Being a University Design Tutor an a Master Student

The first semester of the Master of Architetcture degree at the University of Melbourne has been like a roller coaster – juggling full-time study, working at an architecture firm one day a week, and working as a sessional studio tutor & technical tutor for two Bachelor of Design design studios. As I have finally submitted the final assignment for the semester and completed marking for three classes, I decided to reflect on my experience being both a design studio tutor and a student. If you’re a student, scroll down (or read through!) to the bottom for some tips…

Having both perspectives

I understand that it’s a privilege to be a tutor and a student at the same time. I’m constantly in a position to learn from my professors, lecturers and tutors, at the same time assisting my students do their best. I see the road ahead of me, at the same time looking back how far I’ve come. It is certainly a strange experience, that reminds me to be always humble and be in search of a better way of learning, studying and teaching.

Having a perspective of a tutor naturally puts me in the ‘work’ mode even when I’m studying as a student; being just a student can sometimes psychologically dramatise every single assignment and be conscious of the final outcomes, comparing oneself to the others especially in design studios. The ‘work’ mode is essentially a mindset where I’m working with my colleagues in a professional and constructive manner, and the focus is not on myself or pure outcome, but the process and progress of tasks or projects. Whether it is a group assignment (I had three group assignments for three subjects this semester…) or an individual assignment, your attitude should be the same: you have a deadline, you know what to do, do it and keep track of the progress. Ask for assistance whenever you need. Deliver it.

Another benefit of having both perspectives is the critical eye on my own work. In design studios, my role as a tutor is to provide feedback to students on their works and guide them with their design processes and directions. Which means I’m constantly looking for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in students’ designs, and I need to be able to articulate why so. My personal preference over design styles is not good enough as a reason, so I’m asking myself why I love one thing and hate the other. It helps me understand myself as a designer (often my preference is rooted to certain beliefs and my design approach), and consequently, this way of thinking seeps into how I design as a student.

I started to notice its impact on my design thinking around a month into the semester; with my teammate, we discussed how we design based on what we wanted to achieve. For example, we followed a trail of thoughts as below:

  1. We researched theory of play and identified different types of play that children experience as they grow.
  2. We learnt what kind of spatial properties are suitable for each type of play.
  3. We want to integrate a variety of spaces for play, and we categorised variations of spaces for play (e.g. nooks for solitary play, etc.)
  4. We came up with different designs for nooks – we’re focusing on criteria such as the level of privacy, verticality and activation of circulation.
  5. Here are three designs that meet the criteria we set and implemented at different locations in our building.

When something wasn’t working, some of the discussions we had include:

  • There’s not enough head clearance / we need ramps for equal access! (regulatory factor)
  • We can’t span that much without columns (structural factor)
  • How can we integrate structure into architecture? How can the structure define space?
  • There is no curves elsewhere, why do we introduce it here?
  • That ‘seating’ is too high. (ergonomical factor)
  • It looks too complicated, how can we simplify and clarify the design intent?
  • If we move that room over here, the connection to another function is lost.
  • Looks like there are too many walls, why do we create so many isolated spaces?
  • We have under-utilised area, what other functions can we integrate into it?
  • It doesn’t make sense to have corridor here, how can we improve the flow of people / circulation?
  • We don’t want this space to be isolated and tucked away, how can we make it more visible?

The thinking process became more rational and step by step. I felt more confident about my design because I could say why we made those decisions. I’d like to attribute this sense to the experience of giving feedback to my students’ designs.

How to become a student who “understands” it

Here are some of the tips for design students – not foolproof, but hopefully these ideas help you find your own way of doing.

  1. Design studio is NOT where we criticise ‘you’: think, you’re at the university to become a better designer, create a set of projects to show at job interviews, and to develop the foundation by trial and error . Tutors are here to assist you develop your skills, understanding and knowledge in design. There is no perfect design, and what tutors / critics say are not to demotivate you or criticise you as a designer, but to advise you on aspects of your design you can improve on.
  2. Clarify what you’re trying to achieve: setting a clear, specific and unique brief or design focus sets you on the right track. You should be able to say it to your grandma in one sentence (“my project is about…” / “the aim of my design is…”)
  3. Base your understanding on research and analysis: Make sure to identify key factors or aspects in the contexts (site, historical / cultural / social contexts, etc.) They are the some of unique ingredients for your dish, you don’t need to use all of them but be mindful with how you use them.
  4. Use precedents wisely: when you find precedents, look into designers’ / architects’ design intent and design process, not just the finished projects themselves. Identify what aspects of design you can incorporate into your project (not necessarily the look – can be materiality, techniques for spatial composition, architectural expression, circulation, thresholds, sensory experience, framing of the view, phenomenological conditions, functionality of spaces, gestures to the inhabitants, response to contexts, iterative process, methods of consultations with stakeholders, etc.).
  5. Presentation is essentially an opportunity to communicate your design: you’ve been working on a project for the last three months or so and you know it inside out. But there are people who have no idea what you have done. Make sure to talk about it in the logical order (opening statement – overview – research and analysis – response to the brief – development – etc.) so that you’re helping audience understand and appreciate your work in the way you want. So don’t stress too much, it’s an exciting time!
  6. Graphic matters: confusing graphic representations do not only make it harder to understand your design, but also diminish the potential opportunities for getting good feedback. Consider what each graphic is telling & how they are supporting your argument (you should be referring to them when you do oral presentation). Consider hierarchy of information by scale, colour and composition / lineweight / consistency / composition and order, etc.

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