interactions magazine

This is from 2011 | 6 minute read

Transformative Learning in the Design Studio

A design studio is a unique model of education, and many who have experienced it take it for granted, assuming all advanced learning is done in this style. It isn't, but it should be. The design studio provides an exemplary model for how experiential learning can occur in all disciplines, based on a fundamental learning theory called transformative learning.

In a design studio, it is generally accepted that knowledge is produced, not disseminated. That's a subtle but critical pedagogical foundation: In a design studio, the professor does not have the knowledge, and her role is not to give the knowledge to the students. Instead, the student develops the knowledge through various forms of inquiry, action, reflection, and conversation—all intended to provoke students to look at the world in a new way. This isn't to say that the professor is extraneous, or that anyone can lead a design studio without appropriate training and experience. Instead, it recasts a lecturer as a facilitator, someone who has had a certain quality of creative experience who can anticipate, during the knowledge-generation process, where various patterns, methods, approaches, or techniques will be most effective. A design professor helps students shift their frame of reference.

This shift typically occurs through projects of increasing complexity, with a constant cycle through constrained making and guided reflection.

Constrained making

During introductory design classes, students are given extremely constrained design contexts in which to explore. For example, an introductory typography exercise may be to use a single font, in a single weight, and a single size, to lay out a short paragraph of text. Designers have at their disposal one basic tool: placement on the page. They can select where text begins, where it ends (where the line breaks), and how much space is between lines of text. But even with such rigid constraints, there are infinite possibilities. And so each student produces a unique solution, prints it out, and tapes it to the wall.

Guided reflection

The professor then holds a critique of the whole of the work—a form of guided reflection. During a critique, each design is described and discussed. The work is compared and contrasted, and various viewpoints, styles, and patterns emerge. During a critique of the above typography exercise, one student might say, "I like how you explored by having so much white space around those letters, because it makes it feel airy and light. But I think you might have overdone it, because it's really obvious, sort of like a trick. Compare it to that other one, where [another student] tried the same thing. It works a bit better." That statement provides designers with a new way of viewing their own work. The role of the professor, during a critique, is to extract more comments from all of the participants, and then to help guide the designer toward a future set of changes and improvements.

And then the process occurs again. In many cases, it occurs over and over and over; this play of iteration based on making and critique helps push a design through multiple variations, helps the designer explore multiple future states, and acts as a way to constantly force new thinking and the refinement of old thinking.

Owned Experiences

This back and forth of personal making and group reflecting creates a certain type of owned experience. Students begin the exploration by making something. They have ownership over a thing, and they have been forced to make decisions. At first, these decisions are mostly arbitrary. They may be based on trend or precedent, or they may literally be random. But by making something and then receiving a critique on that thing with a variety of alternative reference points, and then iterating based on the synthesis of criticism, four important things have happened:

  • Students have articulated their existing perspective, in the context of the constraints. It may not be very refined, but the work is a representation of the student's bias or point of view.
  • Students have established a new point of view. Based on criticism and a meta-discussion of the criticism, the student has managed to see the constrained design space in a new way.
  • Students have transformed their point of view. Because students are required to iterate, they have to transform their point of view to a new point of view, at least temporarily.
  • Students have formed a "meta awareness" of their own design biases (in our example, these biases are limited to extremely simplistic typographic structures and decisions), helping to transform their habits of mind.

Transformative Learning

Habits of mind are "broad, abstract, orienting, habitual ways of thinking, feeling, and acting influenced by assumptions that constitute a set of codes...the constellation of belief, value judgment, attitude, and feeling that shapes a particular interpretation." This idea is presented by Jack Mezirow, Emeritus Professor of Adult and Continuing Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, as part of his educational theory called transformative learning. This learning theory is often used to describe how adults make major life changes or respond to crisis. In his seminal paper, Mezirow describes how "transformative learners move towards a frame of reference that is more inclusive, discriminating, self-reflective, and integrative of experience... [To] facilitate transformative learning, educators must help learners become aware and critical of their own and others' assumptions" Mezirow, Jack. Transformative Learning: Theory to Practice. In New Directions for adult and Continuing Education, No 74, summer 1997, Jossey-bass Publishers.. This is, fundamentally, what happens during a design studio and why the studio is effective. Students have an experience, and they have controlled the majority of that experience. This means they have approached the learning from within their own frame, a place of comfort. And then, in an emotionally safe environment, they have been nudged outside of their own frame into a place of discomfort.

The typographic exercise described here is tremendously simplistic; it is an introductory exercise, intended for learners who have never considered type before. The same process of iteration and reflection holds true for advanced topics of interaction design, user interface development, innovation, and nearly every other form of design. And it seems that this would be an effective way of learning engineering and computer science, psychology, statistics, and other disciplines that allow for a range of solutions to a given problem.


Many designers describe a space of happiness after they have completed an iteration. I've had students describe this moment of temporary doneness as if a "giant weight has been lifted from my shoulders." The critique returns the weight, but because the critique is not the last word, the student always has a chance to return to this place of peace—by performing a further iteration, or "fixing the problems" identified during the critique. Design education is the constant cycle of iteration and reflection, making and critique, comfort and anxiety. The design-studio approach helps learners shift their frame over time, resulting in the generation of new knowledge and a new view of the world.

Works Cited

  1. Mezirow, Jack. Transformative Learning: Theory to Practice. In New Directions for adult and Continuing Education, No 74, summer 1997, Jossey-bass Publishers

Kolko, Jon (2012), "Transformative Learning in the Design Studio". In interactions magazine, November/December, 2012.
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