In this blog series we’ll be discussing the studio units I run at SAE. Discussion will include:

  • interpretations
  • planning and executing
  • tips and tricks
  • anything else that comes up.

The plan is for a blog to go up each week. At times it may seem a bit cagey; as this is public and available to students I don’t want to spoil any of their surprises.

Let’s dive in.

At this point in time, the big milestones locked are in, we know:

  • when projects start and end
  • when they require testing, and
  • when they will have design interventions, etc.

Project structure

The Basic structure of any non trivial project we do, is:

  • Brief
    • Creative limitations and timelines
  • Primer
    • Class discussion planned around the key topics we expect them to tackle with the brief
  • Groups
    • If it’s group work we assign them into groups in accordance with our policy
  • Brainstorm
    • Fairly unstructured, beyond, there should be two phases
      • Expansion; get all ideas out of your head and onto the page. Doesn’t matter if they seem good or not, or too big or whatever, we want it all. Mind maps recommended
      • Contraction; which things mesh together which don’t which, which make sense, which are out of scope but what’s cool about them?
  • Concepting
    • These should be rough. The type will be dependent on the discipline, but might be:
      • Sketches
      • Thumbnails
      • Storyboards
      • Mock-ups
      • Rough high concept doc
  • Pitch
    • Feedback
  • Refine, take the feedback and use it to polish, add to and remove from the concept
  • Plan
    • HCD, GDD, TDD, Task Breakdown and schedule, Questionnaire, etc.
  • Design Intervention
    • Why have you done things the way you have, are they the best ways, the only ways?
  • Create
  • Playtest, getting the first complete draft of the thing in front of people who aren’t creating it and who aren’t already intimately aware of it’s development.
    • Questionnaires answered
  • Pivot
    • What is working, what isn’t, what is the project actually about now that it’s met the public, what can we cut?
  • Update Plan
  • Create
  • Present
    • Noting changes, probably with more playtesting to confirm their effects.
  • Wrap
  • Post-mortem

Project Briefs

Briefs are a tricky beast, they define the limits of what a project can become but not what it actually is. The team will determine what exactly the thing is. The creative limitations serve as the beginning of the mind map. The limits need enough ‘air’ in them so that teams don’t all end up in exactly the same place but not so much ‘air’ that the team spends time searching for the ‘right’ concept. We want teams to have individual ownership of the thing, to feel that their’s is a unique endeavour. There should not be an obvious ‘answer’. The brief should provide a challenge to be overcome by the team or the individual (humans naturally enjoy this), it’s a key part of why the projects succeed.

Elements of a brief:

  • Goal
  • Creative Limits
    • Could be limits in terms of time, style/genre, technology used, group size. It could even specify what part of the deliverable is, a mechanic or asset or scene. Eg. A 3d game, where no player or NPC can be injured or hurt. It must be set in an interior environment and use a third person camera set up. You can find more, simplified versions of previous briefs by checking the briefs section here.
  • Deliverables
  • Milestones

Shared learning experiences

The other big win for all the projects being different but also the same, is they can share the learning experiences that are all slightly different and with different areas of specific interest. It also allows for cross-pollination but doesn’t end up with all the projects homogenising. Here’s an example of our first brief.

We’ve also got a pretty good idea of what the 2 other briefs for the unit will be, to the same amount of detail as brief 1 but those will have to stay secret for now.

Orienting students to the Studio Model

Orienting students to the potentially vastly different environment of studio is part of what happens in week 1. We have to talk through a bunch of big things:

Students are far more responsible for their learning than ever before. Explain the following things:

  • We’re here to facilitate, we create the environment,the support and assistance so they can learn, but ultimately it’s far more up to them. We are not going to tell them facts and expect them to be repeated to us in a few weeks time.
  • We let them now that it’s okay to not know the answer to things, that’s kinda the whole point of education. If they don’t know a word or phrase or the context, they have to say something. If they stay silent then we assume they’ve got it and will move on to the next thing.
  • We do a LOT of things flipped, we want to spend time figuring out how to use things effectively and creatively not get stuck on basic concepts. We let them know that we expect them to do lots of basic knowledge research outside of class.

Explain how projects work:

  • They start from day 1, the structure isn’t learn a bunch of stuff then try to use it later in a project. We will be asking them to do and make things that are beyond their current skill.
  • Everything is marked individually though, it doesn’t matter how good the thing is at the end, it matters far more what they contributed to it and what they learned in the process.
  • They will exhibit to the public, in one if not many ways during and at the end of trimester.
    • For this unit, this also means play-testing each project, usually multiple times.

How grading works

  • Learning Outcomes are what they need to get, they describe the quantity and quality of a skill or aspect required by the unit. They can be met at any point, we need to see it, on the public facing blog.
  • We talk to them briefly about KPIs, hopefully these are being renamed soon. Basically it’s a collection of soft, hirability skills that we want students to be aware of and actively improve upon over the course of their degree.
    • We flag that they need to read these carefully and that there will be more info about the process in week 5.
  • Holisitc and final grade, is based on how far above the minimum amount of work in both quantity and quality over the trimester.
    • If all they’ve done is just met the baseline descriptors (not succeeded or tried to exceed them), done no extra work/projects, made no effort to do so and have not started executing a plan to improve soft skills then they will not get better than a Pass for the unit.

So the overall structure of Studio 1 is well understood by us at this point, has enough flexibility for us to move things around to suit the cohort and fit in structured content if needed. Students have a very clear picture of what the immediate schedule is for the current project. Beyond that they know that there about big things, like when projects are intended to start and end, but these are intentionally vague so there is slack built into the schedule.

Our projects

Project 1 is solo and only 1 week long, it’s a good framing device for acclimatising students to what studio workload is like. The content of the unit itself and gives them a chance to make a decent chunk of progress on a wide variety of LOs (Learning Outcomes). This also assists us with determining groups for the upcoming group projects, so we can take into account students strengths, preferences, existing relationships and areas of interest.

Project 2 will focus on dynamics will be in groups, last for 4-5 weeks with play testing in the middle. Project 3 the same but focus on aesthetics.

What’s next?

Next week we’ll talk about rituals, pitches, feedback mechanisms, brainstorming, and probably more.