Summer of Making

How do we educate students for a career in the design industry of the future?

Today’s manufacturing supply chains are being reshaped by the Internet. Designers in Deptford work with makers in Mumbai. Increasingly, bits are transported over networks rather than boxes by container ship. Software files are despatched, in place of physical products, and makers are local to consumers while the products they fabricate have been designed and developed globally.

Traditional design education has focused on providing students with theoretical frameworks and a range of experience. The aim is to enable students to develop an understanding of shape and form and to prepare them for problem solving in the workplace. The long-established model of training, often seen as the signature pedagogy for design education, has centred on a studio-focused ‘learning while doing’ approach. But providing this experience via distance based education can be difficult and online collaborative design projects bring their own challenges.

One solution may be in the emergence of community makerspaces. These can provide a complimentary partnership to distance learning universities, enabling a hybrid model of physical and networked education with learning shared via a ‘virtual studio’.

Makerspaces emphasise peer learning, idea sharing and making. They offer an opportunity for trainee designers and fabricators to engage in the physical, tangible aspects of designing and making, as well as developing soft skills.

Our recent RE:FORM project (Reimagining Education for the Future of Redistributed Manufacturing) explored just such a collaborative model of education. It combined the distinct pedagogical approaches of makerspaces and universities and took a studio-based approach to learning, investigating whether this could be carried out at distance via an online space.

By bridging formal and informal learning environments and devising a learning activity that required learners to work with partners from outside their own institution, we created a more ‘authentic’ learning experience that closely replicated a real-world distributed designer-maker relationship, and enabled us to carry out development research into design-and-making focused online collaborative learning.

In 2015 the Open University ran a summer school led by its Learning & Teaching Innovation Portfolio and Design Group. For the duration of a 12 week design-make project, OU design students around the UK were paired with maker trainees based at MAKLab Glasgow. Each pair worked together to design and make a flat-pack chair. This had to be cut and assembled from plywood using no mechanical fixings, in three iterations.

The OU ‘designers’ imagined initial concepts and worked these into sketches and 2D CAD models. They then negotiated these ideas with their ‘maker’ partners at MAKLab, who advised on material and equipment constraints, and helped move their ideas to a software model suitable for computer aided cutting. The maker fabricated the design and offered feedback. Once each chair had been made and tested, it was shipped to the designer for review and revision.

Communication took place solely through a web-based workspace as we sought to create a collaborative learning experience that could function no matter where the participants were in the world. Our seven pairs of designers and makers engaged enthusiastically; from conversations via 750 forum posts, and 18 full size prototypes were successfully completed.

What we learnt

The design of the online space was critical: rich functionalities were needed to enable satisfactory interactions around ideas, sketches, and 2D and 3D models. At times, the online space became a barrier but these problems were overcome or worked around. As the Open University has proven in its development of the Open Studio used elsewhere, virtual studios can offer affordances not supported by ‘real’ studios. Going forwards we aim to work closely with the Open Studio development team to consider what the virtual design studio of the future might look like.

Appropriate guidance is a balancing act: were we offering an authentic professional experience, which allowed for failure or a supported learning environment? One maker suggested if a designer sent a poor quality software file, the maker should send back exactly what was requested, even if it resulted in a blank sheet of timber. While participants were learning new skills, we had to consider at what point we should step in to offer support, and to what extent we should let them make their own mistakes. As educators, we benefitted from learning about each other’s approaches (the university and the makerspace).

Materiality is central: a key aspect of the project was finding ways to support conversations around the material aspects of the designing and making. There is immense richness to be explored around how educators can support distributed learners to explore online collaborative designing and making focused around physical artefacts: ‘networked sociomateriality’.

What next?

As manufacturing and prototyping becomes increasingly digital, distributed, and online, we believe virtual studios bridging physical design and making spaces could become the training spaces for designers of the future, and a viable model for industry supported learning. The RE:FORM summer school was highly motivating for students. It helped maintain their identity as learners during the gap between modules, and provided opportunities to extend their learning through an authentic collaboration they are likely to encounter in their future careers.