By Dr Gudur Raghavendra Reddy, Dr Neal Haslem, Associate Professor Meghan Kelly, Associate Professor Veronika Kelly, Katrina Sandbach and Dr Myra Thiessen
In late 2019, a panel of design educators came together at the ACUADS conference to launch the Communication Design Educators Network and discuss what we saw then as big questions: Is tradition serving or stunting us? And, are the most valuable skills future design practitioners need today being taught? Then months later, the global pandemic brought immediate and ongoing impacts, masking what were also significant changes to higher education in Australia through the federal government’s Jobs Ready Graduates package. Faced with an urgent need to reinterpret how they teach in order to keep students engaged via online studios and forums, locally and internationally, meant design educators had to reorient their priorities because it was not possible to carry on with the status quo. So, we reached out again to ask the same questions, and see what has changed, or not.
Katrina: Design education has traditionally placed an emphasis on the design studio where students learn through “doing”. In the last decade, studio programs across the sector have repeatedly come under scrutiny; rigorous and hands-on, they can be resource intensive in a climate where resources are becoming increasingly scarce. Yet, we’ve stood our ground and kept with tradition on the basis that we would be doing our students a disservice otherwise. Last year showed me that teaching online requires a complete reimagining of the studio model, and to be honest I’m still figuring it out! What I do know is that managing remote work, using technology to enable meaningful peer networks, and communicating professionally online are some of the most valuable skills that are now at the foreground of my teaching. Mental health, wellbeing, and the mantras of self-care have dislodged “the deadline is not negotiable” I used to have on constant repetition.
Meghan: The internet has long been a source of identifying social trends and all things fashionable. As a result of the global pandemic, the internet has become the primary source of information for designers and a principal teaching device for design practice. Yet, the internet offers everyday life experiences that are summaries of meaning delivered by witnesses we more than likely never met and never shall meet. In other words, the internet view of reality is not based on pristine experiences as much as it is exposure to culture strategically developed and delivered to us by someone else. As sources of truth and physical contact are currently limited, if not inaccessible, the concern is we have a generation of student designers who are less agile, relegated to minor roles in the development of cultural consumption, and unskilled in their capacity to situate their outcomes in current and future social climates.
Raghu: Design is a driving force of the new economy – research suggests that design skills make a significant contribution to innovation in a discipline outside of itself. We are noticing a steady increase in our graduates working in organisations that are not their traditional destination. However, the new economy’s changing expectations require a different skillset from future designers. Currently, designers are trained to develop core creative problem-solving skills such as: tolerating ambiguity, thinking holistically, and making decisions in uncertain conditions but skills required to work in fields outside of traditional establishments, essential for career progression and leadership roles, are missing. Industries such as IT, Business, and Health address this gap by introducing creative and design thinking into their programs. Sadly, it is not the same in design education.
Neal: Tradition both serves and stunts design education. We engage with the seeming intractability of tradition to evolve future practice. Futures appear always already there; in the current pandemic, new orientations become revealed as pre-existing as though earthquakes have turned the soil. Communication Design’s most important engagement – with the social and society – becomes re-enlivened through strong provocations to traditional epistemological and ontological assumptions around gender, indigeneity, diversity, inclusion, (de)colonialism and the post-human. The skills designers need – and that we need to teach – are ethically-orientated practices of perception, noticing, reflecting, analysis, ideation, criticality, openness to change and a lived awareness of the design practitioner’s agency to make change.
Designers are required to work collaboratively and across traditional disciplinary and practical boundaries. They are expected to be agile, have highly developed critical thinking skills and a capacity to situate their outcomes in current and future social climates. It is evident in the responses above that this remains true as we continue to navigate a world with COVID-19. What an educational studio is can be transformed from the physical to online in ways that present a very real opportunity to challenge ideas about inclusivity, diversity, and accessibility. At the same time, information accessed virtually can impact thought and action, further highlighting the necessity for a critical lens and ethical engagement in design learning for practice.
Design practice methodologies are collaborative and interdisciplinary in nature, and it may be that now is the time that the true scope of the value of this way of working will emerge, not least by readying graduates for the future of work. Design educators have intuited a shift is needed for some time but faced barriers to acting in a timely way – until COVID-19.
Dr Gudur Raghavendra Reddy (Raghu) is a Digital Design course coordinator at the School of Design, University of Canberra. With a bachelor in fine arts, a masters in visual communication and a PhD in Interaction Design, his expertise stretches across traditional studio-based craft and contemporary digital design studio practice. His current area of research is on making contemporary technological products accessible for older and people with diverse capabilities.
Dr Neal Haslem is Associate Dean of the Communication Design discipline at RMIT School of Design. Neal is a communication designer, design educator and a practice-led researcher into communication design. He has a background in design studios and advertising agencies working across a wide range of projects including traditional graphic design, exhibition and interactive design. Neal’s research lies in the intersection of design practice, ‘community’ and the intersubjective action with which design reveals and actualises possible futures.
Assoc Prof Meghan Kelly is a senior lecturer in Communication Design at Deakin University and currently serves as Associate Dean (Teaching and Learning). Kelly’s research is in the areas of visual communication design, participatory design practices and the impact of process on self-determined design outcomes. She explores issues surrounding identity creation and representation, turning intangible knowledge into tangible designs in a cross-cultural context.
Assoc Prof Veronika Kelly is Dean of Programs (Creative) at the University of South Australia. Kelly’s research focuses on design practice and culture, with a specific interest in the relationship between the practice of communication design and the art of rhetoric. Her work explores designs as social constructions and the ways in which design practice discourse shapes and transforms design culture and what contemporary practice is or could be, and how this in turn impacts and shapes design as professional practice.
Katrina Sandbach is a Lecturer in Design and was the Director of Academic Program, Design at Western Sydney University from 2016-2019. She has taught widely across the Western Sydney University visual communication design program, with an emphasis on studio skills and professional practice. She currently leads Burrow, the design program’s capstone work-integrated-learning studio that connects emerging designers with local organisations requiring creative insight.
Dr Myra Thiessen is a Lecturer in Communication Design at Monash Art, Design, and Architecture, Monash University. She has rounded experience as a design practitioner, educator, and researcher, with a particular interest in the social impact of design. Her research is focused on cultures of reading and learning, which includes an exploration of how people access, use, and interact with information and the impact of motivation, context, and environment on reading and cognition.