Educate to innovate?

Jun 30, 2009
  • Article by Online Editor
  • Photography by Linda Walker
  • Designer Joanne Cys

The focus on design in Australia has perhaps never been so keen or from so many perspectives. Initiated by the federal government’s National Innovation Systems Review that recognised the importance of equipping people with the skills to innovate, late 2008 and the first half of 2009 saw an unprecedented number of design reports and strategies from state and national viewpoints. In relation to human capital development all make some degree of explicit or inferred reference to design education. In 2008 the design profession itself undertook a major revision of its design education policy through the Design Institute of Australia’s national consultation on the future of design education.

Two national and four state generated reports provide varying degrees of specificity in relation to design education strategy and policy recommendations. The ‘New South Wales Creative Industry Insights’ document provides little more than government promotion. Although it identifies design as the largest sector in New South Wales creative industries the only reference to design education is a proposed action to investigate models for “embedding creativity” into the school curriculum. Commendable, but too general.

More usefully, New South Wales’s commissioned (draft) scoping study into ‘The direction for further research into and analysis of the relationship between design and other sectors of the New South Wales economy’ makes the link between education and practice and identifies employer demand for professionally relevant design education. No surprises there. The most interesting aspect of the draft study is the identification of future directions in design education including information design, convergence of engineers and design disciplines and the application of ‘design thinking’ across other non-design disciplines.

From our most advanced design state ‘Five Years On: Victoria’s Design Sector 2003-2008’ draws on survey data identifying the two areas that design sector employers perceived to be most lacking in their employees. These are basic design skills and business skills. Although the report acknowledges its small number of survey respondents, it also suggests employers have difficulty recruiting designers.

Queensland’s ‘2020 Design Strategy’ dedicates one of its four key objectives to building design knowledge and learning. The actions proposed to achieve this span secondary and tertiary education and there is recognition of the value of research and its link to competitive practice.

These state strategies were preceded by two national reports ‘Educating for the Creative Workforce: Rethinking Arts and Education’ by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation in partnership with the Australia Council for the Arts and ‘Venturous Australia’ the recommendation report arising from the federal government’s National Innovation Systems Review. As its title suggests, ‘Educating for the Creative Workforce’ considers the value of ‘creativity’ in education for all sectors of the workforce. It makes a strong case for design thinking skills in all areas of enterprise through reference to published literature and studies such as the UK’s 2005 ‘Cox Review’. It argues that design is vital to the competitive success of companies and organisations across a range of areas and that design is the means by which creative ideas are made tangible in the form of new products, services and processes.

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At the time of writing, the recommendation report arising from the National Innovation System Review ‘Venturous Australia’ was still before government and it remains to be seen how many of the heavily funding-focused recommendations survive during the economic crisis. While ‘Venturous Australia’ doesn’t mention design specifically, its recommendations are based on the premise that innovative companies and workplaces are critical for a competitive and prosperous economy. The report recognises that ‘attention to innovation’ is required at all levels of education, including continuing education in the workplace. Most relevant for the design sector are recommendations for a review of funding for tertiary training in the creative arts, the current research and development tax deduction to be changed to a 40 percent tax credit for large businesses and a 50 percent credit for small firms and the establishment of a competitive innovation grants program for innovative firms with limited access to capital.

But government reviews, reports and scoping studies aside, what do designers and design academics at the coalface of practice and education identify as priorities for the future? Last year the Design Institute of Australia commenced a major revision of its Education Policy. To inform this, extensive consultation was conducted across the country with groups of practitioners and academics from all design disciplines.

Despite the expected regional considerations that characterised each state and the sometimes differing agendas of practitioners and academics, common opinion was evident on some big issues:
1) design practice and knowledge is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary
2) design education is not something that only occurs in tertiary institutions – primary, secondary, tertiary, postgraduate and continuing professional development are all important aspects of design education
3) tertiary design education needs to include entrepreneurial and business skills, and
4) closer connection is needed between design education and design practice, so each can inform the other. This has major ramifications for the success of practice-based learning for design students, professional development for design practitioners, research and development in design practices, and increase in the number of PhD qualified designers.

There is some accord between the design profession’s expert understanding of the future of design education in its own field and the proposed strategies and recommended policies of state and national government. The synchronicity, however, is largely coincidental. What happens next is critical to design as both an industry and a field of disciplinary knowledge and cannot be left to chance.

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