Thursday, November 7, 2013


What do I want students to learn in my sophomore design studios?

The most important skills that a student should learn in the early years of architectural studio courses is ‘thinking’ and  ‘process’.  Design is after all, a process of inquiry.
The design process itself can be difficult for students to grasp.  It is different than the way students have been educated their entire lives, where they are taught to follow a series of linear steps that will ultimately lead to a ‘correct’ answer.  Design is not that simple, nor is there just one solution.  Design is a thought process, an intellectual activity that is about creative exploration.  The creative process involves innovation, meaning that you don’t always know where a project is going when you begin.  Because of this, getting students to explore iterations in their work is essential.

The challenge in teaching design is that the design process is non-linear and iterative.
One problem I often see in my studio courses is that students get stuck on an initial idea.  Too often, students resist the idea of truly exploring options and possibilities.  This is likely a result of the time and energy it took to develop the initial idea in the first place.   It is hard to convince a student who has just spent an enormous amount of time developing a project that now is the time to re-think and question everything.  The challenge, however, is that to become a good designer one must ask questions, test options, and explore multiple solutions to a given problem.  Good designers are quick on their feet and must be able to shift their thinking as fluidly as they can shift scales.  Design thinking requires the quick exploration of options. More than often, when a designer allows him or herself to follow a new idea, the result becomes richer and more authentically innovative.

So how do you teach this? 

This past week I tried an experiment in my studio classes.  We are about one month into this semester’s primary design project.  The students have already explored several site planning concepts at 1:30 scale, and have already produced their first building design model at 1:8 scale.  They have all seemingly established a conceptual direction, and I thought maybe this would be a good time to try to shake things up a bit.  So I tried creating an in-class two hour charrette.  The students were asked to develop two entirely new alternatives to their project.  One scheme was to use the already established organizational parti and develop a new massing concept.  The second scheme was to be an entirely new alternative using the previously established design concept.  Students began the class with one scheme, and two hours later had three.  The purpose of this activity was to get students working quickly and intuitively, without thinking too much about the outcome.  Could the work itself reveal new opportunities and potentials within their design?  Can trying something new give new insights into a project?

After the schemes had been developed, I had students pin up their work.  Then in small groups they worked together to identify the strengths and potentials of each scheme, using post-it notes to record their observations.  The idea was that by focusing only on the potentials for each scheme, students would begin to think about how to develop their project, hopefully now incorporating new information  learned from this exercise.

What remains to be seen at this point is if this will ultimately work, but so far some initial feedback is promising.  One student mentioned that I had totally screwed him up because now he was “rethinking everything”.  If that is the case then I have done my job.

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