Learning Space Inspiration

I wrote this when I was employed at the University of Chicago. It was was associated with the EDUCAUSE 2006 half-day pre-conference workshop entitled “This is Not a Lab: Workshop on Developing Learning Environments” and held on October 6, 2006. The workshop featured sessions by Emily Baker, Director of Learning Environments at the University of Chicago, Mark Cheng, President of MDC Architects, Chicago, and me, Senior Director for Academic Technologies at the University of Chicago. The workshop website is long gone, but here’s my piece on “Learning Space Inspiration”

Traditional Paradigm

When thinking about spaces, it is easy to envision the technological possibilities within the context of students. If such thinking drives a project from the beginning, this can lead to a potential pitfall envisioning a space for the here and now, and not for the future. Technology is in a lifecycle of months, so to design around something that will be different before the space is complete seems dangerous.

The same is true for students as they change year-to-year and from an expectation standpoint, vary on three to four year cycles. Space lasts much longer than that minimally a decade but typically 15-25 years. Ultimately, academic content, materials, and outcomes have the longest lifespan, certainly lasting a generation but could extend for hundreds of years. Space fits between the here and now and the legacy of the institution and as such, focusing on the shortest-term element as a starting point for a new space may not lead to the best results. Or to put it another way, the traditional paradigm encourages a solution before understanding the problem.

Alternate Paradigm

The industrial design group, IDEO, has developed a rather successful and widely accepted methodology for developing consumer products. In brief, the process works like this:

  • First, observe how people work;
  • Second, brainstorm using the observations as starting points;
  • Third, rapid prototype some of the brainstorming ideas;
  • Fourth, refine the ideas into something one can use; and
  • Finally, implement the idea.

The same principles can be applied to space and environment design. IDEO focuses on understanding the problem from a number of perspectives, often beyond the scope of the original issue. Essentially, the model starts from where one wants to be and works back from there.

If one flips the traditional academic space planning paradigm around and starts from the content and outcomes perspective, takes into account the physical realities of the space, then considers the ever-fluid needs of students, and finally fills in gaps with technology, spaces have the potential for evolving and learning over time, adjusting to the needs of the institution, students, and the possibilities afforded by technology without the expense of being completely redeveloped and reconstructed when one of the shorter-term elements change. In this paradigm, conversations quickly shift from projectors and computers to what kind of space do we want and how should it relate to campus?

Finding Inspiration

Were surrounded by little details that can provide ideas for nearly every project. Before writing off a chain restaurant as uninspiring, take a moment to look at how traffic moves through the space. Have you considered traffic flow in your project? How will people enter and exit your space? Will you need a waiting area? Is there a need for a service counter? Will the counter need to support crowds of individuals seeking assistance? Chain restaurants think a lot about moving people through their spaces and can provide hints and clues to tackle equally complex issues in your project.

Common places to seek inspiration include restaurants, hotels, coffee shops, airports, transit stations, libraries, churches, shopping malls, and theme parks. And dont forget to look at what other institutions do as well. A wealth of ideas can be found by examining the work of others. In studying these spaces, look for things like lighting, color, traffic flow, work space, textures and materials, access to power and data, seating, space arrangement, deployment of technology, etc. Take note of the environmental conditions such as heating and cooling, ceiling height, and natural lighting. Finally, study the durability of the materials used throughout the space and the area program elements consume within the space.

An environment should reflect your institutions needs and values, so resist the temptation to merely copy an idea from somewhere else. Use someone elses concept as a foundation to create something that is appropriate to your campus. In the end, a space should reflect the values and needs of the campus in which it exists, not what is appropriate for someplace else.

Trying Ideas

What appears on paper may not necessary work out as planned. When developing ideas for a space, it is important to get a real sense of whether or not particular ideas will be successful early on before committing them to drywall and concrete. Prototyping is a common method of quickly determining if an idea will work as it provides opportunities to refine the idea into something better.

Prototyping can be something quite formal with a full evaluative program associated with it or off-the-cuff and at a moments notice. Simply rearranging the furniture to get a feel for the space might suffice it really depends on the kind of feedback youre seeking. In all cases, the goal should be to receive constructive feedback that can be used to refine the idea more fully or to determine whether or not to more forward with the concept at all. It is important, however, to explain to others participating in the prototyping session that what theyre looking at and will comment on is merely a concept or idea. All too often, people are willing to shoot down a prototype because it isnt the right color or they dont understand the goals youre trying to achieve. Be clear, be concise, and by all means, have fun! Fill whiteboards with ideas, move the furniture, make cardboard mockups, lay things out in full scale on the floor, use a data projector to display scenes on a wall, build something with toys, create 3D visualizations, etc.

Prototyping is a chance to experiment and try something different, so if one idea doesnt work for your project, it might work for another. In that sense, file away ideas for future use. Having a stash of concepts that can be trotted out with little or notice may prove to be handy one day.