Collaboration through the Design Studio: An Interview with Adam Connor and Aaron Irizarry

by Jared M. Spool

This article is an excerpt from Jared M. Spool’s interview with Adam Connor and Aaron Irizarry. You can hear the full interview on their podcast or read their transcript.

Jared Spool: So when you guys talk about studio, what do you mean by that? Because some people picture this workshop of Andy Warhol, with all these paintings on the wall and a naked guy standing in the middle, waiting to be sketched. But that’s not what we’re talking about here.

Adam Connor: For me, when I think about studio, I’m thinking more of a particular structure of a collaborative activity, and the structure really follows three pretty basic steps of sketch, present, and critique. It’s great, because it’s a little microcosm of the overall design process.

When you distill it down to small time-block chunks with your team, with whoever you have on hand, it can really create a great sense of collaboration. It builds consensus pretty quickly around some very core elements of your design.

Jared: It’s a process. It’s not a place, really.

Aaron Irizarry: I think, like Adam was saying, you get people together and you start getting a shared language, common understanding. It just provides this great environment. It’s like a process, like a tool, that really helps get things move in the right direction.

Jared: Now the other things you guys are talking about in your full-day workshop is critique. I’ve sat in meetings where I’ve gotten criticism. My favorite was the senior executive who didn’t like the color of the design because it reminded him of a sweater his ex used to wear.

So how is this different than critique?

Adam: Critique. It’s a form of analysis. Based on your little anecdote there and a lot of what gets classified as critique or what gets thrown into these review meetings, is just reaction. But critique is more intense and deliberate than that.

It’s a form of analysis where you’re trying to figure out what problems the designer was trying to solve and understand how they tried to solve them. From there judge, “Are they there yet, or do they have further to go? If they’re not there yet, what are the parts that aren’t working? Where are things short?”

That’s really the core of it. It’s a form of analysis.

Aaron: I think what you were sharing with us there Jared, is more of a gut reaction. And it’s feedback.

A lot of times we use the terms like feedback and critique so interchangeably, as if they’re the same thing. Often times, receiving feedback or input about something is a part of a critique process.

But what we often see is someone putting something up on a board to share and hears, “Oh, that blue is horrible,” or, “Oh, why is that over there?” It’s an initial reaction.

It’s not been processed against goals, against what we’re trying to do when we’re building something. And so the sweater from the ex is a response, that triggered a memory, as opposed to critique which is finding out, maybe, how to not remind people of their exes over a long period of time.

Adam: If that executive were to have actually been critiquing the process, what they should have been going through is to say, “Oh, alright, I’m having a really strong reaction to that orange, but I should hold on to that. Why might Jared have used that orange?” What were they trying to do by selecting that color?

And play that in his own brain and then ask you questions along the way to try to get more information, maybe even come straight out and ask you, “Why did you choose orange? What was your objective in doing that? What goals were you trying to achieve?”

Jared: So the critique is this bigger thing than just giving feedback. It’s this larger piece of the puzzle. And the connection between critique and studio, if I understand it correctly, is that you conduct a lot of critiques as you work through different designs. Critique is a basic element that goes into the studio and you repeat that multiple times during the studio process. Is that right?

Adam: Yes. So if you look at the general design process, it’s cyclical in nature, of course. You start by learning about a problem space. Then you synthesize what you know. You put it out into the world in some way and you evaluate it, you evaluate that solution to some extent. You learn, create a new solution, put it out.

You’re going over and over and over again. Your form of analysis could be interviews, it could be critique, it could be a usability study, it could be a pilot system. Whatever you’re putting out there, you have some way of evaluating that.

Because Design Studio’s really like this microcosm, critique is that evaluation method that you have in Design Studio. You sketch something, you present it to your teammates. It gets critiqued and then you can sketch on it a little more and you present it again and it gets critiqued and you just keep going.

Jared: Part of doing all this critique is to simultaneously move a design forwards. But it’s also about understanding what we’re designing. Right?

The good critique sessions I’ve come out of, I always feel like I’ve learned something about what we’re designing that’s bigger than just, “Hey, I’ve got to change this text and I’ve got to move that field over to here and I need a button here.”

It’s this bigger picture thing that lets everybody find out more about the underlying rationale. Is this right?

Aaron: I definitely think so. I think that the more you dig in, the more you start comparing and analyzing. You’re looking at the designs. You’re looking at the progress, and you’re looking at your goals. Perhaps it’s just one section of a product. Maybe you’re just critiquing a small piece or component. You’re critiquing it again the goals and information you’ve built up as you start to build the product.

It kind of allows you to steer along the path to building that successful product. The more you go down the path and the more you analyze and adjust and revise and iterate and continue to reiterate the goals. You really start to have this greater understanding of your product and it becomes just like with anything, the more you do it and the more you use something, the more it becomes second nature.

So the more informed you become about your product and what it’s going to take to get it where it needs to go. Critique really helps that along as you do it over and over again throughout the design life cycle and the building the product over time.

Adam: A lot of that learning comes from the fact that you’re doing this with your teammates. And hopefully those teammates are cross functional in nature. So you’re starting to see different perspectives. Hopefully you’ve established some principles and set some goals for your design.

Then as you have these conversations in your critiques you’re seeing how the marketer sees those principles and those goals and how the developer sees those principles and those goals. You can start to see how everybody’s different perspective of the problem is a little different than everybody else’s. But by the end of the session they’ve come a lot closer. You’ve built in some unity there across your team of what it is exactly that we’re trying to do.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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