Experiments in Studio Telemetry

How do we keep and share memories in the design studio?

Think about this next time you’re high up in a skyscraper: the architect probably slept through structures class. That’s because in architecture school, and design schools more broadly, studio courses are the pinnacle and students often devote a huge amount of their effort to studio at the expense of other coursework (if you‘re wondering what a studio is, scroll down to the bottom of this essay).

Experimental memory device. Materials: paper, non carbon copy paper, pen

Typically studio is centered around two forms of interaction with the professor, desk critiques and pin ups. The latter are formal presentations in front of a group of invited guests, similar to how a professional would present work to a client. Pin ups are often structured, maybe even rigid, sometimes confusing, and can frequently be disappointing.

Desk critiques, or ‘crits’, on the other hand, are informal and usually conducted as a one-on-one dialogue between student and professor. When it works well, these interactions can be transformative.

In both cases, the experience must be consumed in the moment and this presents three challenges:

  1. For the student: If your memory is fuzzy because you are sleep deprived, if your hearing is not great, if you’re not an aural learner, or if you are still developing a command of the teaching language, the discussion-based format of studio puts you at a disadvantage. What would make studio discussions more considerate of the learning needs of our students?
Prototype Desk Crit Prescription Pad

While teaching as a visiting professor at Taubman College in 2020 I experimented with a custom carbon copy pad designed for desk crits. It’s similar to the clip-boarded pads you find in a bicycle repair shop or anywhere else that information is filled out by hand and needed in multiples. The Desk Crit Pad creates space for minimum viable advice.

I tested the pads for about 1/3 of the semester as a guest in other professors’ pin-ups as well as at desk crits and pin-ups with my students. Through this experiment, the most meaningful development was that having a physical reminder (excuse, really) to take a minute and structure my notes as I write things down helped me be more focused in providing feedback. The Desk Crit Pad did not capture 100% of my discussions with students, but it didn’t need to. The fields provide enough directionality:

  • Who’s the advice for
Anatomy of the Desk Crit Prescription Pad

A stack of sheets can be easily kept, which means you are able to maintain a physicalized memory of the discussions with each student and how they evolve during the course of the semester. Weeks-long discussions with Harsh, Karun, and Victoria look like this:

Stacks of collected notes from three students

And this is probably when you’re thinking, “ok great, but why not an iPad?” Digital notes were tested for the first portion of the semester using an iPad Pro and Concepts app—a great tip from George Aye at Greater Good Studio. Digital notes worked well for me, and were useful in discussion because I could edit and zoom and do all the things digital documents do.

Notes captured by iPad — promising but still clunky after all these years

But the interactions of sharing a note on my iPad with a student were clunky and just unnecessary. If you know the student you still need to remember their email address and also remember to send the notes after each discussion. That’s busywork. If you’re a guest at a pin-up and don’t know the student, you would have to ask for their email and it just gets too complicated. Much easier to tear off a carbon copy of hand-written notes and pass it to someone. Plus, the Pad makes a nice sound when tearing, which is a tiny ritual itself.

A pile of notes from 13 students for about 1/3 of the semester can easily be held with a binder clip

The Desk Crit Prescription Pad seemed like a cheap and worthy way to see if the relationship between professor and student would be nudged ever so slightly toward more collaboration and understanding. The shift to online teaching during coronavirus extended this experiment by forcing us to use digital tools, many of which have a stronger accommodation for memory built in. Chiefly, using Google Docs as the ‘dashboard’ for our course gave us a document history for ‘free.’

A way to see the semester’s work — Timelapse of all edits to the Civic Futures Thesis Group dashboard

Now that the semester is over, all the edits can be replayed with amusing speed. It’s meaningless as a stream of changes, but I am intrigued by the way in which the timelapse (or stack of Desk Crit notes) provides telemetry for the studio. By telemetry I mean insight into the velocity, focus, directionality of the work. What are people working on? What is the group fixated on? What’s the overall velocity, directionality, and focus of the group? These are like water to a plant. Too much and you exhaust the studio; too little and you bore them.

At Helsinki Design Lab we used a large whiteboard as a running representation of our weekly work but it took a lot of effort and eventually we gave up on the process. The sweet spot is a manual tool that allows sketching, with a digital layer to maintain some kind of history and allow for search. Still haven’t found anything along those lines that works cleanly.

Another unexpected but promising aspect of moving teaching online was the ability to record reviews. The rehearsals and final review for the Civic Futures thesis group were recorded so that students could go back to them, or simply keep them for posterity. That’s great, and doing so institutionalized a practice that many of our students visiting from overseas have already been doing for as long as cheap audio recorders have been available.

If recording all reviews becomes a new normal there are certainly conversations to be had about how overwhelming it can be when there’s suddenly too much memory around… offhanded remarks caught forever on video, poor performances inscribed to disk, even just huge volumes of data to be wrangled and stored. These will all be worthy challenges for architecture and design schools to deal with at an institutional level, with forthcoming impacts to intellectual property, HR policy, and technology/data management.

While these issues all get worked out, those of us teaching and learning online in the near future will have a small window of opportunity to shed norms of studio culture (which is now hundreds of years old) and sneak in new cultural forms. A very basic question we had to answer in Civic Futures was how to end a year’s worth of work over video conference. I did not have a great answer to that, and the best we could come up with is to turn on some music and let people slide off the call at their own pace. It’s a small thing, but more music in studio is a welcome addition. Despite being distant, I’m hopeful that teaching like this makes room for bits of humanity that were otherwise too often squeezed out of studio.

What is a studio?

Studio is a project-based class that works from analysis to design hypothesis to final presentation through the length of the semester. You might design a Museum for Postage Stamps or a Way to Survive Below Zero Temperatures or something much more ephemeral, but studio always involves a project or projects and demands that you integrate many different perspectives, analytics, methods, and communications. It’s the course where all of the threads of your education are woven into a blanket—which would actually be more helpful if it were a literal blanket, because many students end up sleeping in the studio space. Yup, to make things extra confusing, “studio” also refers to the space.

Buildings & cities & all the things between. More at bryanboyer.com