The Design Studio Approach: Mobile Learning Institute at the Smithsonian

Friday, November 12, 2010 at 9:52 am

How do we create a learning culture that puts the young person at the center of the experience, that inspires creativity and innovation, and that actualizes learning by doing — not in theory only, but in practice? The design studio style of learning that is central to the Hirshhorn Museum programs presented by the Mobile Learning Institute at the Smithsonian is an example of how museums can engage visitors in this way.

The Design Studio Learning Environment
Design studios can be successful in developing rich and engaging learning experiences for the 21st century learner. Core components of successful design studios include: project-based work, incorporation of design solutions, formal and informal critique, consideration of issues, thinking with examples and thinking about the whole, creative use of constraints, and emphasizing design media.1 In sum, the combined elements of an effective design studio cultivate a learning space where youth are active participants and problem-solvers, where adults play the role of facilitators and experts, and where learning is experiential.2

The Hirshhorn Design Studio Learning Space
The Hirshhorn’s “ArtLab+” (the physical learning space) is a digital media studio that incorporates the following characteristics:

• Flexibility to encourage both small and large group collaboration
• Youth relevance
• Flexible and modular design


The tables and chairs in ArtLab+ are purposely arranged in a way that reflects a studio instead of a classroom, with table/chair “modules” that frequently shift to accommodate specific tasks. For example, tables were positioned as one large rectangular work station on the first day of the workshop so that participants were able to work on brainstorming ideas for their projects.

Design Principles
Design principles refer to the specific set of values that shape what takes place in the physical space/studio environment. Characteristics include:

• Participant assumption of roles/identities
• Short iterative cycles
• Frequent critique sessions
• Dispersed community
• Skills as strategies
• Distributed knowledge
• Facilitators as co-designers

Where a mobile video series component is the central part of the final collective project, participants can begin with exploring photography, since the core skills such as framing, lighting, etc. are closely related to videography. Participants may start out in a short task that involves going out to take a photo using the Rule of Thirds. The next design cycle may involve the students applying this skill to a five-second video capture of the same object with panning and zooming.

Rituals refer to a specific set of social practices that are integral to all Mobile Learning Institute at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum programs. These rituals include:

• Community circles
• Design task cards
• Community design board
• Design journals

Design task cards in these programs fall into two categories: Skill Building Cards and Content Understanding Cards. Skill Building Cards are a series of cards geared toward developing expertise around specific new-media skills, such as video capture and editing. Content Understanding Cards are directed toward developing understanding of a certain content goal, such as art interpretation. Within each of these categories, there are three to five cards that focus on specific participant-centered activities. Cards are ranked by skill development. For instance, after students understand and apply the “Rule of Thirds,” they might be ready to advance to “directional force.”


In the next entry, we’ll take a look at some of the ways the New Learning Institute has incorporated the design studio approach and how we are shifting our methods to accommodate the new media learner of today.

Additional resources on design studios:
1: S. Kuhn, The Software Design Studio: an exploration, IEEE Software, March/April, 1988.
2: J. Matthews, “Using a studio-based pedagogy to engage students in the design of mobile-based media,” English Teaching: Practice and Critique, May 2010: 88.


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