Online Studio courses: Getting Creative With Creative Processes.

Learning about creative processes can be a challenge at the best of times and for students taking their final creative brand strategy course while working as a team, online, during a pandemic, for capstone requirements this might not be the best of times. Let’s face it, it might be the worst of times.

One of the beauties of a face-to-face capstone studio course is that students can work in creative teams using creative processes – processes that rely on sharing information in both tacit and haptic manners, on forms of legitimate peripheral participation and on loads (and loads) of experimentation. They experiment. They fail and they try again. They sketch and they doodle and they iterate and they prototype and I get to wander through the process offering guidance and sometimes new directions. As anyone who’s ever worked in an art, design, architecture or other creative studio knows, the magic is in the making. So how can we recapture that magic, and facilitate that making, when there is no “together” time in the studio any more?

With the worldwide shift to online modalities for learning at the post secondary level, teaching creative process, design practice and studio based team processes has changed radically. Students are attempting to work as creative teams (which they have little to no experience doing) on a client based project without any of the in-person magic of making ideas together. Classes for the brand studio course that I now offer are entirely online, and students do not meet with team members in person at any point in the course. This can, as we can all imagine, make processes like offering creative critique, sharing creative sketches or iterative process designs, collaborating on making new ideas and building on the creative production of team members incredibly difficult. Imagine trying to build a common vision for a brand design, without ever having shared space or time with your team!

But I have faith that it can work. After all, the most creative minds in the world are now working in the same isolated and distanced conditions. I’ve been exploring what expert designers are sharing about how to nurture and support creative process in this online space, and using the advice of designers, architects, artists, musicians and writers to enhance the learning activities that senior students tackle in my classroom environment. The senior brand studio course I teach has become a series of small experiments with radical intent as we work together to isolate the variables that can generate creativity in this online world. So far, we’ve learned a couple of key things:

Stop waiting for the idea fairy. 

As Chuck Close once said, “inspiration is for amateurs”. I have found that when students get going instead of getting ready (a state that no creative ever really truly hits) they are more creative and more experimental with their work. This is a challenge online, since there is no pressure to move forward, and students can ruminate for hours alone before finding the impetus to get a move on. To counteract this uniquely online wrinkle in studio based teaching, I work with students to do an exercise called “build a scrap heap”. In the “build a scrap heap” exercise, students are tasked with coming up with five ideas that could never, ever, ever work for our design challenge. To do this, I ask them to go back in time exactly 24 hours, and pretend that they were tasked with coming up with five ideas for our in-class work – a task they forgot about and are going to have to hustle to complete now. The catch is, the ideas have to be “rejectable”: nothing good and no keepers. I then ask them to go through those five ideas, and find the one good thing in each. Nearly every student will find inspiration in this process, and it gets the ball moving before they feel ready to commit to “having an idea”.

Stack the deck by making more cards. 

My students have spent four years honing in on good ideas, polishing them into gems, and hand selecting only the best versions for their teams and instructors to see. This means that they aren’t comfortable with generating as many ideas as they need for true creativity and they get stuck on the one they have in hand rather than getting loose with creating more versions to play with. In an online space this is especially difficult, since students are alone and isolated (without anyone to bounce ideas off of in person). To move past this, we’ve been trying to make three versions of EVERYTHING – three of each sketch, three of each sentence, three of each strategy – and then carving out the time (using breakout rooms in Google Meet, Google’s Jam Board and the Q&A function in Google Meet) we need to sort the bad-ish from the possibly-great before moving on to the next step.

Warmup before the workout. 

In the online learning environment, it often feels as if no one is watching (usually because everyone has their cameras off, which is an entirely different post). But we can be our own worst critics, and sitting alone with your own mind can often be a cold way to start creative work – especially for students who haven’t had the experience of working as “creatives” before this particular classroom engagement. To counter this in the online teaching space, I’ve been working with students to “warm up” their creative muscles with some zero stakes activities at the beginning of every session. I ask students to “get started” with some blind drawing (drawing without looking at the paper), some word invention exercises, or even by drawing an object (like a cup of coffee) and then deliberately tearing it up. No matter what zero-stakes exercise we choose, students come out of this first five minutes of class ready to jump in to deeper and more meaningful creative work.

Remember that making ideas is fun. 

The last big challenge of teaching creative process in an online studio class is overcoming the hurdle that each student sets for themselves: the personal creative block. The words “I’m not creative” can be fatal to any creative process, especially ones that we are trying out for the first time in isolation. In order to shake loose the doubts and judgements that can stand in the way of creativity I’ve been trying to get students to focus on simply meeting a quota of ideas, rather than on “being creative”. Anyone can meet a quota, and a quota can turn your mind into an idea factory: one that churns out new thoughts and creative solutions on a set schedule without the creator having to fuss about quality control. Sometimes I use mad minutes (similar to silent writing challenges) where students are challenged to create 8 variations on a theme in 60 seconds, and then we email or Jam Board the solutions over to a peer who gets to then build on the 8 foundations laid by the first student. And sometimes I weave quotas into the assignment descriptions (tasking students with showing their preparation work as part of a final assignment). Either way, students begin to focus on output, not outcome, which pushes them further into a creative way of working.

Studios are magical places of collaboration, creativity and joyful making. And online just isn’t going to be the same. I’m counting the days till I’m back in the studio class face to face, but until then experimenting with new ways to seed creativity and to instill a creative process in students online has been an extraordinary chance to try out the small experiments I need to do in order to achieve the radical intent of creating meaningful learning experiences.

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