City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Design education needs physical space

Written in


SCI Arc studios, when I visited in 2009

Why the ‘jug-and-mug’ model of education is not the future, but well past its sell-by date, and why we might want to use the potential of digital learning tools in order to create more physical studio spaces on campus

Ed. This is a re-cut of one of my early Dezeen columns, originally published there on 18 October 2013, but I thought I’d dig it out and re-publish a modified version here, given the current debates about education and learning environments, spaces and technologies in the context of Covid-19, and of course the long-running deeper currents that the pandemic has highlighted. I've tweaked a bit, but in looking back on it eight years on, the fundamental questions didn't need to change much. 
The focus on asynchronous 'MOOCs' (very much of its time; the New York Times had called 2012 The year of the MOOC) might now be countered with an emphasis on real-time distanced lectures, via Zoom and equivalent, perhaps, just as MP3s have now faded into Spotify et al ... but the core questions remain the same, as in other environments: What is physical space good for? What is digital space good for? What's the balance and what is in the in-between? 
This piece sat adjacent to my reflections on being in charge of the extraordinarily wonderful Fabrica building, and the need for ‘knockabout space’ for creative work, but also colours many of the ideas I’ve played out in subsequent strategic design work on campus projects for University of Melbourne, University College London, Imperial College London, University of Glasgow, Google campuses in California and London, and so on.

“Because,” said Morris Zapp, reluctantly following, “information is much more portable in the modern world than it used to be. So are people. Ergo, it’s no longer necessary to hoard your information in one building, or keep your top scholars corralled in one campus. There are three things which have revolutionized academic life in the last twenty years, though very few people have woken up to the fact: jet travel, direct-dialling telephones and the Xerox machine.”

So says Morris Zapp, the errant American academic in David Lodge’s 1984 novel Small World, the meat in the sandwich of Lodge’s campus trilogy. Written three decades ago, Small World revels in the campus politics, the sexual politics and, well, the plain old politics of the time.

Small World, David Lodge (1984, and dated, but worth reading)

But in this tirade from the reliably forthright Zapp—think mid-period Walter Matthau—we hear a kind of pre-echo of an increasingly vocal meme about educational tech: that we don’t really need those buildings and campuses …

We might need a bit more perspective — apologies, Morris, but your reference to ‘direct-dialling telephones’ immediately suggests some updates may be required — in order to understand what is going on in design and architecture education, and by extension design and architecture, over the next few years.

For Morris Zapp we can now read Sebastian Thrun. Unlike Zapp, Thrun is real. Emerging from Stanford and Google X, Thrun now runs Udacity, one of several start-ups looking to “radically disrupt” education. (Radical disruption being the obligatory starting point these days.)

Ed. Thrun now also runs Kitty Hawk, a startup radically disrupting aviation via "personal air vehicles", and somehow he finds time to do this as well as continuing to disrupt higher education.

These start-ups develop and host MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses. In simple terms, they are putting videos of lectures online, within a flexible course structure, adorned with a few loose-fitting social media tropes to enable student discussion and automated in-lecture prompts and quizzes. People sign up to take courses at their own pace, more or less, over the internet.

But those simple terms don’t suggest the impact that MOOCs could have on traditional higher education, including design education. Udacity is joined by Coursera (also ex-Stanford), Khan Academy, edX (MIT/Harvard) and many others. They claim millions of users; already more than attend traditional universities in the USA, in fact. (Coursera alone has over four million enrolled on courses.) Bill Gates has called Khan Academy the future of education. Thrun believes that within 50 years there will only be 10 institutions in the world providing higher education (including Udacity, he hopes).

(Ah these names. “Coursera.” “Udacity.” They sound like recently-privatised former state assets. I next expect a slew of social media oriented services, with monickers like Smugly and Learnr, Swotly and Examinr, Cramly and Testr.)

Yet despite their expansive stated ambitions, what MOOCs mostly do is replace the lowest of the low-hanging-fruits of education — the common-or-garden lecture. The lecture, when delivered unthinkingly, effortlessly represents what is called the “jug and mug” approach to learning: the lecturer is the jug, pouring their knowledge into the mug, aka the student. Indeed, it is often the case lectures bring together bored lecturers with hungover students. Or indeed vice versa. You don’t need to watch a Ken Robinson lecture — although you should — to know that this is not what education should be about.

MOOCs are the mp3 of higher education, the component that the internet will most easily swallow

Despite the efforts of Robinson and many others, so many education systems are still oriented around the basic unit of the lecture. It often represents the foundation of timetables, just as the lecture theatre represents the foundations of most contemporary college buildings, spatially. A new lecture theatre is probably being constructed right now, somewhere in the world, as you read this.

And that’s a waste, as these large awkward theatres are generally difficult to use for anything other than lectures, and MOOCs may do basic lectures much better. It may be the component of higher education that the internet will most easily swallow (rightly or wrongly). MOOCs could be the mp3 of education, and the easiest thing to distribute over the internet, will be distributed over the internet. Just as the mp3 has indeed disrupted the music industry, but not really music, so the MOOCs will remove much of the lecture, but possibly not broader education.

Note, this does not mean all lectures. A very good lecture can be a genuinely meaningful, interactive and engaged forum for learning. It is highly distinctive, and potentially immensely valuable. Again, looking across to music reveals that live music is still popular (often the most valuable, too.) Similarly, 50,000 people go to see a football match as a real-time event, due to its unique qualities as a live, physical cultural event. And yet a recorded or streamed football match will reach millions more, just as recorded gigs remain popular. The question is where the balance lies, and how we value physical, embodied and real-time as well as the distributed, asynchronous.

Design education helps us understand, perhaps. There may be good reasons that the curricula of most MOOC-like services do not feature much design so far. Perhaps predictably, there is a lot of code, and a lot of traditional humanities and science, but little design.

Udacity will shortly start its first ever design course: ‘The Design Of Everyday Things’, led by Don Norman, the ex-Apple legend, and Coursera’s few design-related courses tend to be at the more analytical end of the scale. In the UK, the Open University, which has been doing this sort of thing since Morris Zapp was just achieving tenure, has a new venture called FutureLearn. It has made some smart acquisitions in terms of team and university partners, but again, there is little or no design there so far.

So, could MOOCs have a role to play here? Is design education just late to this new game? Or does design education simply not fit the MOOC model?

Stefano Mirti’s ‘Design 101’ course, for Iversity via Accademia di Belle Arti in Catania, indicates some of the promise for design education in this medium. Irresistibly Italian in presentation, Design 101 provides challenging briefs of things to make, with Mirti supplying context and inspiration.

And yet despite attempts to fold in collaboration and sharing, it will tend to a solitary pursuit of those exercises. At least currently. The whole point of MOOCs — one of their core values — is that they are not social and collaborative. Their dematerialised and dislocated state means they fit into your schedule, but in doing so, it cannot — by definition — bring you together with people at the same time and in the same space.

Does design education simply not fit the MOOC model?

Design and architecture education is, I believe, more than ever about collaboration, on working through holistic projects together, face to face, in transdisciplinary teams, learning through doing on real projects with real clients, collaborators and contexts. While digital tools can support this, affording some new patterns of activity, the pull back to the physical, embodied and genuinely social is profound, particularly as systems and outcomes become more complex, more entwined, more hybridised. Schools and research centres like Strelka, CIID, Sandberg Instituut, and Fabrica are exploring exactly this, as post-institutional learning environments.

It’s difficult to see how MOOCs will really shift that aspect of design education. The graphic designer and typographer Erik Spiekermann once observed:

“You can teach yourself everything there is to be learned by observing, asking, taking things apart and putting them back together again. Teachers can help with that process as long as they stay credible. The only way to achieve that is to keep on learning themselves.”

MOOCs will not force teachers to keep learning; rather, they may encourage lecturers to constantly refine their delivery, their execution, to obsessively watch their pay-per-view ‘lecture stats’ just as most animators now lie awake at night dreaming of a Vimeo Staff Pick.

Yet if MOOCs enable us to select the very best of “jug and mug” mode education, it means only a few have to do it, after all. We could collate a watch-list of classic lectures — Philip Johnson on Le Corbusier, Richard Sennett on the city, Paola Antonelli on Italian design, Anab Jain on speculative design — and distribute that, making a diverse library more broadly available to many. There are hundreds of contenders online already.

Ed. This may very well come from outside of academia. For instance, it's perhaps an unlikely source, but the Norman Foster Foundation’s YouTube channel gives us one example of what such a library of lectures might look like. The channel is not the most diverse set of voices, perhaps only scratching the surface of what such a library could be, but is still impressive in itself. How should colleges best use such resources? How do these talks, by the likes of Sou Fujimoto, Francis Kére, Patricia Hartmann, or Hans Ulrich Obrist, counterpoint those offered by lectures in school?

Much of the basic theories of design might be usefully conveyed via MOOCs—but only as a kind of set-up for the real work of practice, where that theory is reinforced, re-contextualised, rejected, revised, re-imagined or re-invigorated. Artfully deploying MOOCs might free up teachers for crits, tutorials, studios, co-design and the other high value physical exchanges that cannot be distributed so easily—and this also means genuinely engaged lectures, too.

Ed. At Fabrica, I doubled-down on the visiting lecture series for the residents, running one a week at certain points, but also ensured we filmed everything, creating a Vimeo channel (many of the lectures have since been removed but there’s still a good set up there, like Anab Jain, James Bridle, Donna Ferrato, Robert Wong, Rory Hyde etc.)And perhaps we also produced one of the clearest demonstration of the value of the live public lecture, doing an event with the writer Roberto Saviano (despite the risk, which is one of the outcomes I’m most proud of), which most of the town came to. That is not something a MOOC can do — and yet it produces a relatively mundane thing, a video file, which many more than the good people of Treviso can attend, which is a not a mundane thing at all, given Saviano's work.

This approach also asks more meaningful questions of space and environment, too. Rather than the default of simply assuming a campus, as that was all we could deliver education with in the past, these emerging options mean we have to make the case for space, perhaps even from first principles.

Lodge’s Morris Zapp again.

‘It’s huge, heavy, monolithic. It weighs about a billion tons. You can feel the weight of those buildings, pressing down the earth. Look at the Library — built like a huge warehouse. The whole place says, ‘We have learning stored here; if you want it, you’ve got to come inside and get it.’ Well, that doesn’t apply any more.’

That may be so, but the thing is, Morris, that space is important for other reasons. Design education in particular needs space to explore, to pin up and tear down, to drill holes in, to knock about.

The RCA can sometimes feel like some kind of gloriously generative cyberpunk favela

For me, the ideal design education space looks like the wonderfully messy SCI Arc in Los Angeles or Royal College of Art in London. The RCA, especially in Tony Dunne’s and Fiona Raby’s Design Interactions space, can sometimes feel like some kind of gloriously generative cyberpunk favela.

Ed. I have since seen so many design schools I would happily broaden this list: I appreciate, in different ways, the temporary home of the Bartlett circa 2017 when we ran the 'gloriously physical yet digitally-infused' Incomplete City studio first, University of Michigan’s Taubman College (ditto), Design Academy Eindhoven, Keio University urban design labs in Tokyo, CAFA in Beijing, University of Melbourne’s design school, RMIT's urban campus and 'New Academic Streets', HEAD in Geneva and ETH in Zürich, AHO in Oslo, CIID in Copenhagen, and more besides ... 
Do add your contenders. I'd love to explore Xiangshan Campus in Huangzhou, by Wang Shu/Amateur Architecture Studio, for instance, which I've heard strikes this balance between 'functional knockabout' and 'inspiring refinement'. What are yours?

MOOCs cannot recreate these vital spatial experiences. Put it another way: what do you think the student bar at Coursera is like? (It’s no accident that there’s a story that the first thing constructed at the Strelka Institute in Moscow was the bar.) But by removing the lecture theatres, freeing up that space, perhaps MOOCs can inadvertently create better learning spaces for the education we need now.

The huge opportunity behind non-certified, transdisciplinary learning is that it can be tuned to the 21st century’s needs, rather than the last century’s. Collaborative project-based learning ought to be intrinsically holistic in nature, with tangible outcomes. This is how design is practiced, and this is how design ought to be practiced in the context of learning. Putting lectures online, and leaving it at that, is really just putting 20th century education on the internet. There must be more to 21st century education than this.

Back to Morris Zapp in 1984:

‘As long as you have access to a telephone, a Xerox machine, and a conference grant fund, you’re OK, you’re plugged into the only university that really matters — the global campus.’

Sidetracked by ‘skirt’ and semiotics, Zapp was too lazy to ask the big questions, even if he noticed himself stumbling into a “global campus”. But MOOCs give us that opportunity to ask those questions. The fact that design education is largely untouched by such things, so far, does not mean that it won’t be. The internet transforms almost everything; there is no reason that it won’t reorient design education too.

So we must ensure that this transformation is reoriented around ideas, practices and values increasingly necessary in the 21st century, rather than simply uploading the recorded output of the previous educational model under the pretence of ‘extending reach’—whilst actually just cutting transaction costs and increasing ‘average revenue per user’.

Equally, the ‘jugs-and-mugs’ approach elides all too neatly with a reductive view of education: obtaining qualifications in order to populate the workforce. There is more to learning than this. A well-qualified workforce may be one outcome of education, but it is not the point.

So these simplistic early MOOCs intrinsically pose fundamental questions: What is the potential of physical and what is the potential of digital? Or, What does code do best and what do people do best? Even, what is learning, and what are colleges for? Acknowledging that these deeper questions are in many cases being accidentally or inadvertently highlighted by these fumbling startups, they do actually give us a chance to rethink learning, teaching and research for design, and from the ground up.

Just as design thinking erroneously tries to reduce design to something one can ‘acquire’ in a Post-It-strewn workshop, MOOCs mistakenly suggest that design is something a playlist could impart the fundamentals of, simply a case of filling up a range of jugs in order to pour into receptive mugs.

Yet unlike some other practices, like football, nursing, or police work, design is not really something to watch. The hospital drama or police procedural is a staple of our TV networks; a design procedural wouldn’t even make it onto Discovery channel. Design is something to do, and relatively humbly. (Again, just as design is not something to ‘think’, but to do—‘design doing’ over design thinking.)

Design is a practice, predicated on cultural invention, on immersion in complex systems and grounded field research, its thinking stimulated and conveyed via prototyping and making, framing questions and imagining possibilities, embodied in integrative, transdisciplinary teams, and positioned within participative practices, organising for change. This requires physical interaction—with each other, and with things, infrastructures and environments—in order to understand or imagine how the intangible qualities of culture might be embodied in tangible things and experiences. And so design education needs the complexity of physical spaces, of all hues, to play this out within.

My colleagues Marco Steinberg, Bryan Boyer and Justin W. Cook taught me that the architecture studio can be thought of in three ways simultaneously: as an organisation (and specifically, a team), as process (“being in studio”), but crucially, as place. Design needs the studio as place in order for the organisation to play out the process, to practice in. The studio provides a complexity, serendipity, camaraderie, and conviviality that digital environments can rarely, if ever, approach, as well as a place to make in, whether that making is physical, digital or both, hi-res or low-res, scrappy or refined, instinctive or crafted, solo or collaborative, formal or informal. It must possess functional characteristics—tools, archives, shelving, pin-up, lighting, accessibility, connectivity, and knockabout ‘hooks and sockets’—as well as subtle qualitative elements.

The artist Tom Sachs’ now-legendary studio employee manual, 10 Bullets: Working to Code, gives a distinctive sense of the studio:

This kind of space is crucial to design education, just as much as design practice. A MOOC can’t even get close. (I’ve no doubt there will be similar positions for other disciples, too, just as other disciplines will need their own dedicated spaces for specialised equipment, such as laboratories. Perhaps design and architecture has particular needs, not only for the convivial spaces required for any inventive, multi-perspective group-based work, but also for processes of making suggested above.)

Digital interactions can increasingly be layered into these environments to great effect—and they are indeed also physical in multiple ways, of course—but are not enough in themselves to do much of import. Only when digital and physical come together can meaningful transformation happen, and design is a practice for understanding and shaping these interactions, as well as integrating and connecting with others.

Personally, my career as a designer has hovered in and around this question for almost two decades now (Ed. Now three decades *cough*), moving across products and services, buildings and neighbourhoods, campuses and districts, cities and infrastructure, organisations and governments, and most points in-between, and my key takeaway is that this is always a question of ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or’. The same applies to education, whether arts or sciences or both, but it is particularly so for design, given its integrative, collaborative, contextual, and synthetic practices.

Back to the campus, and we might use the internet to displace those limited activities that require mono-functional physical spaces—like many lectures, and lecture theatres—into the digital realm, but only in order to free up more complex space in return. This judo move of using MOOCs in order to create more valued, cared-for, adaptable and multi-functional physical space actually enables us to create a richer variety of stimulating environments within which to locate the learning of practice, and the practice of learning.

In this way, we might ensure design education is not reduced to a few months of jug-pouring. For that would make mugs of us all.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: