In Your Hands & Self-Portrait: Introductory Spatial Design Exercises in the First-year Studio



Graphic Design & Visual Art


  • spatial design education, spatial design exercises, studio learning, 3D, 2D


This paper considers the discrepancies in the visual literacy of students prior to entering spatial design education at a public higher-educational institution. Because the school subjects Visual Arts and Engineering Graphics and Design provide feeder skills to visual literacy, students with exposure to these subjects tend to have higher visual literacy than students who are unlikely to have received exposure to these subjects. This is problematic because Visual Arts and Engineering Graphics and Design are not on offer in all public South African schools.

As educators from a public higher-educational institution endeavouring to provide equitable learning opportunities, how do we, through spatial design education, relate to first-year students with an awareness of differences in student ’readiness’ impacted by schooling opportunities? What role can spatial design exercises play in alleviating these discrepancies while engaging all students in the first-year studio?

This paper focuses on first-year spatial design students and the design exercises In your Hands and Self-Portrait. These introductory design briefs focus on the development of students’ three-dimensional spatial design skills with awareness of the impact of students’ school subjects on studio outputs. In your Hands requires the creation of a support with wire for stone using stone, wire and pliers. Thereafter follows a group discussion, reflection and iteration. Self-Portrait requires the creation of a three-dimensional self-portrait of the inner and outer being using wire and thereafter, a projected shadow drawing of the portrait using light while drawing with graphite on paper. A selection of projects conducted by first-year spatial design students of architecture, interior architecture and landscape architecture in 2017 at the Department of Architecture, University of Pretoria has been documented.

With the focus of spatial design education in the first-year studio being on the development of three-dimensional design skills, differences in students’ schooling backgrounds played a reduced role in impacting project outcomes.  The introduction of alternative media, stone and wire, to which most students had limited exposure, provides an even playing field.  Communalism as a means of learning together was explored through group discussion and iteration of the exercise, providing students an opportunity for self-review and improvement in their approach.  Self-Portrait allows a reflection of self-understanding in a three-dimensional format.  The shadow projection reinforce the role of two-dimensional drawings as representational of three-dimensional spatial products as a key skill to spatial design practice which redefines the two-dimensional drawing from being an artistic output to becoming a representational image.

The two exercises provide a relevant discussion as introductory exercises focusing on skills development in the spatial design fields through the three-dimensional. This approach allows a fairer learning opportunity for students regardless of their school subjects, which could have enhanced their skills in visual literacy. This is a worthwhile case study for spatial design educators in the context of the call for decolonised education.


spatial design education, spatial design exercises, studio learning, three-dimensional, two-dimensional




DEFSA conferences

DEFSA promotes relevant research with the focus on design + education through its biennial conferences, to promote professionalism, accountability and ethics in the education of young designers. Our next conference is a hybrid event. See above for details.

Critical skills endorsement

Professional Members in good standing can receive a certificate of membership, but DEFSA cannot provide confirmation or endorsement of skills whatsoever. DEFSA only confirm membership of DEFSA which is a NPO for Design Education in South Africa (