Virtual Design Studios

The design studio is a signature pedagogy in art and design education (Crowther 2013; Shulman 2005). It provides a physical, social and cultural place within which students can simulate real world practice without the associated risks and with expert practitioner and pedagogical support in the form of the studio tutor (Schön 1987; Kimbell 2011).

Therefore, any design studio is far more than the physical object itself and the curriculum and support around a studio is a critical part of it. This is especially true of online and distance studios – Virtual Design Studios (VDS).

There are no clear definitions or boundaries of what a studio is or what it comprises so this is a practical Getting Started guide to VDS use in distance design education.

With that in mind, your studio should be:

  • what you need it to be for you, your students, and the subject you are teaching – you will come across a lot of tech solutions and shiny products. You need to be aware of these but not driven by them.
  • flexible and agile in response to student and tutor needs – as students develop, their studio needs change hence your studio needs to change. Similarly, if a bit of your studio isn’t working then dump it.
  • the basics first and complex stuff later. Chances are you will end up with multiple tools and services. This is OK and quite normal – most studios are blended studios (your existing studio is already blended!)

And remember, a studio is as much an idea and concept as anything physical of digital.


It might seem a strange place to start but a significant driver of an online studio is your curriculum. What, how, when, and why you do things (i.e. curriculum) in a studio informs what the studio can become. Our experience and research shows that studios separated from curriculum (or vice versa) do not work in the way they are intended to. Develop your curriculum in conjunction with what your studio currently is. 

Start by sketching out what your overall plan is:

  • Process-based project (e.g. a basic research>brief>ideas>test>iterate model)
  • Project with outputs (e.g. project based on client deliverables (simulated or real); )
  • Staged Project (e.g. Formal stage-gate process project)
  • Series of design activities (e.g. precedent analysis; user studies; idea testing; etc.)
  • Series of prompts with student-led work (e.g. a theme of ‘Fairness” with open-ended response)
  • Large student-led project (e.g. Higher or Masters level self-directed student interest or portfolio)
  • Etc

This gives you a starting point to work with, so try to keep it top-level and relatively descriptive.

Even better is if you can add to this some value or aim to be your Guiding Principle (Lawson, 2005). For example, you might set out a single thing you want students to ‘become’ at the end of it: ‘Independent designers’, ‘Creative tinkerers’, ‘Confident with uncertainty’. This can be useful when you are unsure at a later stage – you can go back and ask ‘will this decision help my guiding principle?’


Once you have your curriculum sketch, there are some dimensions to the studio that are worth thinking about and that you can apply to your plan.

These are:

  • Public – Private (what are the levels of sharing you need? Public? Semi-public? Semi-private? Private?)
  • Social – Personal (Is the focus of the studio the group and community identity? Or is it the development of individual professionals? This changes over time, by the way)
  • Formative or Summative Assessment (Is the reason for the studio primarily formative or summative assessment? Do you need to see process or outputs? Learning or achievements?)
  • Output – Activity (Is the focus on the design process and activity? Or what is being produced? Constructivist-Behavioural?)
  • Specialist – General (how specialised or general is the curriculum and what does that require in the studio?)
  • Synchronous – Asynchronous (how synchronous do the activities need to be? Is it staged? )
  • Distributed – Focused (Is it for a deliberately large set of contributors or large-scale contribution (OpenIDEO)? Or for a specific group focus? Or even individual?)
  • Finite – Open-ended (Do you have specific cut-off points, such as assessments? Or is it a continuous studio (such as DS106)?)

Different studios make use of these dimensions in very different ways and this is just as true in online studios as it is anywhere else (Lanig, 2019; Jones et al, 2020).

Studio Types

Now that we have some dimensions for our studio we can have a look at Types of studio, where these dimensions are prioritised in different ways to suit the studio need. The following is by no means a complete list – we simply don’t have the research and knowledge on this topic yet.

Repository type studios

A very common VDS is the online repository type where students upload material to an online space. This replicates a core Studio Property – that activity centres around artefacts (we draw, touch models, create shapes with material). The core pedagogy centres around these artefacts and what you and students do with them.

Some repository studios focus on single media modes (such as images) and this can help really focus students’ attention to particular modes of work. For example, a photography course focusing on teaching only in that medium.

Fnstagram, Pinterest, Flickr and Google Photos are relatively commonplace examples of this type of studio. Creating shared albums or using tags can bring this work together to allow sharing and critique (either synchronously or asynchronously).

Other repository studios allow a range of media to be shared (e.g. images, video, links, audio clips, etc.) and this can be particularly useful for sketchbook, research, or pinboard type design activity.

Here’s an example of a Padlet Studio – feel free to have a go and add a #DistanceDesignEd resource yourself:

Made with Padlet

Repository studio dimensions (approx only):

  • Public – Private Good for public or private
  • Social – Personal For social, needs to support interaction on artefacts
  • Assessment – Process Good for assessment. OK for process but needs support in curriculum.
  • Output – Activity Most favour outputs but activity via artefacts can work well in Padlet or Evernote
  • Specialist – General Either, although particularly good for specialist and focused work
  • Synchronous – Asynchronous Primarily asynchronous
  • Distributed – Focused Primarily focused (on artefact, groupings, student, task etc.)
Social and social media studios

The primary focus of this type of studio is social connection, often within an identifiable community, identity or shared purpose. The purpose of this community can be primarily subject or pastorally oriented and most end up being some blend of both. The core pedagogy is a social constructivist model: students learn from proximity to other learners in a similar context. In doing so they are also supporting other learners.

Creating a social network is difficult and it’s far better to allow a number of opportunities to encourage networks to emerge. For example, social media has already augmented physical design studios and you will probably find that students have been connecting already.

But if you don’t have an existing community, a good way to start is with a social augmented studio, where the main design activity (the ‘visible’ component) is supported by a social component (that acts as informal subject and pastoral support). A simple social overlay can operate through existing social media services: Twitter, Facebook, Google, WhatsApp, WeChat, etc.

Quick Tip: It’s a good idea to stay out of some student groups. Just as teachers have (or had!) staffrooms, it’s critical that students also have places to moan about tutors too!

A well-blended studio model is one that uses both social and repository studio types to build on one another. This is the primary model we use at The Open University with OpenStudio. But this does take time to set up and design with your curriculum and even this model requires additional social overlays to make it suit student need.

A webpage showing images in slots or containers, each with a title and other information.
A screencapture from OpenStudio showing the My Studio space. This is an example of a repository type studio.

Social studio dimensions (approx only):

  • Public – Private Mainly public and semi-public (within a defined class/year cohort or qualification)
  • Social – Personal Mainly social (but allow for degrees of engagement, including less active contributors)
  • Assessment – Process Good for sharing and checking process with others. Assessment can be challenging – tip for this is to assess individual contribution; never ‘groupwork’
  • Output – Activity Favours activity and can capture this very well
  • Specialist – General Tends to be general, although blends with specialist well
  • Synchronous – Asynchronous Primarily asynchronous
  • Distributed – Focused Primarily focused (on artefact, groupings, student, task etc.)
Domain and subject specific studios

Specific domains and subject areas in design often have proprietary or professional software solutions and these are often taught in specialist studios or blended with traditional studio spaces.

These software solutions are increasingly cloud-based or distributed, offering opportunities to teach directly in shared digital models. For example, models in architecture, engineering and construction, Building Information Modelling (BIM) or Product Lifecycle Modelling (PLM) in product design.

But this does require access to hardware and software that might not be available to students.

(This is only partially my area of expertise and I know there are many other domains – so please contact me so we can add them!)

Autodesk: Autodesk provide a range of software and digital tools that can be used as clients to explore a shared or hosted model (although this is technically and resource demanding for students and tutors). Autodesk also offers cloud solutions that reduce the connection loads required, such as Autodesk 360. If anyone has a recipe sharing their experience of using solutions like this then let us know!

Adobe Creative Cloud: – although it’s not really a studio space in itself, the suite of products and some of the tools in the suite can be used together to create a professional studio. Hence, one virtual studio model would be to take a professional studio approach if your students are at a suitable level to do so. But it is quite expensive, depending on what products are used, making it less inclusive than some other options.

  • Public – Private Semi-private, usually focusing on specific groups, projects, or workflows.
  • Social – Personal With a shared model, the focus is firmly on groupwork and collaboration
  • Assessment – Process Better for assessment of interim or final artefacts (a lot can be gained from studying the ‘tidiness’ of a model or set of files… ). Process can be difficult to see and assess.
  • Output – Activity Favours activity for formative work and output for summative.
  • Specialist – General Specialist (although it can be a useful interdisciplinary learning space – albeit )
  • Synchronous – Asynchronous Semi-synchronous depending on activity setup. Handling synchronisation is part of working professionally in these environments
  • Distributed – Focused Primarily focused but with a groupwork and collaborative component

Finally, here are a couple of example models to show how the above goes together to create a virtual design studio.

Example Model – An Introductory, repository social design Studio

This is one of the primary models we use at the OU, where we have a high number of students (4-800) starting a course, and we need to engage and interest them quickly, and have to encourage them to act in certain ways to start their learning journey positively (without being there all the time to do this).

The recipe we use is the Quick social studio one and the model is particularly for new design students, including students who have no experience of design. The aims are:

  • To: Engage students and initiate their interest and motivation (Time on Task is critical)
  • To: Get students doing design (design is doing, not just reading)
  • To: Induct students into distance learning and design practice (habits, behaviours, values)
  • To Enculture students into design practice: viewing, commenting, responding (building up to engaging, critiquing
  • To: Develop networks and social learning / practice

To achieve this we use chunks of activity and material – short activities that are designed to engage students through activity which leads to some shareable output. The shareable output is critical in initiating social learning, which can start as simply as seeing other students working; verifying their own work; comparing their work; commenting on others’ work; and so on.

We then build on these simple social mechanisms through more advanced design activities at a suitable intensity and pace. These chunks build up to design methods that students can eventually put to use in larger design processes and projects – but they will be doing so after having been inducted into habits of work in the smaller activities.

(Will post a recipe for this model soon)

Example model 2 – Completely constructionist distributed studio

This model is at the opposite end of the curriculum scale to the previous one.

Coming soon…


  • Crowther, P. (2013) ‘Understanding the signature pedagogy of the design studio and the opportunities for its technological enhancement’, Journal of Learning Design, vol. 6, no. 3, pp. 18–28.
  • Jones, D., Lotz, N. and Holden, G. (2020) ‘A longitudinal study of Virtual Design Studio (VDS) use in STEM distance design education’, International Journal of Technology and Design Education [Online]. Available at
  • Kimbell, L. (2011) ‘Rethinking Design Thinking: Part I’, Design and Culture, vol. 3, no. 3, pp. 285–306 [Online]. DOI: 10.2752/175470811X13071166525216.
  • Lanig, A. K. (2019) ‘Educating Designers in Virtual Space: A Description of Hybrid Studios’, Proceedings of DRS Learn X Design 2019, Ankara, Turkey, pp. 247–256 [Online]. DOI: 10.21606/learnxdesign.2019.01079.
  • Lawson, B. (2005) How designers think, 4th edn, Abingdon, Architectural Press.
  • Schön, D. A. (1985) The design studio: An exploration of its traditions and potentials, London, RIBA Publications.
  • Shulman, L. S. (2005) ‘Signature pedagogies in the professions’, Daedalus, vol. 134, no. 3, pp. 52–59 [Online]. DOI: 10.1162/0011526054622015.

Published by Derek Jones

Derek Jones is a Senior Lecturer in Design at The Open University (UK), part of the OU Design Group, and the Convenor of the DRS Pedagogy SIG. His main research interests are: the pedagogy of design and creativity, embodied cognition in physical and virtual environments, and theories of design knowledge.

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