A sum greater than its parts: A personal view of the studio practice

One way to look at the studio is as an organism, versus an organisation.

The description of a design studio as a physical expanse of space or a number quantifying the composition of a team, seems rather limited. From my ‘insider’s’ view of a studio practice, it is a bit of a strange animal — partly structured, partly wild and almost always, a sum greater than its parts. It is the last bit — about being able to create something that is bigger, better than all of us as individuals — which makes studio practice such a fascinating and rewarding experience.

Therein lies the biggest motivation for both founders and team members to pursue practice through a studio format.

The view of the studio as a permanent structure and a defined journey discourages many from adopting or trying it out. However this idea of permanence may not be the only way to think of a studio practice. One way to look at the studio is as an organism, versus an organisation. As a living, breathing organism, the studio is free to evolve and iterate its course. It lays off the pressure of ‘getting it right’ and course-corrects it to ‘being on the right track’ instead. Based on the truth that there will always be fluidity in the strengths and overall character of the team, the studio too must respond and create flexibility in plans and processes.

This should not be translated as inconsistency; instead internal reviews and dialogue should always have view of the fluidity, and clearly externalise the changes in vision and skills to the larger team. If you discard the infallible, permanent view of the studio, it lends itself to an exciting view of change. Consider richness because of change, and not gaps; growth because of change and not disintegration.

One of the challenges of a studio practice is tackling the notion of a ‘faceless’ team or effort. While most people consider the outsiders’ perspective on this, it is in my opinion more critical to address this internally. It needs to start with the view of those within the practice as ‘people’ and not resources. Therefore the individual needs to find voice within internal conversations. Individual skills and point-of-view need to be addressed, not for the sake of bonhomie, but for better orientation to and expansion of the collective view.

A shared understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, paves the way for better collaboration. Respect for and recognition of each one’s contribution — big or small — is a powerful motivator. As each individual grows, it is reflected in the quality of collective effort. I believe that the responsibility for this has to be shared, by founders and team members — there has to be both encouragement for individuals to contribute their unique brand of creativity, and also willingness on the part of an individual to open up and share.

A format that is inclusive does not mean complete dissolution of hierarchy. Leadership is necessary to steer, organise and manage collective efforts. However it may not always be top-down and fixed, but created by virtue of skills and experience, depending on the requirement of a project or effort. With assuming leadership comes the responsibility of sustaining ownership and managing transparency in relationships with and within a team. Mentorship too, needs to be considered in the same light. Mentorship in a studio environment must also be a shared responsibility, not just flowing from experienced members to new recruits.

The value of learning in a studio format needs to flow across hierarchies of age and years of experience. Individuals within a team need to undertake the mandate of mentorship, in their own capacity, with others. Teaching is one of the best forms of building upon and honing learning, and almost always improves the quality of interaction and outputs within teams.

And then there are systems. Studio functions often warrant systems to create a common way of working and sharing expectations internally. These may range from working hours and remuneration, to client interactions and deliveries. To many, a system may sound contradictory when one talks of fluidity. Systems can be designed to facilitate fluidity rather than negate it, to bring out the best in a team, rather than only check and restrain. Therefore they need to be designed with a balanced understanding of people and expected deliveries.

More importantly, teams need to be orientated to and explained the workings of a system, so that they can be adopted and not just followed. There must be room for changing and improving systems, through observation and dialogue.

In conclusion, the onus for sustaining a creative environment has to be shared between founders/core team and all team members, weighing a bit more heavily on the former. I choose to use ‘sustain’ and not ‘create’ because it is far more challenging to live and love it, and not just build it. Therefore, its foundation has to be built on a real affinity for and belief in the chosen format(s). And with a propensity to dive in.

Ten years ago, we dived into a studio practice, with the simple idea that a sum of its parts, would be greater than our combined efforts. Partly by plan and partly by sheer gut, the practice has evolved into an environment that throws up new challenges and questions, and answers them through collective work, on a continuous basis. Most of the short piece above can be attributed to reflections on this slice of time and space.


Mohor Ray is Director  at Codesign and CoFounder of Rising. She calls herself a fledgling writer; makes sense of ideas, brands & content, with design; and otherwise, indulges in nonsenses, questions and her own conscience.

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