Opinion: Reconceptualising hands-on design

Opinion: Reconceptualising hands-on design

As schools and universities embraced online learning in the face of COVID-19, design educators were asked to reconceptual hands-on, studio-based learning in the virtual sphere.

Seven years ago at Swinburne University of Technology, we collaborated with Swinburne Online to reimagine the studio for a remote cohort participating in a fully online Communication Design program. As with all change, robust discussion around the viability and equivalence of an online design program was everpresent with multiple opinions.

Traditionally, the on-campus design studio has been viewed romantically: design educators are nostalgic about their own experience of the serendipity of the studio. So, while online and on-campus university structures and student cohorts have changed, studio practice has altered little. That is, until COVID-19 arrived, compelling Swinburne’s Communication Design staff to reimagine their studios to optimise online curriculum delivery and provide continuity for students.

With a week to reimagine the studios and social context of the studio, me and my collegauges explored synchronous and asynchronous delivery. We considered methods to best critique work; how to enable students to access highly specialized software online; how to ensure high attendance and most importantly how best to develop a community of practice.

Translating the Communication Design program while working with Swinburne Online, I reflected deeply on the on-campus studio to understand the constituent parts of experiential learning. Determined to make on online studio a social environment, we worked to build rapport amongst the students and a create trusting environment, all of which was conducive to experiential learning and iterative development. This knowledge alongside what the Covid-19 transition has taught us, is that students are very comfortable behind a screen. While they enrolled on-campuss for a face-to-face experience, attendance, since the transfer to online studios, has been exceedingly high at 85 per cent and over. This has astonished staff along with submission rates of over 90 per cent and a new willingness of students to participate actively in theirs and other group discussions.

Similarly, practices of one-to-one consultation in the studio have shifted to group consultation. Students receiving iterative feedback do so within a group context. Any ambivalence from students to feedback sessions has been replaced with conversations where the students are making connections between theirs and their peers work, weaving together collective feedback relevant to them. In this way students are enhancing their design literacy through well articulated video presentations, exercising agency by assisting other students and are developing a shared understanding of learning materials and technology requirements.

Collaboration in the studio can be dynamic and exciting, however true collaboration only occurs if all participants (staff and students) are prepared to listen, that is listen without ego, bias, or pre-determined ideas of design or the tasks at hand.  Having to transfer to an online learning space so rapidly has been a great leveler where students and staff, together, are working through new challenges. There is a freshness, and a sense of discovery as we work towards the same learning goals with students responding in a proactive way, seeking out feedback, posting iterative development on Instagram, and being engaged in the wider world.

Lessons from the earlier translation of Communication Design with Swinburne Online prepared on-campus staff for the work that has been required in the current pandemic. Knowledge of asynchronous and synchrounous modes of teching unique to design has enabled them to transition fast and, together with students, adopt new practices that invigourate the online design studio. When the time passes and we move back to an on-campus mode, will we look back at COVID-19 as the catalyst for lasting change to studio practice at design school?

Associate Professor Nicki Wragg is the Chair of Communication Design at Swinburne’s School of Design