Digital Platforms as a Means of Hosting and Assessing Interdisciplinary Design Studios
Liam Colquhoun | Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar
Matthew Holmes-Dallimore | Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar
Overview: The strategy described involves facilitating an interdisciplinary design studio project, with teams made up of students from Graphic and Interior Design programs from the same Art and Design university with learning objectives that diverge and converge at different points of the process. Utilizing Google Currents as the core support to the collaboration, student teams are able to come together at different stages of a carefully structured timeline, creating a wholly online, time-stamped, and digital record of all stages of the design process.
This strategy is a response to issues that arose out of a recurring interdisciplinary design project. Divergent pedagogical goals and problems relating to communication and accountability necessitated a more measured approach, utilizing the “Communities” feature of Google Currents, an often-overlooked online resource. Using this tool to create a virtual environment, within which the collaborative effort can be logged, monitored, and evaluated, achieves several crucial objectives simultaneously: interactions are “live” and instantly received via posts and comments using handheld devices, critique is embedded as part of the process rather than something that only happens at designated times, miscommunications are minimized, and transparency of the evaluation process is maintained.
Level: Theoretically, the strategy could be used to support any interdisciplinary collaborative studio project. In this particular case, the recurring collaboration takes place during the Junior (third year) of study for both the Interior Design and Graphic Design programs, when studio projects move away from the individual, conceptual pedagogy of studio classes earlier in the curriculum toward a team-based and methodological focus that is more reflective of design practice.
Duration: The strategy supports a collaboration that takes place over an entire semester (around 15 weeks), divided into four phases. This phased approach allows for other projects to be undertaken concurrently, as student commitment can be heavy or light, depending on the phase. Phase 2 (development of a Brand Manual), for example, is led by the Graphic Design students, allowing a window of time for the Interior Design students to manage a support role while also working on a separate project.
Learning Objectives: There are inherent problems in running a collaborative project that incorporates two or more disciplines. Learning objectives are not always in alignment, criteria are often misunderstood, and problems within a design team can become amplified, leading to a breakdown in the dynamic. This mode of teaching uses Google Currents as the main platform for the collaboration, and seeks to achieve several measurable objectives:
- Promoting critique as a constant element in the process, rather than a reflection on outcomes.
- Creating an easily navigable “living record” of the collaboration, including all communications, activities, and final outcomes.
- Optimizing communication channels, utilizing familiar social media formats easily navigated by students on their devices.
Teaching design disciplines that are inherently interdisciplinary in practice, such as retail or exhibition design, as parts of siloed Graphic or Interior Design programs is problematic (Morse et al., 2007), as the instructional experience of the student is often not reflective of what a design graduate can expect to face in practice (Kiernan & Ledwith, 2014). For this reason, a recurring collaboration between the Graphic Design and Interior Design programs has been tasking interdisciplinary teams, with students from both programs, to develop a retail brand from scratch, culminating in the presentation of a unique set of brand guidelines, a comprehensive visual identity, and branded environmental design in the form of a flagship store prototype.
The project was first divided into distinct “phases” that reflected how designers of different disciplines may contribute to the same project in practice:
Phase 1, where students from both programs work equally together to develop an overarching identity concept.
Phase 2, led by Graphic Design students, where the concept informs the development of a Brand Manual.
Phase 3, led by Interior Design students, where the Brand Manual aids the design of a physical branded space.
Phase 4, where the students come back together, culminating in a holistic presentation for a new retail brand, manifested in diverse outcomes including the graphic system, packaging design, and environmental design.
Most of our early efforts to facilitate the phased approach to the collaboration involved synchronizing schedules and designing the project in a way that optimized “face time” between students of the respective programs. Our thinking was that the more direct communication the students had, the more successful the interaction would be. Uneven results and frequent conflicts and miscommunications, however, led us to rethink the project and redesign it from the ground up.
As has been highlighted in similar studies involving interdisciplinary design projects, “personal relationships are crucially important in interdisciplinary design thinking” (McDonald et al., 2019). Recording and maintaining these interactions depends heavily on several aspects: transparency of individual contributions, easy and open communication between team members, and instant access to the project data. None of these things, we realized, were improved in any way by prioritizing in-person team meetings above all else.
With this in mind, after testing various platforms and online resources, we began using Google Currents (then Google+) as the core support to all aspects of the project. Of course, until the COVID-19 pandemic pushed all interactions online, in-person meetings were still scheduled and monitored, but the emphasis in how the project was ultimately supported was switched to an entirely virtual meeting environment.
Business Insider (Johnson, 2020) describes Google Currents as “a digital bulletin board for your organization.” Despite being part of the widely available, cloud-based Google Workspace (formerly G-Suite) collection of software and tools, Currents is one of the lesser-known components of the collection and is the most recent evolution of the now-defunct Google+ networking tool. Currents provides functionality that helps support an interdisciplinary collaborative experience.
Using the “Communities” feature of Google Currents as a virtual environment to support all phases of a project achieves several things:
- Adding “Categories” such as Phase 1 and Phase 2 or Process, Execution, and Presentation sub-divides the community page structure to match that of the project. This way, each component stage of the project can be viewed and assessed in isolation.
- The main page of the Google Currents Community displays a chronological list of posts from community members—design team participants and instructors who are each able to contribute time-stamped posts, images, or videos. Team members are required to post every task they undertake, from rough schematic sketches and Pinterest boards to video logs of meetings and presentation work. These posts are easily made and uploaded by students, using their handheld devices.
- Having all aspects of the collaboration contained on an easily accessible platform allows for frequent and transparent communication and constant opportunity for critique.
In our case, the strategy to support critique of an interdisciplinary collaborative studio project involved some trial and error over the course of several years. Each iteration of the project was refined based on previous experiences, and the process was refined to a series of steps:
- When developing course schedules, ensure that both Interior and Graphic design classes have synchronized timings. Although we came to realize that face-to-face interaction was not as crucial as we had originally supposed, it was still important to give students an opportunity to interact in real-time.
- Plan and establish interdisciplinary design teams containing (if possible) an equal number of students from each program. We found an ideal number of students to be four (two from each program), and no more than 5. Larger groups tended to break down as more passive students withdrew from the process.
- Provide students with separate project briefs as per the particular curricular requirements of each program, but also task each team with a singular, unilateral list of requirements that can be approached together. This included the groups choosing a client/project option from a matrix that came with a list of expectations, gradable components, deadlines, and responsibilities.
- Create Google Currents Communities for each group. Have each group subdivide their page into Categories for each phase of the project.
- Monitor and contribute to discussions as posts are made and uploaded. This informal critique can happen at any time and should ideally be an ongoing interaction as the project moves through each phase.
- Virtual desk critiques can be scheduled regularly (usually once a week) by having the teams talk their way through that week’s posts and new content. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, this has taken place via Zoom.
- More formal critique of presentation work posted to the community takes place at the end of each phase. Again, since instruction has been remote, this has been supported by sharing screens in Zoom meetings.
- At the end of the process, self-evaluations are solicited from team-members, as well as individual evaluations of other team members.
- Create individual disciplinary-dependent reviews based on all of the above.
Effective Interdisciplinary design teaching and learning requires a well-defined structure that provides clarity for all students, as well as faculty. This strategy provides clear guidelines and supports the collaborative process to the benefit of all constituents: students from different disciplines may have different perspectives and divergent end-goals, but have vested interests in working collaboratively in terms of the project outcomes; students have a more informed understanding of each discipline’s processes and needs, and therefore a more reality-based vision of what may await them in the professional world; faculty have the ability to assess both team and individual progress throughout the entire timeline of the project; and faculty from different disciplines are able to evaluate team and individual performance in the context of each discipline’s requirements and learning objectives.
The value of effective implementation of technology to support complex pedagogical goals has never been more important, nor more starkly illustrated, than in 2020. As the world reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic and classes of all kinds moved to online platforms, concerns were understandably raised about how the situation would impact the quality of education for students. However, there is another conversation to be had about the opportunities a structured, remote mode of instruction provides. Even before the pandemic, research and instruction in many subjects were moving toward a more technology-driven mode: “Technology teaching shifts have helped faculty members from different fields of study and even different universities collaborate through a variety of co-instruction approaches” (Jacob, 2015). It is clear that online tools that optimize such approaches have an increasing impact on the way we teach, moderate, and evaluate design disciplines.
Jacob, W. (2015). Interdisciplinary Trends in Higher Education. Palgrave Communications. 1. 15001. https://doi.org/10.1057/palcomms.2015.1
Johnson, D., (2020, July 23). What is Google Currents? How to use Google’s new enterprise app to communicate with all your colleagues. Business Insider, https://www.businessinsider.com/what-is-google-currents
Kiernan, L. & Ledwith, A. (2014). Is design education preparing product designers for the real world? A study of product design graduates in Ireland. The Design Journal, 17(2) 218-237, DOI: https://doi.org/10.2752/175630614X13915240576022
McDonald, J.K., West, R.E., Rich, P.J. (2019). It’s so wonderful having different majors working together: The development of an interdisciplinary design thinking minor. TechTrends 63, 440–450.
Morse, W. C., M. Nielsen-Pincus, J. Force, and J. Wulfhorst. (2007). Bridges and barriers to developing and conducting interdisciplinary graduate-student team research. Ecology and Society 12(2): 8. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol12/iss2/art8/