Design Studios: the Good, the Bad, and the Science

Much has been written about the design studio methodology within the design community. In order to really understand how and why design studios work, though, designers must look beyond design—in particular, to social psychology and behavioral economics.

Too often, design problems are tackled ad hoc. A team stumbles into a design problem and they chase the first idea they come up with. If the idea dead-ends, the team may start over on a different solution. As soon as a viable solution appears, the team moves on to executing it.

 At Case Commons, we use print-outs and post-its to share and critique ideas in our design studios.In contrast, the design studio methodology offers a structured approach to design problems. While variations of design studio have been proposed—from Ungar and White’s initial 2008 case study on the methodology to Will Evans’ more sophisticated variation described earlier this year—all share the same basic flow.

Someone frames a design problem. They assemble a team of designers, developers, and product managers. Each team member individually brainstorms ideas. Each, then, shares his ideas with the group, which offers criticism and feedback. After more rounds of individual brainstorming and group discussion, a smaller team takes the resulting ideas and produces a final design.

Two criteria set design studios apart from other approaches:

  • Design studio brings together a group with diverse and balanced skill-sets such as design, product management, and development.
  • Design studio prescribes a specific process including one or more iterations of: individual brainstorming followed by group critique (explanation, feedback, voting). At the end, the surviving ideas are synthesized in a final design.
 The Kennedy administration’s 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco was one of many US foreign policy blunders attributed to groupthink and the failure to develop alternatives.The JFK Presidential Library, image public domain

The starting point for understanding why design studios work is that they begin with brainstorming. Too often, in the ad hoc approach to design, the team runs with the first idea that comes to mind, before exploring alternatives.

Since the early 1990s, behavioral economists have used findings from cognitive science to challenge the idea that humans always act rationally. Behavioral economics has catalogued many of the ways in which we make sub-optimal decisions (economically and otherwise) due to cognitive biases inherent in our thinking. The bias most relevant to the design process is confirmation bias, our tendency to seek information that confirms our hypothesis and unconsciously filter that which negates it.

In the typical ad hoc design approach, described above, a team starts with a single idea and begins to vet it. As it does so, the likelihood grows that the team will fail to discover flaws in the proposed solution, or discover better alternatives. If the team hits a dead-end, they may explore alternatives, but otherwise, confirmation bias pushes a team down it’s initial, possibly sub-optimal path. The risk, obviously, is that the team is ignoring other, better solutions that may be out there.

Design studio mitigates confirmation bias in two ways. First, it starts with an explicit brainstorming period, which gets lots of ideas out on the table, before people get wedded to any one idea. (One improvement on the design studio methodology would be to encourage and reward the most extreme ideas possible. Because of the fact that ideas begin to converge after the initial brainstorm, it is important to cast as wide an initial net as possible.) Second, design studio turns confirmation bias against itself. Confirmation causes individuals to fall in love with their initial ideas developed during brainstorming. This inoculates individuals against groupthink by giving them time to develop and fall in love with their own ideas before becoming exposed to other people’s ideas.

Design thinking has its own language for what is going on here: divergence (the creation of new alternatives) and convergence (the cross-pollination and merging of disparate ideas). For most groups, convergence occurs naturally; people are polite and avoid conflict, so compromise and consolidation of ideas happens easily. Divergence is, for many teams, less natural, and design studio are a great way of enforcing this crucial step.

What about the fact that design studios encourage a large group to tackle the design problem? We hear all the time that “two heads are better than one” and that diverse groups are better than uniform groups. Scientists in the 1960s developed a complementary task model that theorized that groups outperform individuals because they combine individuals with complementary talents and resources. This idea still informs our common sense today.

Research since the 1960s, however, has shown that it’s not that simple. Over the last century, social science has taught us that groups are subject to a whole range of dysfunctions such as conformity, groupthink, self-censorship, free-riding, and so forth. We’ve all experienced ineffective groups. The design community is particularly hostile to groups doing “design by committee.” Given all the problems with groups, when, if ever, groups are able to outperform individuals? Instead of using design studios, should we just have individuals do design?

In 1982, Hill published the most-cited paper (PDF) on group versus individual performance. Hill found that whether groups or individuals perform better depended on the type of task:

  • Brainstorming problems: When brainstorming, research shows that the best results come from having individuals brainstorm on their own and then pooling their ideas. The reasons groups perform worse at brainstorming include: production blocking (when one person talks, the others in the group are inhibited from being productive), social loafing (individuals don’t try as hard when they are judged as a group) and groupthink (individuals are less likely to pursue riskier, idiosyncratic leads in a group). In one experiment, researchers asked subjects to shout and clap as loudly as possible; they found that people clapped a remarkable 20-30% less loudly in a group than individually.
  • Creativity problems: When performing a creative task, groups outperform individuals—if all individuals are of similar skill level. However, the research shows that weak and even average members drag down group performance, and that this effect is stronger when the task is more challenging. For difficult creative problems, if a group contains both high- and low-performing individuals, any one of the high-performing individuals would probably out-perform the group on his or her own. For most creative problems, though, it’s safe to assume a group will generally perform as well or better than an individual.
  • Complex problems: Sometimes a group cannot even agree on what the problem is, or it may multiple overlapping sub-problems. For complex problems such as these, groups are about as good as their second-best member. Why? Complex problems usually don’t have intuitively obvious answers, so group members will have to convince one another. Whichever individual best understands the problem, then, will have to convince his peers. The group, then, will only be as good as the next-best individual, and whether he can grasp the solution put forth by the best individual. Since it’s usually hard to predict who would be the strongest individual for a given task, using a group makes sense.

These findings support the design studio methodology:

  • Identifying and framing a design problem is often a complex problem. This is outside the scope of design studio and done before setting it up. Research suggests it’s best done in a group setting.
  • The sketching phase of a design studio is a brainstorming problem, which research agrees should be performed individually.
  • The group sharing/feedback/discussion phase of a design studio is a creative problem: critiquing ideas, using proposed ideas to better understand the problem, searching for novel combinations of ideas, etc. Research agrees that it’s usually good to do this as a group. For harder problems or teams with widely varying skill levels, though, it may actually be better to have a single, highly skilled individual take the group’s ideas and design independently.

In fact, not only do social scientists support the design studio—social scientists essentially invented the design studio 50 years ago, except they called it Nominal Group Technique (NGT). NGT, though, only calls for one round of brainstorming and discussion, so technically the design studio is more akin to iterative-NGT.

The overall morale of this story is that the design studio methodology is research-backed and theoretically sound. Compared to the usual ad hoc way designs often come together, teams would do well to incorporate design studios into their process. That said, there a few lessons to keep in mind as you apply it in your organizations:

The Kumar Model theorizes that design thinking involves a mix of research, analysis, synthesis and delivery. The design studio is a tool of the synthesis phase.

  • Design studio doesn’t prescribe how to analyze the domain or frame the design problem. Much design theory makes a distinction between analysis and synthesis. In that frame of reference, design studio is mostly about synthesis, and presupposes that the team has already done analysis (domain research, user research, etc) before the studio. This is not a fault of design studio, but it is worth noting as a constraint. Do your homework before the studio.
  • The research on group vs. individual performance gives two cautions about the group sharing/feedback/discussion phase of design studios. One, be careful who you invite: low-performing individuals drag down groups. Two, groups under-perform individuals for the toughest design problems; sometimes it’s best to go with a single high-performing individual.
  • NGT, upon which design studio is based, was originally a one-pass process. Research has noted over the years at how much this limits the cross-fertilization of ideas, to generate novel combinations of ideas. Design studio is at least two pass (design-discuss-design), but this still results in very little cross-fertilization. The more iterating in design studio, the better.

Hopefully this has shed some light on why design studios can work. What have your experiences been, though? Have you led or participated in them, and have you found them to be effective? I’d love to hear your real-life stories!


This entry was posted in Portfolio design and critiquing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s