NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Before, not yet after: Reflections on the future of design education in an Australian context

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?

By Dr Gudur Raghavendra Reddy, Dr Neal Haslem, Associate Professor Meghan Kelly,  Associate Professor Veronika Kelly, Katrina Sandbach and Dr Myra Thiessen

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.

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.

Tradition both serves and stunts design education.

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.

More from this issue

More from this issue

Communication Design has expanded significantly as a practice since I graduated from Art School … it has transformed into a discipline encompassing its earlier aspects of publishing, print design, branding and packaging and extended through to experiential graphic design, interaction and interface design, user-experience, service and systems design.

Dominated by engineering constraints, the potential for human centered design to inform the design of extreme, isolated environments such as submarines, Antarctica and even off world habitation has been limited. Driven by economic pressures and profession cultures fields such as ship building rarely include human factors in their design.

The pandemic has presented design education with as many opportunities as it has challenges. With literally a day or two to prepare, most Australian tertiary education providers were hurled into a world of online learning at a scale way beyond what they ever really imagined or prepared for.

Current and future challenges around food security, climate change, migration, health, politics, and the environment, require positive, creative and ethical responses. COVID-19 has added layers of complexity to these global challenges given its precarious and diffuse nature. As the virus continues to cause disruption and harm, it serves to exemplify the need for advanced capabilities in open communication, advanced collaboration, and critical and creative thinking - core competencies of design.

“We are moving to an integrated learning model.” These exciting words have permeated discussions in the Higher Education (HE) sector most of 2020 and 2021. The incredible work of transforming teaching to accommodate COVID restrictions has disrupted many traditional teaching methods and forced educators to envisage new ways of delivering and assessing creative content.

As courses move online with the current COVID-19 lockdown in Warrane/Sydney, I reflect on the significance of material-making in design education and how the COVID pandemic has impacted on student learning experiences with mandated restrictions to specialised workshops on university campuses.

In this article we discuss models of design practice, based on three student projects from different program levels, the Bachelor of Design, the Master of Design (coursework) and the Doctor of Philosophy in Design, in the School of Art & Design at the University of New South Wales, Sydney.

Rapid change in the field of design has become a defining challenge in our role as educators. Graduates from design programs are expected to be simultaneously conceptual, material and entrepreneurial thinkers with the ability to work across disciplines.

Since the emergence of design as a profession across the post-war Northern Hemisphere in the 1950s, the role of design in fuelling economic growth has become more pronounced across the globe. There are significant nuances between nations, communities and companies’ interpretations and use of design to tackle the problems they confront, including the degree of national commitment to design-led innovation, disciplinary orientations and the rich variety of philosophies and methods.

A number of contributions to this edition of NiTRO reflect on the state of design education: from signature pedagogies such as dialogue, critique and the studio translated for online contexts, and relational shifts between teachers and students; to design’s role away from an emphasis on creative solutions and outputs to matters of process and ways of doing.

The first time we met was 22 years ago at an information session on the remote delivery of courses convened in Melbourne, for the university where I then worked. She enrolled, so the second time we met was the first weekend of that remote delivery, a Master of Arts class in journalism held in Melbourne. She was a young lawyer, head hunted by a top firm in Australia.