Recipe: Quick social studio

This recipe comes from The Open University course U101: Design Thinking, where, right at the start of the course, we want students to engage with the material in an active way that will encourage them to continue.

At the same time, the activity has to: introduce students to distance learning; introduce them to the subject of design; show that design is and active thing; encourage them to express idea; get students to broadcast ideas; encourage them to share ideas with other people; get them interacting with other students (especially ‘passively’); show them what they get from doing this; etc…

When you unpick it, it’s actually quite complex. But the truth is, like a lot of creative design, it all starts with a simple, fun, and interesting activity.

Remember, this is a starting activity: it’s good at generating energy and community in the initial stages of a course. But to build on that to develop communities of practice you need follow-on activities and to build on what you’ve started (more on this in future recipes).

Serve to:
New Students (either to design or distance learning)

Prep: 60 mins
Activity: Over a short period of time (e.g. 5 days)

Cost: Low
Connection: Low/Intermittent
Bandwith: Low/medium (encourage

Easy (if make use of activities already available).


  • Some quick, creative design activities (see below for examples)
  • A repository Virtual Design Studio (VDS), either (depending on students’ connection):
    • Online repository service:
    • Social media page (that supports image uploads)
    • WhatsApp; WeChat.
  • Asynchronous commenting space (ideally part of your VDS)


The recipe works particularly well for large groups of students (greater diversity of work to see), so you might have to reconsider timings and/or types of activity for smaller groups.

  1. Set a series of quick activities (about 30 minutes) for students to complete over a short period of time (about 3-5 days). These activities should be:
    • Simple to communicate: ideally, an instruction of a single sentence is good. Anything longer than a paragraph might turn into a design project…
    • Engaging and intriguing: the activities have to capture students’ attention and imagination, or reveal something as students give them a try.
    • Material: having a physical activity or output introduces further variability to the activity and outcome, even if this is just in the representation of it. But remember, this should not be a test of skill or ability.
    • Genuine: activities should not be purely random in subject or too far away from your own students’ skills, and ability levels. This is the tricky bit – making a fun activity that also has some relevance to the subject they signed up for. But the truth is that most designers can make use of almost anything.
    • Variable: the activities have to have variable outputs to make them interesting to share and look at. How people interpret and respond to these is what brings them to life.
    • Rewarding: the activity has to have something at the end of it that rewards students, either the output of the activity itself or the interaction that follows from looking at other activity.
  2. When students complete their activity they upload an image of it to the VDS with a short comment to suit the activity.
  3. Encourage students to browse the work of other students and comment / engage in any way. Remember, just browsing and looking at other students’ work is OK (Jones et al., 2020).
  4. (Optional) for each activity, have additional material to support the activity. This could be material that explains where the activity comes from or to show the activity in use in a real design context. This helps some students realise that the fun is also serious. For example, in U101 we have a “Use masking tape to make a person outline” activity which we also link to a video on how designers still use masking tape to design cars.
  5. (Optional) Set aside time at the end of the week for a mini show or feedback session, where you encourage students to come together synchronously or semi-synchronously to comment on the activities.

Examples of activities are below (suggest more in the comments):

Notes and tips:
This recipe relies on learning, not teaching. The less the teacher does and more the students do, the more successful the activity!

Different activities will work well for different sizes and ability levels of student group. Make sure you use appropriate activities for your students!

Activity examples

The following are a few examples of activity you could try with your student group. Feel free to let us know how you get on and add your own to this list (contact us).

Make a banana out of masking tape.

You’d be surprised at how competitive the world of masking tape bananas is … This activity is good for medium-large groups and as a social, introductory activity.

In no more than 20 minutes, design a [WHAT] for [WHO]

Use a series of contemporary artefacts and figures (or references). Can be used with more advanced students if you include a focus on a particular competence, e.g. presentation. Here’s some examples (pick one from each randomly or add your own):

Design a…
Brand identity
Pair of trousers
New range of condiments
Personal transportation device
Sleeping strategy and experience

Your mother
The Dalai Lama
Raj Kapoor
The beings that live on the moon

Create a poem from a pile of books using their titles.

Here's an example:
A Mathematician’s Apology
On Metaphysics Towards
A new Architecture

Make your own sound effect for something. After 48 hours, update your post to include an image of how you made the sound.

It’s incredible how Foley Artists make some sound effects for film and radio: gloves with paper clips become animal claws; sand becomes snow; and birds sound better as feather dusters:

Cover image: Sonia Skowron, 2010

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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