The inclusive design studio

I have been fortunate to experience diverse studio-based education approaches in different parts of the world and in different modes (hybrid, virtual, community-based, etc.). I position myself as a design education scholar with a particular interest in diversity and the socio-cultural contexts of designing. As a Senior Lecturer in Design at the Open University, I design online studios and design-based courses. In my scholarship and research work (e.g. Lotz et al., 2015), I attempt to better understand the underlying mechanisms and hidden curricula that inspire learners rather than traumatize, and to identify best practices to support studio-based distance education in design. When I took an EDIA (Equality Diversity Inclusivity and Accessibility) leadership role at my institution, I reflected on my own experiences of marginalization and re-examined the injustices and inequalities others experienced around me in the studio.

The inclusive studio 

Owing to these experiences, I view the studio through a particular lens, but I learned in the Studio Matters discussions, that I am not the only one. In 2020, I was invited by the Studio Matters convenors to join other studio research experts from the broader global design and architecture research community in a discussion around the design studio. I noticed an increasing focus on inclusivity and diversity in the studio in our conversations, which was both surprising and yet familiar to me. Since its inception in 1969, the Open University’s (OU) mission has been to ‘make learning accessible to all’. I learnt that many OU students have considered or tried studying at traditional universities but were excluded due to additional needs or adverse circumstances, such as the need to work or care for others while studying or dealing with health issues and biases that played out due to other marginalising factors such as gender or gender identification, age, race, and socio-economic background. The commitment to our students is that even though they may enter design education via our open entry policy with varying levels of skills and competencies, they will, at graduation, have achieved a comparable level of success as graduates from other institutions.

Studio cultures

Many design studios have a culture of ‘sink or swim’, as I have experienced myself in attending an art and design school in Germany. Competing with peers and achieving mastery, in the image of an instructor, are part of the ‘hidden curriculum’, which is maintained through mechanisms of the ‘crits’. While this process of inculturation may have some strengths, e.g. by helping learners to take on the identity of a designer and develop resilience, our discussion queried why there is such a limited range of identities being developed within any one institution? How do we move away from the homogeneous view of who a studio person / designer is to more pluralistic views of designers (Lanig, 2019)? How can we value different pathways into the studio and prior experiences while developing a designers’ own values? The studio must be a safe space for learning from mistakes, the development of expertise and for emergent identities, for experimentation and changes in identity over time.

The open access policy at the Open University creates unprecedented opportunities to diversify the pathways into the design studio. With an average of 700 students the first-year virtual design studio is sizable in scale, and unimaginable as a physical studio (Lotz, et al., 2019). And while student feedback does confirm that the self-directed, flexible nature of distance education is more accessible than other learning modes, giving access to education is only one aspect of inclusion, and continuing participation in the studio is quite another. Inclusive competition might be an oxymoron but describes well what goes on in our online studio. Timely activities that build on the students’ lived experiences and introduce new perspectives and skills with each activity are the foundation for social engagement with peer work and evolving identities. Students don’t want to be labelled incompetent when sharing their work in progress, but due to the sheer number of students sharing (critical mass), the ‘studio anxious’ experience a variety of creative responses and levels of skills. Social comparison at any level of expertise gives students permission to participate (Festinger, 1954).

New boundaries

The value of social comparison breaks down easily when inconsiderate critical comments are made in writing. While we might think a certain bluntness in crits should be expected (which I only partially agree with), the shared physical, social, and cultural proximity in the traditional studio often softens the blow, a peer might give you some more relevant and encouraging remarks after the crit (see examples in Barrett, 2019 and Gray, 2013). While OU students report that their friends and family sometimes do take on such roles, they are not immersed in the project or studio to fully understand. The voice and intonation as well as nonverbal cues and embodied routines (or equivalent) are missing. For learners isolated in their homes and who may have systematically been denied developing self-confidence, such comments can be devastating. Here, some might counter that design education is just not possible at a distance or for some groups of students, but I would maintain, in line with the other discussants’ contributions, that studio education is based on a norm of able bodied, white, middle-class students with good mental health wellbeing and resilience that is no longer defendable.

Surviving the studio gives the graduate confidence to be ready for professional practice. OU graduates survive the long-haul, the isolation, the interweaving of life experiences with study, and the crises that emerge at its intersections. This produces a studio with extended boundaries, in a personal, social, and cultural sense. OU learners often drawn from their personal life experiences and environments. I talked to a student with anxiety disorder and OCD who created immaculate and detailed designs for blind users co-working with their grandma, or a student with ADHAD co-designing care equipment with a care home across the road from their home. Here the boundary of the studio is drawn out from an individual pathway to the immediate social environment and creating a culture of studio that respects those individual preferences and choices.

Barrett, T. (2019) Crtis: A student manual. London: Bloomsbury.

Festinger, L. (1954) A Theory of Social Comparison Processes, Human Relations, 7(2), pp. 117–140.

Gray, C. M. (2013). Informal peer critique and the negotiation of habitus in a design studio. Art, Design & Communication in Higher Education. 12(2), 195–209. adch.12.2.195_1

Lanig, A. K. (2019) Educating Designers in Virtual Space: A Description of Hybrid Studios, Proceedings of DRS Learn X Design 2019, 9-12 Jul 2019, Ankara, Turkey, pp. 247–256

Lotz, N., Jones, D. & Holden, G. (2015). Social engagement in online design pedagogies. Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference for Design Education Researchers (Vande Zande, Robin; Bohemia, Erik and Digranes, Ingvild eds.), Aalto University, pp. 1645–1668.

Lotz, N., Jones, D. & Holden, G. (2018). Engaging Qualities: factors affecting learner attention in online design studios. Proceedings of DRS2018, Design Research Society, London, pp. 2746–2764.

Lotz, N.; Jones, D. and Holden, G. (2019). OpenDesignStudio: virtual studio development over a decade. In: Proceedings of the DRS LearnXdesign Conference 2019, 9-12 Jul 2019, Ankara.

This article is adopted from my co-authored publication:

Marshalsey, L., and Lotz, N. (2022) Illuminating themes and narratives in studio through expert elicitation and collaborative autoethnography, in Lockton, D., Lenzi, S., Hekkert, P., Oak, A., Sádaba, J., Lloyd, P. (eds.), DRS2022: Bilbao, 25 June – 3 July, Bilbao, Spain.







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