Integrating Non-Design Majors into a Fourth Year Design Studio: Crafting a Collaborative Design Process

Presented by: Nathan E. Bicak 

“Design has never recognised [sic] discipline silos, and designers and design researchers have always crossed boundaries, stepped into other disciplinary realms to create solutions to problems, to challenge orthodoxies and to innovate.” (1)
In the spring of 2014, an instructor began an interdisciplinary design-build studio focused on examining the environmental, political and social impacts of residential spaces. The intent of this studio is to create an educational initiative rooted in the principles of sustainable living and learning through making, and does so through the design and construction of a tiny house (Appendix A). To create a collaborative atmosphere, the course – currently in its second iteration – is comprised of a diverse group of students: Interior Design, Communications, Business, Regional and Rural Studies, Geo-Spatial Science and Journalism. This multi-faceted class structure unites students of distinct backgrounds and skill sets; it allows students to address the complexity of sustainability through an interdisciplinary lens. Students in the course are designated as Scholar Citizens, a university initiative focused on students applying academic experiences to solve real world issues. 

An interdisciplinary approach to the design-build process presents unique pedagogical challenges for a design instructor. There are variances in language, communication styles, research methods and a wide range of technical skills amongst the students. Furthermore, when working with a multitude of disciplines, the instructor must continuously ensure that each student has the opportunity to share their perspective.    

The instructor addresses these challenges through a variety of methods. To begin, non-design students are paired with design students and the teams engage in observational information gathering on their sustainable products/practices. Students must also interview industry experts for guidance as to the viability of the selected materials/products. Flexibility is an important trait in this process because if these interactions reveal that a team’s focus is fruitless, they must revise their direction. From this experience students gain insight, confidence and excitement in their investigation.  

The class utilizes design-thinking methods to establish a set of guiding principles for the project. The instructor establishes categories that represent the core values of the project, and students submit Post-it Notes in response to these categories. These ideas are reviewed as a group and common themes are identified (Appendix B). The Post-it Notes are also utilized in the design process. The tiny house is divided into component spaces and the students identify the values that each space should fulfill (Appendix B).   

The students form new interdisciplinary teams for the prototyping phase. Each team takes a portion of their collaborative design and builds a full-scale section to test its spatial viability (Appendix C). When students test their design ideas through prototyping they watch their concepts become reality through their own craft.

The formation of interdisciplinary teams encourages each student to contribute their unique disciplinary knowledge to the design project.(2)  In this studio students learn about sustainable products and practices, determine and make recommendations as to what products and systems are to be utilized, and gain valuable teamwork skills through a collaborative design process. As a prominent Scholar Citizen course, this project has gained positive attention for our interior design program on campus, and has led to the formation of other collaborative partnerships.  

A design-build project is a complex endeavor and it benefits greatly from the incorporation of disciplines beyond design. The process of involving non-design students can be a challenge, but the methods above provide insight as to how the process can be rich for all involved.


  • 1. Rachel Cooper, “Preface,” in Designing for the 21st Century:  Interdisciplinary Methods and Findings, ed. Tom Inns (Surry [sic], England:  Gower Publishing Ltd., 2010), vii.
  • 2. The Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University, “Reinventing Undergraduate Education:  A Blueprint for America’s Research Universities,” (Princeton, NJ:  Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1998), 23.


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