Pedagogical Practices Central to the Studio Critique: Culture, Habits, and Discourse
Katherine S. Cennamo, Ph.D. | Virginia Tech
Carol B. Brandt, Ph.D. | Temple University
Abstract: In this chapter we distinguish pedagogical practices central to the studio critique: the cultural norms of interaction among instructors and students, the types of habits instilled through assignments, and the kinds of talk and listening that foster creativity and professional growth among students. In order to learn more about ways in which the studio supports the creative refinement of design solutions, we collected data in five semester‐long courses that incorporated public and private critiques as part of a design studio experience (one course in industrial design, one course in architecture, and three classes in human-computer interaction, or HCI) at three universities (Cennamo & Brandt, 2012). Synthesizing this research, we offer six guidelines for pedagogical patterns and for associated logistics and epistemological beliefs that contribute to the creation of a supportive culture in the design studio.
Goals And Methods
The critique is the central feature of the design studio (Hokanson, 2012). Design research has benefited from studying the synergy among peers, artifacts, and design activity fostered through social processes in the critique (Gray, 2013). The particular emphasis of our research on the design studio and its application focuses on the relationships among instructors and students, the kinds of talk, and the pedagogical practices that foster both creative design solutions and a sense of oneself within the profession. In this chapter we distinguish pedagogical practices central to the studio critique: the cultural norms of interaction, the types of habits instilled through assignments, and the kinds of talk and listening that foster design expertise and professional growth among students.
In discussing the benefits and challenges of the studio critique, Hokanson (2012) notes the value of the critique for conveying design knowledge while acknowledging the need to establish appropriate social structures and norms to ensure quality critiques. He states that the “development of the skills of critique among faculty, adjuncts, visiting critics, and students may be one of the lynchpins of [a] successful critique system” (2012, p. 80), especially in disciplines without a long history of studio-based pedagogy.
To learn more about ways in which the studio supports the refinement of design solutions, we collected data in five semester‐long courses that incorporated public and private critiques as part of a design studio experience (one course in industrial design, one course in architecture, and three classes in human-computer interaction, or HCI) at three universities (Cennamo & Brandt, 2012). Our data set for each of these five courses consists of over 100 hours of videotaped recordings of classroom interactions, transcripts of all public electronic announcements, student design journals, discussions (via listserv, discussion boards, and chats), and any documents distributed to the group by faculty, students, or advisors. In addition, instructors reflected on their classes at periodic intervals to make explicit their decisions guiding the class as well as their “reflections‐on‐actions” (Schon, 1983).
Each of the five courses served as a separate case study (Merriam, 1998; Stake, 1995). Each case was analyzed within‐case for elements essential to the studio approach, with special emphasis on the kinds of discourse engaged in by the instructor and students during the critique sessions. For each course, videotapes of class activities, instructor‐ and student‐generated artifacts, and instructor reflections served as the primary sources of data. Our analysis of studio classrooms in architecture, industrial design, and HCI revealed ways that the patterns of interaction exhibited in the studio assignments and associated critiques are essential to developing students’ design knowledge (Brandt et al., 2013; Cennamo & Brandt, 2012).
The specific patterns of interaction presented here were developed through cross-case analysis of the five cases to discern common studio patterns. We initially generated a list of 40 reoccurring patterns that seemed representative of the instructor’s beliefs about the nature of teaching and learning in their studio. For simplicity, we called these studio guidelines, as they seemed to represent the principles that the instructors used to guide their actions in the studio. For example, through their dialogue, the students and instructors in each studio classroom established meaning around language that was specific to the discipline or to the particular design studio of which the students were a part. These observations resulted in the guideline “establish a common language to communicate design ideas.”
The 40 guidelines were annotated with example data from the five cases. To further reduce the number of guidelines, we examined the list and supporting data to identify themes across coding categories. Through an iterative process, the initial list was further reduced to 14 guidelines representing the instructors’ beliefs about the nature of teaching and learning in the studio. Finally, these 14 guidelines were reviewed to identify the key patterns of interaction that surfaced through our analysis, and were presented to the other project team members for discussion. Through rich and extended discussions, we identified the six key ideas that surfaced through our analysis.
Based on our analysis, below, we offer the following guidelines to provide insight into the pedagogical patterns and supporting logistics and epistemological beliefs that contribute to the creation of a supportive culture in the design studio. These guidelines can be summarized in the following six points, as both pedagogical and logistical-epistemological practices.
In our data, we found that three pedagogical practices facilitated the construction of knowledge in the design studio setting.
- Critiques provide opportunities for both students and instructors to model their design thinking.
- Public critiques provide opportunities for students to learn from each other through “listening-in.”
- Meta-discussions, in the context of the critique, are used by instructors to illuminate key ideas in the discipline.
The pedagogical practices of modeling and coaching, listening-in, and meta-discussions were both facilitated and supported by the nature of the assignments and in-progress reviews, and by the epistemological understanding developed and reinforced through explicit discussions of the “habits of the studio.” Based on our analysis, we found that both public and private critiques were enhanced by the following practices:
- Creation of assignments that require all students to design projects that are similar in terms of goals and context, yet offer opportunities for variance in the products created.
- Creation of assignments that encourage multiple iterations and provide students with opportunities to have their work reviewed while in-progress.
- Orientation of students to the “habits of the studio.”
Below, we present each principle, illustrated with an example from our data transcripts. Drawing upon our data, we model the process, and allow you (the reader) to “listen in” to the dialogue. As you examine the data along with us, we summarize the principles illustrated in the data in our own meta-discussions. Through the following discussion, we argue that the “habits of the studio” enabled the productive, supportive critiques that we observed in our data.
1. Critiques provide opportunities for both students and instructors to model their design thinking.
Over and over again, we observed that the critique sessions provided opportunities for instructor modeling. Students and faculty exhibit reflection-in-action as they present and respond to student design work. These public presentations provide students with the opportunity to observe other students’ design products and processes, as well as an opportunity for instructors, as “expert coaches,” to model the thought process they would use in solving a similar problem.
In the following example, students in a second-year industrial design studio are discussing their ideas for a hand-held medical dispenser with the instructor during individual desk-crits. Notice how the instructor coaches students to consider certain variables through her questioning, and models how she would think about the problem under consideration.
The student has talked to a neighbor, a nurse, who brought up the issues of sterilization and waste of tools. The student is thinking of a dispenser to store and transport tools that need to be cleaned.
Instructor: You know, someone’s prepping the operating room for surgery, right, somebody’s in charge of that. . . . And they come in and they bring the tools in. Well how do they do that? Do they go to this utility room and stock them up on a tray, or what? Find out all about that because there’s probably a good way to think about that process. . . . And so when I go into this clean room, is there a stack of shelves and they’re all labeled and in boxes, and so I say I need this, this, and this, and so there’s a list. And does the doctor prepare that list, the surgeon? Do nurses do that for the surgeon. . . ?
This segment is very typical of critique sessions in this class. For brainstorming purposes, the instructor creates a narrative in which she is a doctor or nurse going about her day and thinking out loud about the different ways in which she would use this dispenser, how it can be used for various tools, how easy or difficult it would be, and so forth. In this way, she inserts herself into the design problem and models how knowledge is generated in the discipline.
The industrial design studio largely relied on students’ direct experience with forms and materials as a vehicle for learning design concepts. This direct experience with materials provided important course content, but also mirrored professional practice. For example, in the industrial design studio, a day of sketching preceded the project of the medical hand-held dispenser, with the guest instructor drawing alongside the students. This experience gave students a sense of how a designer (in this case the guest professor) approached the form and functional constraints of the hand.
In the industrial design studio, trend studies for the medical dispenser provided an opportunity for the instructors to discuss the ways in which industrial designer approach a problem. The exchange offered insight into how the students were coached to think about the generation of knowledge in their discipline. At one point during the discussion, the instructor said, “You’re taking what we’re saying a little bit too literally, I think. I think we’re trying to get your head into a place of, all of you, get into the place . . . if you’re focusing on, this is something I need to do every day, then let’s think about all the other things I do every day. . .” And later, “I want you to understand the difference between what I just said, and attaching a pill dispenser to a cell phone, OK? Don’t leap to the obvious.” In this way, the instructor was able to focus on this problem to make larger points about the design process.
2. Public critiques provide opportunities for students to learn from each other through “listening-in.”
Students should be provided with opportunities to compare their ideas with those of others to facilitate their development as designers, both formally in project critiques, and informally in shared spaces. Students and faculty need to embrace a collaborative epistemology, where students are respected as emerging designers who are responsible for fully contributing not only to their work, but to the work of their peers (Adams et al., 2016; Brandt, et. al., 2013; McDonald & Michela, 2019; Goldschmidt et al., 2010).
In the following segment from our data recordings, students in this second-year industrial design studio are presenting their ideas for a hand-held medical dispenser during a pin-up session with the whole class. The presenting student has designed an ace bandage dispenser for use by athletic teams. Notice how the other class members participate in the design discussion.
Student: When you are applying the bandage, you want to apply pressure to it …so that button would be pressed and you would just push a little form…
Instructor: Is it that it needs to put pressure on you or is it that the Ace bandage needs to have some tension to it so…
Student: Tension, yes, it’s the tension.
Instructor:…that’s one place where you may be able to get a little more creative … So I’d really look at once that button – you know, how is that going to be to used, and when you need to have your finger on it, and when you don’t. And how is it really providing tension?
Other student: If you look at those dog leashes that have the button to extend it, and there is a lock to it…
This excerpt demonstrates how the other students participate in the design discussion. Students contribute to the work of their fellow student and model their design thinking, consistent with the norms established by the instructor for providing feedback to others. They pattern their feedback on techniques that have been modeled by the instructor—asking questions, offering narratives of use, and so forth. Other students offer a multitude of additional ideas, freely building off of each other’s ideas and contributing to each other’s work.
In the Architecture studio, one-on-one desk-crits with students were seldom conducted; instead, the instructor used “table crits” where several students at a time were invited to a table at the side of the room to review designs, models, and emerging plans. The instructor noted in her journal that:
“When I do talk to students at their desk, I make an effort to engage their neighbors in the conversation. Or, might call across the room to another student who has a similar issue in their work and bring them over… And, more often than not, I'll see something during the conversation that applies to the whole class, and will bring the whole class together to talk about it. In this case, everyone is in a sense always ‘on’.”
The industrial design studio instructor noted in her journal that: “Studios are viral: whatever independents do, others will follow in some way. Sometimes this is positive and sometimes negative. So, I decided to use a method of iteration that I had used before with juniors as a way of giving structure and a deadline, which is often so much more valuable than time. We asked the students to develop 10 different concepts for their dispensers on 10 different pieces of paper…. We spent much of last week going through these pin-ups on the wall.” Pinning up all the designs next to each other permitted students to view the design problem from alternative perspectives. The instructor cited the effectiveness of the pin-ups in her journal, emphasizing “density” as an important quality of the design practice: “The other issue that comes up in a pin-up is density. It is important to notice that 33 students’ work pinned up side-by-side is a much stronger statement than each individual, from which both student and faculty can feel encouragement.”
The value of listening-in was recognized by students. As one student noted in a quick-write: “The most beneficial thing that takes place in studio is the group discussions we have. I feel those have made me a better designer. It always helps to get other people’s opinions on your product. It also helps me to see ways that I can improve my product that I never noticed before. Also, being able to walk around and look at other people’s designs has given me ideas for my own design. Without other people’s opinions and ideas, I would find progressing as a designer very slow and difficult.”
3. Meta-discussions, in the context of the critique, are used by instructors to illuminate key ideas in the discipline.
Student projects provide concrete examples through which to conduct “meta-discussions” around essential ideas in the discipline. Faculty respond to student’s work in a way that elevates the discussion from the specific details of one student’s project to abstract principles applicable in multiple situations.
In the following example from our data recordings, notice how the instructor uses concrete examples generated by the students to point out disciplinary conventions as well as to push students to come to see key ideas on their own.
Students in an architecture design studio have been asked to create sketches of Ronchamp, the Notre Dame du Haut chapel, completely from memory. The students and instructor had studied this iconic building and its innovative use of space and light in the previous year.
After they display their drawings, the instructor engages the students in a discussion of “typology,” describing the pattern cathedrals follow in France. She asks one student to come to the chalkboard and draw a typology of cathedrals in France. Another student draws the inner typology. More students are called upon to add to the typology drawing and students begin to come up on their own. The instructor begins to explain the difference between function and type.
At one point in the discussion, the instructor asks: “What did I ask every single group?” A student answers: “orientation.” The instructor explains that the typical orientation of design on a page is where “north is up.” By waiting for every group to NOT mention orientation and by not making it an issue during presentations, she doesn’t single out groups or indirectly find fault with any one person. The instructor makes an instructional point in a meaningful and nonthreatening way, while also emphasizing the norms of studio practice and of architectural practice as well.
In this way she signals to students how she would like them to proceed with their designs on paper. Instead of presenting general concepts and then illustrating them with examples, as may be found in traditional courses, the instructors use the examples provided in the students’ work to explain general principles. These “meta-level” discussions provide instructors with the opportunity to discuss essential concepts, behaviors, and skills of the discipline, grounded in concrete examples from the student’s work.
In our data, we found that these three pedagogical practices, as enacted in the design crits, were enabled by certain behaviors and beliefs on the part of the instructor.
4. Creation of assignments that require all students to design projects that are similar in terms of goals and context, yet offer opportunities for variance in the products created.
Studio assignments should be designed to illuminate key ideas in a discipline. In the following example from a senior and graduate-level HCI class, the focused assignment of designing an interactive information kiosk for the University bookstore provided greater opportunities for instructors to model and conduct meta-discussions than a previous assignment for students to simply design a product of their choice. The other students were also more engaged in the critiques, since they were working on the same design problem.
This project began with the instructor asking students to visit a local post office to generate ideas for their kiosk designs. The next class session began with a discussion of the kinds of questions students should consider when identifying their user groups and functional requirements. In this way, the instructor modeled both the thinking needed and the processes/questions that needed to be addressed. After reminding students that functionality precedes design, and discussing the difference between the “what” and the “how” of design, the instructor divided students into small groups that had 20 minutes to sketch initial design ideas for a packaging/mailing kiosk on poster paper with markers (see Figure 1a).
The groups then presented their designs and functional requirements to the class (see Figure 1b). All group members took turns talking through their sketches. Other class members gave very engaged comments and asked very thoughtful questions. This led to class discussions on related design questions such as: Who are our users? What kind of physical constraints are we designing for? What functionality should our system support?
When the assignments are similar for each student, students are more likely to learn from each other. Instructors can model the design process through focused activities, student questioning, meta-discussions, and their own reflections-in-action, and students can more easily see the value of the project critiques of other students to their own work.
Figure 1a. HCI students generate design ideas
Figure 1b. HCI students narrate their design decisions during a group presentation
Similarly, in a competition to design a teapot in an industrial design studio course, the instructor had students pin up sketches of their most recent prototype for an entire week. Students placed overlays of tracing paper on top of their sketches upon which others could offer feedback, ideas, or comments, along with an extensive use of sticky notes (see Figure 2).
The instructor wrote in her journal: “I was deliberating about how to jump start them [the students] into form commitments and quick evaluations. So we gave the students a deadline for five days later to have a full-scale section to pin up. We then asked for volunteers to have an overlay of tracing paper pinned up for the sketching critique. Truly fine forms have evolved since last Friday. We left the sections on the wall for a couple of days and joined the students periodically in sketching discussions – overlays after overlays of refinements to their concepts.”
Figure 2. Students and their instructor engage in sketching on tracing paper over pin-up designs of teapots.
5. Creation of assignments that encourage multiple iterations and provide students with opportunities to have their work reviewed while in-progress.
Student-designers need opportunities to explore a multitude of design ideas, free from the constraints of the professional workplace. When students present their design solutions while they are in-progress, narrating their thinking as well as demonstrating their products, faculty and student observers are better able to understand the reasoning of the presenting student, and consequently, better able to provide meaningful feedback during the project critiques, which in turn inform subsequent design decisions.
In the following segment from our data recordings, notice how the students bring other class members in on their thinking as they present their tentative design ideas to the class. Students in this senior/graduate level HCI studio are presenting their sketches for a web-based “team coordination system” to the whole class.
The instructor has asked the groups to draw their designs on the white board, rather than relying on PowerPoint. Students either draw their interfaces on the board while they talk (often manipulating, erasing, redrawing, drawing arrows, and so forth), or tape hand-drawn, usually poster-sized, paper illustrations to the board while presenting. As students physically engage with a static, imperfect drawing, they seem to naturally present their work as “in process,” talking and making additional drawings as they go in order to narrate their thinking. Students from other design teams are asked to come forward to “work” the design interface and to provide feedback while interacting with the instructor. Below is a conversation exemplifying this kind of dialogue:
Student 1: Okay …. and I sort of like what I see. Everything seems pretty simple, I'm pretty sure I know what all of this does. So, my first instinct is to hit menu and see what that does. And well, there’s the thing that I want to do right at the top. So, I’m going to hit the, that center enter button in that central control. I think that means enter.
Instructor: Can we stop along the way? The 80/20 rule, remember, we talked about that? What was the point of that rule? What was the take-home point?
Student 2: The features that you’re going to use the most, spend the most time developing, and make them the most accessible.
Instructor: Okay. So, the very top thing on the list of menus is delete pictures. Do you think that’s…
Student 2: I would put display.
Instructor: Is that a good location for it? Is that, is that the function you think they'll be doing the most frequently?
The students presenting their designs are very receptive to their peers’ comments, and likewise, the students seem very comfortable and free to provide a critique knowing that the presenters, by way of their presentations, are soliciting comments to help move their designs forward. These intermediate crits allow other students to contribute to one another’s thinking and likewise to expand their design repertoires.
The HCI instructor emphasized iterations of the design solution by integrating a feature into the project crits of a designated “user” who would walk through using the design interface with the team. In the HCI studio, a standard format emerged that was then integrated into the remainder of the course: (1) the students present their project in the first 5-10 minutes, (2) peers are invited to ask questions, (3) the instructor then walks the students back through the crit asking clarifying questions, and (4) one student from the class volunteers to act as the user of the prototype, while the presenters take on the role of the software. In this way the team could understand how design iterations would change as the demographics of the user shifted (for example, someone who was not as technologically experienced – re: the mother-in-law).
The value of the “intermediate” crits or pin-ups, where students present their design concepts at a stage midway through the process, cannot be overstated. These forums were particularly useful in the early stages of the design process when students were struggling to make decisions about their design. They also allowed students to contribute to one another’s thinking and to expand their design repertoire. Pin-ups at these junctures permitted students to examine their work in the context of a broad range of ideas, in what the instructor coined as “density” of the pin-up. In the industrial design studio, iterative evaluation of the design was seen when students pinned up their ten designs for the handheld medical dispenser, and their designs for the teapots, including the tracing paper overlays.
6. Orientation of students to the “habits of the studio.”
One key finding from our analysis was that even when students have prior experience with studio-based learning—as in the architecture and industrial design courses we observed—instructors and students must actively work to establish the rights and duties of the studio environment.
In the following segment from our data recordings, notice how the instructors in this second-year industrial design studio engage in direct talk intended to socialize the students into behavior and interaction norms that are essential for the studio to function.
Instructor 1: I have to talk to you about what it means to have an assignment. When I ask you to do something I expect for it to be done and in a timely manner. Things like sleeping through demos and keeping your iPod on during class: not acceptable. What I saw yesterday in computer modeling: not acceptable. That goes for in here too. I don’t mean to be harsh, but I’m being realistic about my expectations, ok? And you guys need to be on board with that. Because otherwise you’re wasting our time. And we’re here to be here for you. And if you’re not engaged, then nobody’s benefiting from that.
Instructor 2: See, they put me back in sophomore year so that at the end of the year I can do this: (slaps hands) Eh! Find another major! (A student gasps)
Instructor 2 continues: I’m teasing a little bit. (Students laugh.) But I’m a little bit serious. We as a faculty have decided that work ethic and how you do that and how you get attached to your discipline is something that is always going to come up.
In each of the studio classrooms we observed, students were expected to: a) generate and refine design solutions iteratively by reflecting on the feedback of others; b) communicate their design ideas visually and verbally using the conventions of the profession; and c) collaborate with their peers to both give and receive assistance in obtaining their learning goals (Cennamo et al., 2011). These “habits of the studio” represent more than discrete educational goals; they reflect the complementary rights and duties of participants in studio classrooms (Gray, 2013; McDonald & Michela, 2019).
Because these expectations can be initially challenging for students, studio teachers used several techniques to orient their students to productive “habits of the studio.” For example:
- One HCI instructor showed her students a video from an industrial design critique to demonstrate how students should participate in a project critique.
- The industrial design professor arranged for her students to observe a “mini-critique” of the work of senior-level students by a guest artist early in the semester.
- Another HCI instructor explicitly discussed her expectations for both the presenting and listening students, while others outline the roles and responsibilities of students in their syllabi.
Observations And Conclusions
In many of the examples noted throughout this chapter, the design crits created a discursive space in which the instructor engaged students as legitimate peripheral participants in a community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991). The kinds of dialogues that characterized the crit sessions exemplified a shared repertoire of practices and dispositions, such as a willingness to experiment, all of which contributed to students’ emerging sense as professionals (Logan, 2007). The dialogues in the critiques were essential in both bridging ideas and allowing a novel idea or concept to be viewed in the context of what is more familiar. We also observed that questioning was linked to the ways in which speakers positioned peers and themselves in relation to the design practice. Through our analysis we became aware of the conceptual categories, metaphors, questions, and ways of speaking or narrating among the students and instructors as designers. “Taking up” particular subject positions required that the speaker signal an emotional commitment in which they self-identified with or distanced themselves from design practice.
While the practices presented here were derived from an analysis of critiques sessions held in five studio classes across the three design disciplines of architecture, industrial design, and HCI, these principles are applicable beyond traditional design courses. They have been applied in a graduate course in learning theories (Cennamo, 2016) as well as in an interdisciplinary design studio that brought together graduate students from molecular biology and human geography (Brandt & Hayes-Conroy, 2019). The assignments and dialogues in the studio crits are ways to “think together” (Pyrko et al., 2017). Like Pyrko et al. (2017) and their research on communities of practice, we see the design crit as a way to enhance the social processes in the studio learning environment. Pyrko et al. explain, “Thinking together is conceptually based on Polanyi’s (1962) idea of indwelling: when peoples' indwelling is interlocked on the same cue, they can guide each other through their understanding of a mutually recognized real-life problem, and in this way, they indirectly ‘share’ tacit knowledge” (p. 390). Throughout this chapter we have presented examples of this shared “indwelling” in exchanges among instructors and students as they worked out problems in the design crits and, in the process, began to develop both design knowledge and a sense of self within the profession.
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