Design studios: a proposal

Much is written about design education and I have to admit I’ve read none of it. However, I’m in my last year of an Interior Design graduate program and in the 7th week of my first design job and I have some from-the-ground observations on the scope of design curriculum. This post presents a proposal for an interior design studio curriculum. My bet is that some schools already do this (I haven’t researched it), but my school doesn’t and, as a result, I am feeling a distinct lack of knowledge and experience as I struggle to catch up in my new job – a lack that I believe could have been avoided with a more structured studio program.

As background, here’s a rundown of my coursework. Because this degree is my first design degree, I first completed several pre-requisites – Current Issues, Drafting/Rendering, Textiles, and a residential studio. Once in the graduate program proper, I completed coursework in CAD, Lighting (2 courses), History of Architecture and Design (ancient to modern, 3 courses), Business Procedures, Furniture Design, Building Technology, Project Management (an elective in the business school), and three design studios. This semester I’m in the fourth studio and beginning work for my thesis project. I have another elective to fulfill, which will be a practicum.

This curriculum touches a lot of ground and I learned a lot. Now that I’m working, however, I see a need for improvement, particularly in how studios are taught. In my curriculum, each studio introduced a new project and covered only the design development phase of the design process. For the most part, we were either given design programs or allowed to make them up (we did no empirical research) and we learned very little about how to go about developing and applying a concept. We never got to construction documents or beyond.

[For those of you who are not in the design business, the process generally involves (1) programming, where you gather facts about your client’s needs and desires and the building they will occupy, (2) schematic design, where you work out your general ideas and concepts and explore options, (3) design development, where you figure out how your client will fit into the space and then detail how the space will be built, finished, and furnished, (4) construction documentation, where you develop the detailed drawings that guide the construction and finishing of the new space, (5) construction administration, where you work with contractors during actual construction, and (6) post-occupancy evaluation, where you review how well your design actually works in real life.]

Design development is good stuff, but if I were organizing a studio curriculum, I’d provide students with in-depth exposure to all the phases of a design project, not just design development. Without a full-project perspective, design solutions not only run the risk of lacking depth and coherence, but often bear only a tenuous relationship with real-life functionality, sometimes bordering on the fantastical and impossible. Because a semester is too short to encompass the entire design process for any project, I’d link the four studios, carrying a single project through the various steps, allowing more in-depth exposure to all aspects of design and thus better equiping students for design careers. Here’s my proposal.

  • Studio 1 would be a research studio and deal with the beginning phases of a project, covering programming, research, and concept development. Students would be given a hypothetical project (with a choice among various types – workplace, education, hospitality, residential, etc.) linked to an actual client. This project would carry throughout all studios. Students would begin by conducting a literature review and doing general research on their industry/area to learn what considerations are involved in their type of project, the current trends, and what scholarly research has been done. Then students would research their particular client using the internet and published material, site visits, and interviews. Professors would make arrangements with actual companies or homeowners to make this possible (or set up mock client interviews if actual client interviews can’t be arranged). Design theory would be introduced and studied, then, analyzing the data they’ve collected, students would formulate concepts for their projects and create a statement of the design problem to be solved. Students would learn (in a hands-on way) how to create presentation boards and process books in this studio as well.
  • Studio 2 be a creativity studio and would continue concept development and take students through the beginnings of design development. First, students would experiment with their concepts, using diagrams, models, and materials, to learn how to translate their concepts into physical form. Then they would develop test fits and alternatives, which they’d refine into informal plans, elevations, sections, and details. Teaming would be introduced at this level. Students would continue to work on their own projects independently, but would be formed into teams for idea exchange and studio time would be allowed for informal team charettes. Teams would shift from class-to-class to allow maximum idea generation. This studio would have a practical side as well, introducing building code requirements and budgeting. Students would also be taught more advanced presentation techniques.
  • Studio 3 would be a practical studio during which students would complete the design development process. Students would finalize their plans, elevations, sections, and details, create perspectives, learn how to locate and choose materials, finishes, and furnishings, learn how to create details, and perfect their presentation skills. In-class team charettes would continue for idea generation. This studio would also include design charettes with outside designers at the mid-semester mark to provide higher-level ideation. Professors would enlist these designers.
  • Studio 4 would be a nuts-and-bolts studio, teaching the construction document, bidding, contracting, and construction phases of the process. Students would create a full sheet set of construction documents and specifications; learn how to create formal specifications for materials, equipment, and furnishings; learn about working with permitting authorities, consultants and contractors; gain a solid exposure to standard project management skills such as staffing, scheduling, budgeting, and dealing with changes and problems; and be exposed to various legal considerations involved in a project such as contracting, approvals, and liability. Students would either take a field trip to an actual construction site or be shown a presentation walking them through an actual project.

This four-studio process covers much more ground than does a series of four studios with separate projects. Students would be exposed to nearly all phases of a project in great depth, making them much better equipped to step into the design marketplace. The key to success, however, would be in the way the studios are taught. Professors would have to offer in-depth practical information on the how-to of design, arrange for meaningful projects and contacts, ensure that students are doing hands-on work and not just listening to 15-minute lectures or reading about the design phases in a textbook, and coordinate with one another to ensure that nothing is overlooked. The disadvantage of this system from the student point-of-view is that students are stuck with one project for four classes. However, the process of designing is the same regardless of the type of project and in the real world, junior designers seldom have much choice on what projects they work on. Students would, of course, learn about other practice areas by interacting with their classmates and observing their projects. On balance, the benefits to students of providing a complete exposure to the full design process outweigh the risk that students’ topical interests might change over the course of the four studios and justify any extra work on the part of professors.

So, design educators, this post is for you. Perhaps this proposal is nothing new, but it does offer a student/new designer perspective that you, as seasoned educators, may have lost sight of. If your goal is to equip your students to be good designers and to get great jobs, your students need a thorough studio experience.

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