Originally published on Medium, August 2, 2020
by Sara Jamshidi, Undergraduate Director & Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the Corcoran
I’m a faculty in undergraduate level and I also run a graphic design program, which means I mostly work with students around 18 to 22 years old, some of whom are away from home for the first time. I spent last year, which was also my first year of teaching full-time, in defining a graphic design studio that made it easier for students to let their mind wander. They could felt safer to have open conversations, freely explore methods and materials, and ask questions in an informal setting. It is a space in the core of a historic building that breaks free of the formalities imposed by the museum-like architecture of an institution.
I can’t help but wonder about the studios and spaces that the students are creating for themselves in the following semesters, especially the incoming class and how long it took me to figure out what works for me.
As professional designers we are teaching from our home-studios or actual studios if we have one. However, the students are taking classes from their homes — some times a shared bedroom with their siblings. Their studio can be in their living rooms, basement, or attic. It is within their domestic space. Current students are skipping over many steps of the previous educational and social systems in an academic institution. They are learning about themselves and how they work while socially distancing and without collaborating in close proximity. As Rathna Ramanathan nicely puts it in an instagram live, by working and taking classes from home, the students are already mostly making work in the contexts within which the works will exist when finished. For many of us a lot of the learning happened during late nights in the studio and conversations we had without the teachers around in informal settings. We have learned many of Adobe’s shortcuts by working in studios and computer labs with our friends and other classmates. Our students, especially the incoming class, don’t have this opportunity now. As people who are facilitating learning we cannot be stuck in the mindset of traditional studio structures when we welcome them in this academic year.
We are used to not working in-person in many of our professional practices. Now is the time to bridge this gap between professional studios and academia and bring in the best practices we’ve learned through our other jobs in studio and classroom settings.
Through years of practice at college and working from our living rooms, we’ve learned to create a studio for ourselves—be it a laptop on a make-shift desk, or a dedicated space. For many students, the boundaries of domestic and professional lives are already blurred before having started to work freelance from their dining tables. A studio is not a typical classroom or a lecture hall that the first-year college students have necessarily experienced before. It’s a space to make, learn, experiment, and not be afraid of failing. It should be a space to encourage their minds to go free or to go deep in an idea. Jessica Helfand puts it beautifully in her self-reliance essay here. Many of the things I have learned about my studios are also from working with Jessica and sharing a studio with her for more than two years. It’s also from long hours in studio courses at university and the shared studios at RCA.
Current students are not only speculating the context around design, they are also interrogating it through their existing learning environments. They have the ability to constantly improve it since it’s also part of the private spaces in their homes. However, they haven’t seen many studios yet. We should understand that our students have to find themselves and the way they work in isolation and it’s not easy. But it doesn’t mean they’re doing it by themselves. They simply haven’t thought about how a wall space to hang things up and check them from a distance could be helpful. They may not know the benefits of having a tape over your camera, where you’re constantly in zoom calls — and we’ve all seen that things could go wrong. They still don’t know that many designers are also hoarders of ephemeral things in a box or drawer nearby and almost all of us has a favorite pencil or pen in our studio. Most designers working in print have at least one paper sample book in arms-reach because it makes us feel good and print is not dead.
I have moved 17 times in my life, and during at least the 8 recent moves I needed to create a makeshift studio for myself. Some times it was on the bed, or over the coffee table, where the bedroom was too small to fit a desk. Many times it was the corner of the living room, or by a window where I could look outside and concentrate. It has also been at a covered terrace that was turned into a den — amazing south facing windows and great light. For a few months my studio was at the Wing, a really nice co-working space. The point is over the years I learned how to turn a space into a studio no matter how big, or where it was. I learned my routine: what times of the day I’m most productive, what I need to do to get in the zone, what’s the smallest table I need, how far it should be from the kitchen and how close to the library. I’ve had enough practice that when I’m moving for the 18th time, when (if) the pandemic is under control in the US, I’d be fine with turning any space into a studio.
There is however a difference between our personal or professional studios and those in which we had at university or college where classes were held. This coming semester we are not meeting in person to invite the students to the studios. On the contrary, we are virtually stepping in every single student’s personal space. The points of view are changing and with that should our perspectives about studios.
Just as excited as I am to expand our community engagement projects beyond the geographical boundaries of Washington DC; I’m excited about expanding our studios all around the world. And I can’t help to find myself responsible in helping the students make those spaces and start to critically think about it as the classes begin. It’s nice that the students’ studios are in their domestic spaces. It will already be where they feel safe, which can only be an assumption and we must all be more conscious about the context of their homes. We can help them build upon the safety that encourages creative expression, to make it into a space for critical thinking and exploration as well.
On first day of school, instead of an orientation of workshops, letterpress studios, printshops and computer labs by faculties, each student will turn their cameras around and give a tour of their studio.
Before the semester begins I’m planning virtual studio visits to studios of designers, teachers, and recent graduates. We will share our studios with the students, where we make, live, get inspired, procrastinate, go crazy, and sometimes design.
graphic designer | undergraduate director & assistant professor of graphic design @CorcoranGW | RCA visual communication alumna