Kitchen Timer Project (2006-7)

Engineering Product Design II, and Product Design Practice II, The Product Design Technology (PDT) programme

The Global Studio's project Kitchen Timer Project was conducted across three Higher Education institutions: Northumbria University in England, Edinburgh Napier University in Scotland and TU Delft in the Netherlands.

Meeting between TU Delft and Northumbria University academics

Meeting between TU Delft and Northumbria University academics
From left: John Tan, Chris Conner, Colin Wilson, Lau Langeveld and Paul Redhead. Meeting in the Centre for Design Research at Northumbria University, October 2006

The project was delivered in 2007 using blended mode of delivery incorporating both Web 2.0 technologies and face-to-face teaching. Divided in groups of 'designers' and 'clients', students developed the design for a kitchen timer using interactive and distance communication technologies such as tele- and videoconferencing, Wiki pages, and emails. The process mimicked the real experience of a designer-client interaction in distant locales. Work groups wrote and discussed design briefs, pitched their proposals, provided each other feedback, produced a detailed design, including CAD drawings, and, eventually, tested prototypes.

The Steps undertaken in the Global Studio 2007

The Global Studio experience

The main aim of the Global Studio is to provide future designers with the skills to work with cross-cultural and distant groups and organizations. In particular, in the course students learn how to:

  • Develop virtual team-working through the use of distant communication
  • Reflect and explore, as a team, on cultural issues that bear upon the design process
  • Write and interpret design briefs
  • Communicate and deliver a design strategy to the client
  • Use drawings to communicate across distance
  • Design a prototype based on the on drawings received
  • Provide peer feedback
  • Understand how does geographical and cultural distance affect design strategies and outcomes.

One key idea of the Global Studio is that student teams take on both the roles of designers and clients when they carry out the product development project. For example, a work group at Northumbria University would be the  'client' of the 'designer group at TU  Delft, as well as being 'designers' working with their clients at TU Delft. In doing so, students not only honed their skills in distance communication an collaboration, but also experienced the design process as an iterative process. Role-playing also allowed students to take into account the multiple perspectives in the process, leading to a broader understanding of what information is important to include in design briefs, concept proposals and technical drawings. Students kept diaries to record and reflect on each stage of the design process.
Five key stages composed the course:

1 – The Brief
Students developed a design brief for the chosen object –  a kitchen timer – using their understanding of the local culture. Working as 'clients' groups, they researched their local markets to uncover assumptions embedded in existing products such as, for instance, how consumers perceived cultural differences about preparation and consumption of food.  They also reviewed different regulatory standards. The brief contained a description of the target audience, intended performance, size, cost of the product, as well as a detailed schedule of the project. Then, paired client and designer groups met via video- or teleconferencing to discuss the brief.

2 – Concepts
Designer groups addressed the different elements described in the design brief, at the same time as the clients groups monitored and provided feedback on the solution that the design groups were developing. They used Wiki pages as well as other IT technologies to share views and bring the project forward. At this stage, students brainstormed and mind-mapped their ideas, which they also shared online. This allowed students to discuss ideas from other groups located elsewhere. Next, the 'clients' evaluated and selected among the proposed design concepts that best fit the brief.

Checking CAD drawings

Paul Redhead from Centre for Design Research working with students at Northumbria University Paul Redhead is checking CAD drawings

Checking CAD drawings

Chris Conner is checking student CAD drawings

3 – Detailed Design
During the stage of detailed design student brought the concept to the next level of detail: they build 3D sketch models; they tested design features such as ergonomics, size, as well as the overall product shape and fitness for purpose. Eventually, designer groups forwarded their CAD files to their clients.

Ian Thompson, examining parts, Northumbria

Ian Thompson, staff from the Centre for Design Research at Northumbria University is, examining parts with students

Ian Thompson, examining parts, Northumbria

Ian Thompson is working with another student group

4 – Prototyping and Testing
Next, client groups turned the detailed design into a prototype. Students were encouraged to build a functioning prototype. This was no easy task. Students at the Global Studio have found it challenging to assemble working prototypes because of parts missing from the supplier or the use of incorrect tolerances, which often resulted in non-functioning models. At this stage, models were tested and assessed against the instructions lay out in the briefs.

5 – Review and Client Presentations
In the final stage, 'clients' provided feedback to 'designers' based on the prototype testing. This occurred in a presentation session. Through Wiki pages, groups uploaded two posters that summed up the feedback and then discussed through videoconferencing how the design proposal met their expectations.

Client feedback presentation using teleconferencing equipment

Client feedback presentation using teleconferencing equipment

Students from Napier University in Edinburgh and Northumbria in Newcastle gathered in person because of the short distance between the two cities.

Student and staff from the three universities

Student and staff from the three universities
The end of semester presentations in mid May 2007

The Outcomes

The Global Studio is an excellent example of project-based work in which students learn by doing. End of semester evaluations have shown that the response from the students was overwhelmingly positive, with some criticism to address in the future. When assessing the course the vast majority of students (97%) stated that it had prepared them better than other courses for design and collaboration across distance. As a result,  they felt more confident in communicating their ideas and found it stimulating to work with students in other universities.

It was a key aim of the course for participants to gain a broader understanding of the impact of culture and the social context on design processes and outcomes. At the end of the course a majority of students believed to have achieved a better grasp of the relation between cultural issues and design. The choice of a kitchen timer as a product to design allowed participants to explore cultural differences and similarities among the groups, but was found by some of them not particularly challenging or not ideal to explore cultural similarities and differences. Perhaps the cultural difference between the Netherlands, England, and Scotland are less pronounced than originally expected!

Students remarked that virtual communication was a successful feature of the course. For simultaneous interaction, they used video and teleconferencing, particularly useful to present and discuss briefs and concepts. They also used Wiki pages to share their work throughout the different phases of the course. Wiki pages were useful for asynchronous communication and updates, when students needed to reflect and comment on other people’s ideas, drawings, and sketches. Flexibility was a winning characteristic of the Wiki platform, even though it is limited in supporting and uploading large files. Some students commented that they would have better took advantage of the Wiki pages with more training. Wiki pages also allowed students to engage in a sort of ‘informal learning’, which was collective rather than individual, by structuring and developing the content together. Despite some glitches, the communication of design concepts and technical drawing over distance went well and gave students a real feeling of client-designer interaction. Students have learnt in practice how these two roles feed into the design process.

Paul Readhead from the Cetre for Design Research at the School of Design said that:

The activities required to complete the project included design research, computer aided design, design communications and project management. The multitude of skills required made this module perfect for group activity, the project inclusively allowed all members of the team to participate and shine no matter where their talents lay, generating a similar team dynamic to commercial practice.

Even though this is a taught module, working at distance with other universities gave the students a sense of pride and responsibility for the designs they were producing. Rather than this being just “ another design project” the fact that a peer group (from another university) were reviewing and manufacturing their corresponding designs really made this project a serious activity for the students.

These interactions and relationships made this project the closest taught activity I have come across to representing design in the real world.

Chris Conner the programme leader BSc Product Design Technology commented that:

Working with other students at other Universities brought great benefits to the students at Northumbria.  It exposed them to the knowledge and experiences of other design students, reinforcing their identity as “budding designers”, which can so easily be lost in a non design centred, studio based programme.  The interaction stimulated the students and gave them great confidence, especially when they communicated aspects to other students and found that what they considered frailties and weaknesses in their own design skills and abilities were actually similar to those of other design students.  As a result, the students demonstrated substantial motivation to succeed in this project and embed themselves in its activities in order to fully benefit from the experience.

From the staff’s point of view the course was an excellent opportunity to work with colleagues abroad and to share teaching practices. Running the course required a tight organization, detailed planning and coordination to communicate with concomitant classes in other institutions. The academic staff came from different backgrounds and disciplines, including engineering design, design management, design for industry, and psychology of design. It was unique to the Global Studio to encompass both engineering and design modules. Interestingly, a number of disciplinary and institutional differences among the staff emerged in the process of planning the course. Staff met the challenge to keep a unified structure for the course in spite of several different approaches. Should more emphasis be placed on concept development or on the prototyping stage? Should students ‘self-discover’ what the design process requires or should there be explicit assessment criteria? For instance, one outcome of this discussion was to change the study object from a toy to a kitchen timer, a choice that introduced the design of mechanical parts into the scope of project.

Linking Research, Teaching, and Learning

As we have seen the Global Studio was a successful course that delivered skills and practical experience in the design process to its participants. However, it is also significant as a site for research.
Firstly, the Global Studio provides a promising ‘laboratory’ for exploring product development in a distributed context; that is, across distance. Its practice addresses a question of constant interest for researchers, namely, how do designers actually use information and communication technologies in distributed teams? Data collected during the course, whether in the form of observations, surveys, or reflective data might be useful:

  • to map the use of technologies during the product development process
  • to examine which technologies participants found useful, and why
  • to consider how these technologies did enable or constrain the successful completion of a design process
  • to ponder how designers could be encouraged to use visual communication to exchange ideas and provide feedback
  • to investigate the relationship between design process and outcomes and social and cultural variables and how creativity and innovation work in a cross-cultural context

Secondly, scholars interested in education would find the Global Studio experience pertinent to what the literature calls ‘informal’ learning –  learning that occurs beyond the scope of what is outlined in the (formal) curriculum. For instance, the Wiki pages maintained by the student groups where an important instance of such learning, which evolved through peer-to-peer collaboration. The diverse composition of the groups (an unanticipated outcome), including students from different years and different experience working together, further enhanced peer learning.  A literature exists on informal learning in workplaces and in online communities, but research has focused so far little attention on how this process works in an e-learning context within Higher Education. The Global Studio is a promising setting for undertaking such research and developing a better understanding of how informal learning might be recognised and supported.


In sum, the Global Studio provides an ideal setting to explore design research themes that matters in the world of current designers as well as a site of ongoing research on the way information and communication technologies, particularly Web 2.0 technologies, can contribute to student learning. While its focus is on design, it supports an innovative mode of delivery which can be applied across a range of subjects. We hope that in the future students and staff in the Global Studio will continue to generate and explore practice-led questions both in the area of distributed design teams and in the field of teaching and learning.


The Global Studio: Linking Research, Teaching and Learning (Research in Design Series)

A book titled 'The Global Studio: Linking Research, Teaching and Learning' describing this project is available from Amazon. This book is aimed at design educators and is intended as a resource for those interested in exploring the potential of the Global Studio for the education of future designers. It is important to stress, however, that the editors are not suggesting all design courses should incorporate a global component, nor that all design courses should be conducted along the lines of a design studio. In fact, they seek to draw attention to a recognition of differences. The aim is to generate different ideas and approaches for 'doing' design education and ongoing discussion about what counts, and for whom, in relation to curriculum development in design. Another aim is to exemplify various ways of how research, teaching and learning can be linked. An important aspect of The Global Studio is that it provides a rich research site for exploring questions in relation to teaching and learning as well as doing product development in geographically distributed design teams.

The review of the book is available from the Higher Education Academy's national subject centre for Arts, Design and Media.