By Dr Zoë Veness
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. The Object Design courses in the Bachelor of Design at UNSW Art & Design, that require access to fabrication facilities such as makerspaces, ceramics, jewellery and wood workshops for students to develop physical prototypes and artefacts, have been sharply impacted by the move online. I acknowledge that this experience is not isolated to Object Design as many educators during the COVID pandemic have also had to rethink how to shift material-making online.
The benefits for students of access to workshop facilities on campus are two-fold. Firstly, they provide spaces to experiment, conceptualise and test ideas, and to refine high level craft and making skills by learning techniques and processes with specialised equipment under the supervision of professional staff. Secondly, they provide social areas for students to learn through making together. Students are regularly seen outside of class time working independently side-by-side in the Ceramics and Jewellery Studios at Art & Design. Friendships are made while making in a supportive workshop environment that can lead to significant working partnerships and future collaborations. Available to both art and design students, the material-making workshop facilities at UNSW are places of synergies between art and design that seed innovation.
British anthropologist Tim Ingold’s prose about “thinking though making” resonates with design students learning how to respond to the “fluxes and flows of materials”. Introduced early in craft-based design courses, thinking through making informs the School of Art and Design’s understanding of iterative and reflective practices. During 2020’s transition of Object Design courses to the online environment, thinking through making emphasised the importance of the ‘practice’ of making as a method of enquiry no matter the material.
Pivoting to online delivery is challenging for courses structured to be taught in specialist facilities in-person. With restricted access to campus workshops students cannot visualise their ideas at full scale or engage with fabrication methods that are key to material-making in design and production processes. As a result, aspects of problem-solving can be curbed and digital design representations and scale models must suffice. There are however some positive outcomes from the rapid pivot in March 2020 that can inform how to re-shape material-making courses to better adapt to online conditions.
Prior to the pandemic, UNSW Art & Design revised the undergraduate art and design programs which resulted in a substantial review of the Bachelor of Design. Included in the course development process was a UNSW digital uplift initiative that made possible the creation of new digital teaching resources for blended and fully online learning. From my experience of leading material-making courses online, a blended learning approach can be productive with in-person classes supported by bespoke online ‘asynchronous’ resources for students to refer to outside of class time.
For new Object Design courses, a series of videos were created to assist with asynchronous learning of 3D modelling skills. Designing courses for Object Design requires balancing the pace of a broad range of digital and analogue learning. Step-by-step instructional videos for 3D modelling maximise in-class time for students to develop projects in the campus studios and workshops. These videos were invaluable during the sudden switch to online teaching last year when I observed that, as a consequence of restricted workshop access, students dedicated more time outside of class to practice and hone their digital skills in 3D modelling and rendering.
A conceptual design approach has long been a feature of the Bachelor of Design at Art & Design since its inception in the 1990s. Students learn technical skills as they explore and realise design responses to conceptual provocations embedded in the curricula. An unexpected outcome of the online transition in 2020 was that students also experienced more conceptual freedom designing objects without having to contend with the limits of their technical skills. In many cases the constraints of the online learning and teaching environment resulted in remarkably sophisticated designs that engaged deeply with conceptual thinking and drew on the extraordinary visual communication skills of students.
While I advocate for blended learning models that include in-person classes, future steps underway at the School of Art & Design at UNSW involve refining methods to further encourage social making in online environments. The School is currently exploring online courses involving live online demonstrations of material-making in contemporary jewellery design so that we can offer supportive and inclusive learning environments. More promising still, with students now attending classes from different locations, locally and overseas, online learning of material-making can strengthen connections to place, leading to place-based enquiries of cultural significance that are relevant to students in the process of conceptualising ideas for design, wherever they are located.
 In acknowledging Warrane as the traditional place name of Sydney, I pay my respects to First Nations Australians, the Gadigal and Bidjigal people of the Eora nation and the Jerrinja people of the Yuin nation as the traditional owners of the land on which I live and work today. I extend my respect to Elders, past, present and emerging. Indigenous sovereignty has never been ceded.
 Tim Ingold Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture (London: Routledge, 2013), 6.
Dr Zoë Veness is Director of Education at the School of Art & Design, University of New South Wales in Warrane / Sydney, Australia. She is convenor and course developer of the Object Design disciplinary specialisation in the Bachelor of Design, and a research-practitioner specialising in the field of contemporary jewellery and objects.