Design tutorials: the basics

Drawing in the studio

Within design education, there’s little shared wisdom about how to conduct a tutorial. The tutorial is the bread and butter of design learning; the main pedagogic object of interaction. But we, the design community, rarely share the nuts and bolts of how to navigate and steer a student through a successful project; how to encourage, provoke, inspire and lead a designer into new and fascinating territories.

In this post, I’d like to outline a few basics. It’s me, stating the obvious, in what I consider good pedagogic practice; how best to support, guide and get the most out of students and their work.

I believe the things I’ve learnt over the last ten or so years are applicable to other disciplines and within the professional context of design. Whether as a Creative Director or a Design Manager, the following points are a good place to start when it comes to directing creativity;

Listening is Key

At the heart of a good tutor is their ability to listen. Understanding ideas, position and intent allows for more connected, meaningful feedback. Asking questions to clarify is key to aiding your understanding. Sometimes students take a long time to get to the salient point, they can skirt around the topic due to a lack of confidence, confusion or perception of expectation, so be patient, let them ‘talk out’, only respond when you understand what’s in front of you. Wait until nerves die down to get to the heart of the matter, then you’ll be in the best position to advise.

Ownership and embodiment

It’s all to common for design tutors to try to design vicariously – to direct a student in a way that they would do the project. This, in my opinion, is a flawed approach. It has a history in the master/apprentice model of education; watch, copy, admire, repeat (where learning is a happy side effect). However, it rarely allows the student to feel ownership over the content and learning experience.

Within Art and Design, intellectual ownership is a tricky subject to navigate. The messy and complex network of ideas become distributed across a number of different references, conversations and people, the genesis of an idea is difficult to locate. Tutors that have a ‘that was my idea’ attitude rarely survive or remain happy and motivated. Intellectual generosity is an essential quality of a good educator. Having the humility to understand and value that the adoption of ideas ‘as their own’ is an important part of learning – it allows for the embodiment of the ideas into the identity of the designer.

Mutual exploration

However, in the age of the Internet, the tutor as gateway to all knowledge is long gone. The ability (or illusion) of a Professor having read ‘everything’ in their discipline is a distant memory. When knowledge is acquired and disseminated in such a radically different manner, it calls for educational revolution. Sadly, the rise of the MOOC isn’t the revolution I was hoping for.

The abolishment of levels and the flattening of hierarchies are at the heart of how I believe education needs to change. Breaking the often fictitious boundaries between teaching and research to allow for the mutual exploration of ideas is a fundamentally different model of education. Sadly, due to financial scalability, this remains relevant only to an elite. But as a tutor, see your conversations with students as a space to explore ideas, be the learner as much as the teacher. Reframe higher education away from the hierarchies of expertise towards mutual exploration of the distant boundaries of your discipline.

Expanding possibility space

It’s important to remember that a tutorial should be expanding the cone of possibility for the student. They should leave, not with answers, but with an expanded notion, a greater ambition of what they were trying to achieve. It’s important to be ambitious and set tough challenges for your students, otherwise boredom or (heavens forbid) laziness can take over. Most student’s I’ve met love being thrown difficult challenges, most rise to the occasion, all learn a great deal. In order to move towards the goal of a self determined learner, the student should control the decisions of the design process. If you’re telling them what to design, not opening up possibilities and highlighting potential problems, you’re probably missing something.

Understand motivation, vulnerability and ‘learning style’

Every student we teach, learn in a different way, have different hopes and desires, react to feedback in a different way. Navigating and ‘differentiating’ these differences is really difficult. Some tutors take a distanced intellectual approach, where the content in front of them is a puzzle that needs to be solved, this is the classic personae of the academic, distanced, emotionally arid, intellectually rigorous. But this doesn’t alway mean a good learning experience. Other tutors operate on a more psychological level; the try to understand the emotional context of the situation and adapt their advise accordingly. Whatever happens, understand you have a individual in front of you, they have lives outside of the studio, they are going through all manner of personal shit that will effect their attention and engagement. They come from different cultures, different educational backgrounds, so their response to your advice is going to shift like the wind, be adaptive, read body language and don’t go in like a bulldozer (I have definitely done this in the past!). 

In terms of learning style, without this becoming a paper on pedagogy, understand that your advice need to be tailored to different students. Some (a lot) need to learn through a physical engagement with their material, others needs to have an intellectual structure in place in order to progress. Throughout a project, course or programme, try to understand this and direct your advice accordingly.

Agreed direction

Tutorials shouldn’t just be general ‘chats’ about the project or world, they should give direction, tasks and a course of action. I have a rule: Don’t end the tutorial until you’ve both agreed a direction. This can be pretty tough to manage in terms of time, as I get more experienced, I get better at reaching an agreement within my tutorial time allocation, but I still often can overrun by hours. The important thing to work towards is the idea that you both understand the project, and you both understand how it could move. End the tutorial when this been reached.

Read and respond

It’s really important, in design, to respond to what is in front of you. To actual STUFF. It’s far too easy to let students talk without showing evidence of their work. This is a dangerous game. Words can deceive, hide and misrepresent action. Dig into sketchbooks, ask to see work they’ve done. If they haven’t done anything, ask them to go away and do something to represent their ideas and thoughts. Production is key to having a productive tutorial. Only through responding to actual material evidence of action can a project move forward. At its worst, students can develop the skill to talk about stuff, making it exciting in your mind, but fail to produce the project in the end. But this isn’t the main reason for this section, it’s more about the ideas of design residing in the material production, not just the explication. You can tell me what you believe something does or means, but it’s only when it’s in front of me that I can fully grasp this.

The art of misinterpretation

Another reason why it’s important to dig into sketchbooks and look at work, is that looking at something and trying to work out what it means – the space of interpretation – is an important space of learning. By interpreting and indeed misinterpreting work, you and your student can find out things about the project. If the student intended one thing and you understand something else by it, you’ve at least learnt that it was poorly (visually and materially) communicated. But the exciting stuff happens when misinterpretation acts as a bridge between your internal mental processes (with all references etc) and your students. Your reading of a drawing acts as a way to generate a new idea or direction. This is when there is genuine creative collaboration.

References

One of the roles of a tutor is to point students towards relevant and inspiring resources. In the age of the internet, when student’s roam the halls of tumblr and are constantly fed inspiration by their favourite design blogs, the use, meaning and impact of tutor driven references has changed. Be focussed with reading, ensure students know why they are looking at a particular reference and make sure that you contextualise the work within the ideas that they have.

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