“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it.” - Steve Jobs

Studio = Serendipity by Design

[Today, I read a great piece by Mark Boulton (@markboulton) on his experience past & present with design critiques and how they’ve sorta been lost in the web design (and by extension I’ll add the UX community). I’ve had this 1-2 written piece on the design studio and Mark’s post gave me enough of a kick to rough this out.

After reading this piece if you are interested in how to get some studio spirit & design criticism into your organization’s culture please contact me and let’s fins out how I might be able to help mentor, train, and build your team and design culture.]

Do you know what a studio is? What do you think of when you think of a studio?

a) A small apartment without any bedrooms?
b) An artist’s loft in SOHO?
c) An artisan’s studio of masters, apprentices and students?
d) A design agency’s offices in SOMA?
e) A recording studio in Hollywood?
f) A movie studio in Burbank?
g) All of the above?
h) None of the above?

That’s ok, obviously I thought of all those too. The one that interests me as a designer is not the design agency but rather the artisan studio after which the design agency is so closely evolved from. While there are few if any artisan studios any more, there are many design studios around the world. They exist in design agencies, but they also exist (in a few) large corporations like Apple, Trek, Motorola, Samsung, BMW (DesignWorks), etc. And most certainly they exist in a host of institutions dedicated to design education.

Why did designers take on the model of the artisan studio? Well, to first answer that question we first need to dissect the artisan studio itself into some core elements.

First, the artisan studio was as much about teaching as it was about production. Teaching wasn’t limited to skills nor even thinking processes, but the artisan studio was responsible for teaching design language, principles and frameworks. These more subtle aspects of design education were learned experientially and not through study or practice like craft and knowledge are learned. They were molded into students through conditioning by criticism.

When students experience criticism in a design studio they are being exposed to the thinking of the master of that studio. That thinking is an implicit manifesto that can never be articulated effectively or clearly in a direct matter, because to do so actually would cause a false confidence in a student that they actually understand it with experiencing it for themselves.

Second, the artisan studio was a space that exploded with creativity. This wasn’t necessarily about individual creativity, but rather, the creativity of the studio as a whole. It is this area on which I wish to elaborate.

Design studios regardless of history or type succeed due to that deep connection to the whimsy of the artist. I don’t mean whimsy as “flight of fancy”, but rather as an openness to influence and inspiration from any source, especially the unexpected ones. Who better to be influenced and inspired by than the people you work with and everything about their work and lives?

What makes this easier is the creation of that shared language and collection of principles mentioned previously. This together with one major quality of every successful design studio allows for the greatest number of associations through collisions of people and ideas. That major quality though is openness. The open space is not just an aesthetic but serves an intentional function, whereby everyone in the studio regardless of experience level, has transparency into the total of the studio.

This transparency though is not just about architecture. The studio also contains social mores that allow the transparency to be taken advantage of without abusing people or reducing productivity. Again, part of this goes back to that previously mentioned “criticism”, but is also about what is taught that isn’t said. The studio is a space for young to older adults, where the young (or recent) arrivals to the studio are expected to follow the mores (never spoken). This is akin to the slow and arduous process of a kindergarten-aged child finally figuring out the rules of conversation–as in when to interrupt, interject, or otherwise know your turn to speak.

A recruiter from Apple once told me that at Apple’s Industrial Design studio their junior designers don’t directly contribute to the product design lifecycle for their first year. They are there to observe, listen, and learn. They are students in that classical artisan way. It has nothing to do with skills or creativity. They prove that before getting picked to enter the studio. It is about learning the specific language, frameworks and principles of the Apple Studio.

Few design studios take it this far today. Their lower margins don’t allow for this level of intense apprenticeship. But even if being incorporated directly into the product lifecycle in a studio, a junior designer today will be mentored and schooled.

One of the core ways that a studio’s culture is maintained is through its open communication and open space. Designers have an enlarged peripheral vision due to the open space. But this has a larger affect than pure visibility. It creates a sensibility, or ethos in that space, that there are no boundaries, walls, or doors for what each designer is allowed to both see and contribute to. Anyone can interject into anyone else’s business, and further these interruptions are not just expected, but rather, they are encouraged.

It’s one thing to request criticism or to have set points for review. It is quite another to encourage contribution any time the spirit rises. But there is an implicit understanding that “contribution” besides not requiring invitation, also doesn’t require specific form or venue. Every conversation can lead to contribution and often that contribution may not ever be traceable.

In the end, the goal of the studio environment is to increase collisions of people and thus their thoughts. These collisions of thoughts lead to associations, when externalized (usually visually) lead to more and more collisions & associations. They then evolve from thoughts to ideas, and then ideas to concepts, and finally, from concepts to executed designs.

This is the serendipity that creativity thrives on, and while they are indeed accidents, the studio is intentional and purposeful in its readiness to recognize, curate, evaluate, refine and harness these accidents–Serendipity by Design.

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