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Passionately resilient beyond disciplines

Vision Talk for the Asian Design Education Conference.

I would first like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners, the Bunurong people, from whose land and water I am presenting today, a small suburb called Clayton, 25 kilometres southeast of Melbourne, Australia. 

We live in a world with a future more uncertain than ever before. In 50 years' time, I cannot imagine what the Internet would become. What our planet will hinge on. What the future generations will be doing for the world that is blind to us. 

As educators, we know to teach the next generations about career resilience. As design educators, we teach the value of practising beyond our own discipline. The environment is constantly changing. Students need to learn to adapt. 

I will say this out loud: all designers are trained to facilitate inclusive collaboration. Design is always cross-disciplinary, transdisciplinary, all of the above. As designers we draw from people whose expertise is outside of our own comfort zone. 

In the classroom, we work with students to bring new things to the world, and we teach them to be human-centred and purpose-oriented. We teach them to collaborate far and wide. 

Future students will become lifelong learners who are what I call passionately resilient. Today I am presenting a fundamental reframing of the conventional design education program into 'thematic pillars'. 

Design education program today is focused on developing disciplinary skills, exploring and speculating future ideas through making. Assessments are focused on design competency and presentations. Projects are often aligned within the individual discipline.

Thematic pillars, on the other hand, look towards the world we design in. We want students to develop design competency for a specific domain, like for community, or climate. We encourage students to explore ideas in an open space, try them out safely, and learn from the outcomes. Projects are validated through social interventions, through which competencies can be observed and assessed. Projects are driven by domain needs, and not just the needs of a particular design discipline.

This is a very high-level version of our 2022 Bachelor of Design course map at Monash University. What I want you to understand is that design education today is too focused on training the core disciplines, and not enough focus on career resilience.

After taking a common first-year studio at Monash, students choose to specialise in Communication Design, Industrial Design, or Spatial Design. There are two ways to complete this degree. The most obvious way is to focus on one specialisation, maybe dabble in another for a semester, and graduate with something like Industrial Design. We also introduced a new pathway a few years ago, where students mix in some of the specialisations throughout their degree, and finish what we call Collaborative Design in their final year program.

If we want the next generation of designers to be passionately resilient, and practice beyond their discipline, then why is the course map so focused on graduating with a discipline specialisation? How can we as educators create spaces where students with vastly different skills can work together towards a common goal? 

Students who are passionately resilient have both a broad understanding of a field they work in, like healthcare, or mobility design, and a deep appreciation for iterative work that is constantly adapting to new possibilities. 

At this point I should acknowledge my colleagues, Wendy Ellerton, Program Director for Collaborative Design, who has been thinking about this for quite some time, and shared her nascent idea with us to develop together. Also thanks to Dr Myra Thiessen, Communication Design Studio Coordinator, who engaged critically with the idea, and asked many good questions in our discussions. 

We want to train students not to become just a communication designer or an industrial designer, but a designer for urban living, or a designer for sustainable futures. The specifics of a design discipline, like software or tools, gradually become out of fashion in just a few years. 

Human nature, and social issues, however, will continue to require design innovations. We want our future generation of designers not only to excel at what they do, but also equip them with the necessary domain knowledge to undertake a career of their own ambition and volition. 

What does a resilient design curriculum look like, and how can we foster resilience in our students through design education? What I am about to show you is a speculative pathway. One of the many possible futures that our Bachelor of Design course map can become. I must be clear by stating that Monash has not implemented this. It is merely an idea at this stage. 

Enter: final-year thematic studios. Thematic studios reflect both the contemporary and speculative, the technological, environmental, and geopolitical issues. More importantly, each studio is joined by a mixed cohort of students in our Bachelor of Design program, as well as those who undertake double degree courses in IT, Business, Art History, Curation, and Fine Art. This healthy mixture is a key ingredient to facilitate open-ended discourse in search for a design intervention beyond a specific skill set.

Students are guided through Socratic dialogue and designerly ways of inquiry and meaning-making. They will venture into the relevant history of their chosen field and learn from what came before. 

We want students to take genuine interest to engage in topics outside of study, and develop domain knowledge to complement their study. This is akin to developing entrepreneurship, as in applying their own design practice in an open space. We want students to create visible design impact, and have the ability to articulate the importance of their work. 

The second year presents an opportunity window for students to mix and match their units. For instance, if I was a student interested in Design for Transportation, I might undertake Industrial Design studios, and also take elective units in urban mobility. If I was interested in Designing for Healthcare, I might undertake Communication Design studios, and also take elective units in Service Design and Design Thinking, with a focus on health-related subjects. 

By focusing on social issues, rather than just training designers into a particular discipline, students will be able to build the degree towards a domain they would like to design for. 

I firmly believe that students can be passionately resilient, be purpose-oriented and adaptive. This quality is complemented by subjects such as Indigenous ways of design, sustainable design, and by engaging with global issues like human migration and climate change.

I also believe students are capable of developing skills beyond their own disciplines, no matter where they find their calling. As a designer they are equipped with the tools to uncover and share knowledge on any planet. Doors are open to the next generation of designers who come prepared. 

This is why for the first year program, students are encouraged to start small, and dream big. Focus on an isolated problem, and develop necessary skills just in time to move forward.

At the foundation year the aim is to introduce the process of iterative exploration through each discipline practice. The idea that failing is OK. Let's normalise learning through failure, and iterate. 

As a design educator who works with first-year students, my mission is to spark their curiosity to learn about both the wicked and wonderful lenses of design. At the same time, the students are just beginning to develop disciplinary competency who can see the options open to them in the next two to three years.

At this point you might be asking, but who is going to deliver the design curriculum? We acknowledge this problem is both universal and unique for each design school. 

In the context of Monash Design, we are just beginning to involve our research labs in the faculty to be both mentors and stakeholders in the delivery of final-year studio projects. For example, Design Health Collab at Monash has active collaborations with local hospital systems including Monash Health, who will pitch the design brief to our final-year design students for the 2022 Industrial Design studio. 

The key is to develop breadth and depth competencies in our student body. Our vision is to provide a design education broad enough that students can take away a wide range of skills working with the tangible and intangible, but also deep enough that they will be able to acquire mastery through further training and deliberate practice.

Many design schools around the world have a four-year degree program, with the foundation classes of art and design in the first year, and capstone design projects in the fourth year. Parsons School of Design, and the IDC School of Design are such examples. Other schools have thematic tracks. For example at Aalto University, Finland, students who completed a Bachelor of Design can continue their study in Creative Sustainability as a Masters degree track. 

Some schools are taking bold moves as well. Take a look at the Design Academy Eindhoven, in the Netherlands. In 2020, the school restructured its BA Design program into 8 themed studios which has now grown into 11. Starting from the second year, students can freely move between these studios, and develop skills that they find most interesting. Each studio has a unique mode of inquiry, design practice, or a mix of practice and research, but all of them emphasise developing the students' curiosity, shared ownership, and not being afraid to fail. Their 'thinking by doing' model can be observed throughout the entire curriculum.

There is no one way to teach design, nor is there a right way to redesign a Bachelor's degree. What I have presented today was the result of an engaging one-day department workshop, and the converging points between myself and my colleagues. The idea will certainly evolve as our Faculty task force figures out how it could be implemented. 

We know one thing for certain: the world will be a very different place 50 years in the future than it was 50 years ago. We also know that social issues are human issues, which are long-term, complex system problems that take generations to redesign and resolve. Our studios are already engaging with current issues within their studio practice. We believe the course redesign is not radical, but practical. 

More design schools in the wild can aspire to grow resilient designers. Design education collaboration across faculties or perhaps even universities, and the local industry, is only the beginning of something different.

I am constantly amazed by what our students can do, and I look forward to seeing what the next generation of designers will create together with you. 

Thank you.

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