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The design studio and design education

This was originally published in Design Online.

By Nicki Wragg, Swinburne Online Program Director – Design

Two months ago, I gave a lecture at the Visual Communication Victoria conference on their theme ‘Neue’. I linked the word to design: the typeface Helvetica Neue, the subliminal book, Die Neue Typographie and Germany’s Neue Sachlichkeit movement (New Objectivity) of the period 1919 to 1933, where intellectuals in the fields of painting, photography, music and writing embraced simplicity and directness in art production.

Neue Sachlichkeit coincided with the emergence of the Bauhaus, whose mission was to unite art and industry through pure, functional design. The Bauhaus based their influential model for progressive design education on free experimentation with forms and materials in the studio. The context for design has shifted dramatically since the 1920s, but the imprint of the Bauhaus studio model remains in design education.

For the past 12 months, I have been involved in providing design education through both a face-to-face, on-campus approach and online delivery. This has shown me that the essence of the design studio is translatable to online learning. The idea and culture of ‘the studio’ underpins most design education and practice. It is a concept and context for working in design that is informal, motivating and supportive. A studio is an open environment where individual or groups do visually-centred work. In design education, the studio has been a space that allows students to engage with and inspire each other beyond the parameters of formal classes; novice designers develop a designerly attitude and knowledge by hanging out with each other. Since the early 1990s, such a studio experience—where students had a dedicated space to work in—has been disappearing as a result of significantly reduced contact hours, larger students cohorts and teaching spaces scheduled around back-to-back classes.

Students have also changed. Today, they are more mobile, want more flexibility and want to work in a way of their choosing. They want to be motivated, inspired, have access to excellent learning materials and develop friendships through a networks of learners. Although students expect a social experience on-campus, this doesn’t necessarily occur. There is a need to facilitate socialisation both on-campus and online, with both contexts representing constraints and possibilities for enabling this. Students spend less time on campus outside formal classes. Online, there is a need to initiate relevant conversations to forge connections between students.

Between the two environments, I have observed that an online studio provides the ‘space’ for students to hang and test their ideas and knowledge as well as to learn in more formal ways, especially through the scope to post and review visual concepts. The idea of the physical studio as an integral component of design has affected the perception of undertaking design education online. Even in an era of globalised commerce, where the participants in design and production can be dispersed internationally, the physical studio as a place for design is likely to endure for some time, but its online version has many benefits, supporting, if well devised, free formal experimentation and the articulation of craft, celebrating ideas that fly or flop as the studio did at the Bauhaus in the early 20th century.

Read more about how students learn design online here.