. The product’s vision is to empower educators and learners by offering seamless and functional tools that push the boundaries of studio learning even further.

Each of the features created were alleviations to pain points I discovered from the research stage of the project. I then created sample mock-ups and a (private) video walkthrough for how I imagined these features to work.

Below you can find some snippets of the visual assets and prototypes that help visually convey these features. Send me an email if you want access to the video where I explain this in more depth!

Project Conclusions

My investigation aims to emphasize that the effects of the pandemic pose a problem that is not just the loss of a tangible studio space, but that of its culture with almost no online presence.
My proposal argues that we can come close to translating culture online by looking at the studio as something beyond a physical location. Schools must look towards building their cultures and inner networks online, establishing solid channels of communication and a unique digital “sense of place” for their students, faculty and staff.

By enabling educators and students with a tool that acts as their “mobile design studio”, students and professors will no longer have to rely on just one physical environment to receive feedback, monitor progress, discuss, or collaborate with others to come up with new ideas. The thought of going through another global lockdown should not threaten the design studio again. Design education should shun the idea that good work can only occur in one physical space.

Project Limitations

This project was completed in the middle of a global pandemic largely by a team of one with fractional support, with a constricting time-frame and limited resources. If I had more time and a magic wand to do whatever I wanted with this project, I would’ve done the following:

  • Focus on more insights from teachers and staff members in the research phase
  • Gather feedback of the final draft of the design approach from a wider audience and larger sample of design and architecture students and staff
  • Consult with a software engineer on the feasibility of certain features or functionalities
  • Develop a functioning MVP of one of the core features to pilot or test with a group

Other Things

The full documentation of this project goes deeper into the analysis from the schools I studied, the role of the public sector in studio learning (so cool!!!), and the importance of collaborative feedback. I made a website to help walk people through that entire thought process. You can send me an email if you’d like the access code. 

I finished this project in 2020. If you want to revisit this problem statement or talk about EdTech, let me know :) 

Project Playlist

Common Unity - Chaos in the CBD
Metropolis - Compuphonic
Soliá - Bad Bunny
High Fashion (feat. Mustard) - Roddy Rich
Closer - Project Pablo, Patrick Holland
Cult of Operator - Folamour
Holding On - Classix
SWIM - Brockhampton
Hallelujah - HAIM
Marcy Son What - Shakarchi & Stranéus

Happy to do a full-on project walkthrough!