Pin-ups With Pixels – creating the 21st Century arts crit room

This article explores the importance of the group critique in arts education and how it is evolving through the digital age citing the development of the College of Arts Digital Crit Room at the University of Lincoln.

By Gyles Lingwood (Director of Education – College of Arts) – Staff Profile  &Kerry Pinny (Senior Academic Technologist – University of Warwick)

In October 2016 the College of Arts Digital Crit Room was opened by Vice-Chancellor Professor Mary Stuart at the University of Lincoln. The space enables students and tutors to engage in ‘crits’ in an interactive and flexible learning space and is an exemplar of how a learning space can be, in both its use and design. Each element has been carefully designed, taking into consideration the way space is used for learning and teaching. There were a number of drivers that lead to the development of the room. The Students’ Union had, following feedback from students, begun to work with the University to lower printing costs for students. The issue is particularly prevalent in arts subjects where work is regularly printed and displayed for work-in-progress and end-of-project group critiques.

The project was developed and lead by Gyles Lingwood, Director of Education for the College of Arts, following conversations with the Vice Chancellor and Head of College. It was quickly recognised that there was a bigger opportunity for the College to lower the printing costs faced by students while enhancing the way that students and tutors used technology. This was a chance to explore and develop how technology was actually used by students and staff across the arts.

As well as reducing the financial costs faced by students there was a shared ambition to explore teaching and learning spaces that reflected the workplaces of the creative industries. Given that the ‘creative industries’ refer to an extremely wide range of disciplines and workplaces, this of course was a very tall order, but visits to Google London and various advertising, design and media agencies informed the Digital Crit Room working group of the thematic differences between the typical HE learning space and the contemporary creative workplace.

Another key driver from the project was to create a learning environment/experience that embraced the technology that students use every day out of the classroom and seamlessly integrate it into the learning environment. Individuals simultaneously using multiple devices, combining touchscreen technology with traditional paper and pen, were themes that would inform the design of the room.

The Pedagogy of the Crit

Learning spaces that encourage collaboration and reflect employer environments can significantly affect the culture of teaching and the development of creativity and have therefore been at the heart of art and design pedagogy for the last century. Walter Gropius, Director of the Bauhaus School established in Germany 1919, insisted that:

The school should be absorbed into the studio and that the manner of teaching should arise from its character, that is, the studio should not be adjunct of the other teaching programmes. On the contrary, all the teaching programmes should exist only to support the studio and the design problems it is working on, reflecting the reality of professional practice, which is entirely driven by the needs of the project. (Gropius, 1983)

The development of the Digital Crit Room addressed the challenge of evolving art and design learning spaces to be effective in a 21st Century digital university context. The rapid development of technology has impacted upon the usage of the traditional ‘studio’, threatening teaching practices reliant on a ‘studio culture’. Laptops, wireless and mobile technology have enabled students to study and create anywhere, and a result of this is that a critical place of peer learning is potentially being eroded. Running parallel to this, is the effectiveness of peer learning, as explained by Boud:

Learning with and from each other is a necessary and important aspect of all courses. The role it plays varies widely and the forms it takes are very diverse, but without it students gain an impoverished education. (Boud, 2001:2)

The ‘crit’ is a vital part of arts pedagogy, offering live feedback from students and staff alike. As valuable feedback events, they are important in the process of review and concept development. As Biggs and Tang note:

…arguably the most powerful enhancement to learning is feedback during learning. (Biggs and Tang, 2011)

Large format, high-quality prints have commonly been the standard method to crit work in progress, also known as a ‘pin-up’, across art, design and media subjects. Through analysis gathered by working closely with the University of Lincoln Students’ Union it was identified that, in a particularly sensitive high fees culture, there was growing concern that printing costs were rising for the students. Alternative methods could potentially be found.

The Concept

When developing the Digital Crit Room, it was important to concentrate on how students and tutors work, learn and teach in spaces rather focusing on the technology. The room was not about screens and the latest technology, it was about space and participatory learning. To feed into the design of the room the team researched examples of recently completed spaces from across the HE sector, including the University of Kent’s School of Architecture and the recently completed Institute of Art & Design at Birmingham City University. The team also visited a range of advertising, design and media agencies in London, including Google London, to understand the themes of the workplaces across the creative industries. It was identified that it was important that the room could be adapted for a variety of teaching activities, enabling optimum space utilisation and easy movement within the space during and in-between activities.

With the above in mind, a multidisciplinary team was formed comprising members from the University’s Students’ Union, Estates and ICT departments, and College of Arts teaching colleagues, with the objective of creating a ‘destination’ 21st Century crit environment with drama, gravitas and theatre. In this context, the word ‘destination’ is borrowed from retail to indicate a space which is not simply a renamed room, but a facility offering desirable and unique features so that it becomes an attractive option for teams to bring their students out of programme ‘owned’ studios for an enhanced teaching and learning experience. In other words, a ‘special place’ for a ‘special event’ that people would want to go to that felt different to other spaces on campus.

The team agreed a set of values to guide the process:

  • Working from good teaching practice, not led by technology
  • A space that can provoke and encourage innovations in teaching and learning
  • An accessible and professional feel (quality, simplicity, usability)
  • Reflecting the workplaces of the creative industries, where ‘destination’ spaces promote ideas and collaborative working
  • Not excluding proven analogue modes of displaying and critiquing (valuing pixels, but not pixels over paper)

The Design

The technology, furniture and design in the Digital Crit Room was considered and selected carefully, with the users and their particular needs in mind. Importantly, the technology is an integral part of the room rather than adjunct. The room is virtually furniture-free. A false wall allows for any unnecessary equipment to be kept out of sight. Chairs with tablets are available but are kept packed away. The team chose not to include desks as they believed they would define how the space would be used. It was important that users had the freedom and flexibility when they enter room to use the space to suit their activity. Therefore, a condition of using the room is to return it to it’s empty state. As the space does not dictate how they will use the room, the user/teacher is ‘forced’ to consider how the space layout and equipment can facilitate their particular activity.

The space features two HD 84-inch ProWise multi-touch screens which rise and lower at the touch of a button to ensure all staff and students are able to utilise the screens. Each screen has high quality integrated speakers and USB ports. A Windows 10 PC is attached to each screen allowing each screen to work independently from the other.

The 84” touch screens are high definition, displaying imagery in very high quality

Installed software was kept to a minimum and where possible inbuilt Windows 10 or free software was used. For example, Microsoft Surface Collage, a free app on Windows 10, is being used to display multiple pieces of work at a time. Users are able to move and resize multiple pieces of work at a time. To remove the need to carry USB storage devices and to stop the time wasting activity of students queueing up at the start of a session to copy their work onto the machine, a Dropbox account was created that is synced to the desktop.Students and staff are able to upload images ahead of time for displaying during the crit. The software in the room has been selected to be straightforward and kept to a minimum, helping staff and students in the first instance to get used to using the equipment. New software with additional capabilities will be introduced gradually.

Each of the large touch screens has 16 active touch points facilitating group work

Microsoft Surface Collage, a free app on Windows 10, is used to display multiple pieces of work at a time.

In addition to the two large multi-touch screens, the room is equipped with an HD projector and screen connected to a desktop PC, Blu-Ray player and speakers. The screen has been framed to zone the space.

A ‘magnet wall’ lines the entirety of one wall in the space using metallic plaster. It has a softer appearance than traditional metallic magnet walls, is noise absorbent and blends seamlessly into the space. Careful attention has been paid to the choice of magnets to ensure they are high quality, strong, visually appealing and tactile.

The coloured carpet in the Digital Crit Room makes the space feel very different to the rest of the University environment. The patterns of coloured tiles create hotspots and zone areas of activity. ‘Roads’ have been created which draw users into the room whilst directing their movement within the space. The fragmented design reinforces the freedom inherent in the space.

The space is equipped with an impressive customisable LED lighting rig. Each lighting unit is individually programmable with highly accurate dimming features controlled through a bespoke lighting control unit (inspired by the design of the 2nd generation iPod). The familiar and intuitive trackwheel navigation allows users to select pre-set scenes optimised for particular areas of the space or manually set the lighting levels to their needs. Light and darkness are used to zone activities in the space. Combined with high-quality blackout blinds the room can be effectively illuminated for any activity.

The Future

One year on, the space is very well used with over 400 teaching sessions throughout the 2016/17 academic year across all Schools in the College of Arts. The project was awarded the Best Impact on the Student Experience Award 2016 by the University of Lincoln’s Students’ Union. Further, the feedback from staff and students is universally positive, and the requests for more similar spaces are rapidly growing. The Digital Crit Room champions innovative digital learning in practice-based subjects, which have traditionally seen technology as a threat to the studio.

It is now possible to recognise the impact of this project beyond the space itself. The thinking and values developed through the Digital Crit Room project are now influencing the major refurbishment projects across the University’s Brayford Pool campus, where highly-specified digitally enhanced shared learning spaces are being created. Rather than simply duplicating the space of the Digital Crit Room itself, these new spaces are being informed by the design ethos, values, thinking and processes developed through the creation of the Digital Crit Room and to put it simply, it’s incredibly exciting!

Gropius, W., 1983, The Bauhaus. Architectural Education no. 1, RIBA Magazines, London, pp. 53-79

Boud, D., 2001. Introduction: Making the Move to Peer Learning. In Boud, D., Cohen, Ruth & Sampson, Jane (Ed.). ‘Peer Learning in Higher Education: Learning From and With Each Other’. London: Kogan Page Ltd, 1–17

Biggs, J.B. and Tang, C.S. (2011) Teaching for Quality Learning at University: What the Student does, (fourth edition). Maidenhead: Open University Press

Below is a film relating to the article: