Swinburne’s Design Factory

Mar 1, 2012
  • Article by Online Editor
  • Designer

Last year, Swinburne University became the first Australian university to create a ‘Living Lab’ or Design Factory as they call it: a multidisciplinary, purpose-built design space that will include advanced workshop and prototyping facilities. The Design Factory aims to differentiate itself from studio-based design programs by focusing on hands-on, real world design problems within an interdisciplinary environment.

Thirty years ago, Swinburne’s design centre was considered cutting edge for its time. It was, essentially, a design studio within the TAFE system (Swinburne achieved university status in June 1992), where students enrolled themselves to learn professional/trade skills. But when Professor Ken Friedman, a man known to pioneer design innovation, was appointed dean of design in January 2008, he decided that the curriculum was “good, but not good enough.”

“The students weren’t getting the benefit of genuine industry experience and research focus. I wanted something better,” says Professor Friedman. With the purpose of increasing the calibre of Swinburne’s design curriculum, Friedman began a benchmarking study of the world’s best university design schools – looking at facilities, processes and curriculum. In September 2010, Friedman paid a visit to the Aalto Design Factory, the Living Lab at Helsinki’s Aalto University.

“I was blown away by what I saw there,” he says. “The Living Lab brings together end-users, researchers and companies in the early stage of product development to experiment with concepts and their potential value. This engages all the vital factors in a process that leads to breakthrough innovations for society, businesses and their customers.”

It’s an environment that encourages user testing in a living environment – so there are plenty of first-time installations. For instance, some of the furniture can charge mobile devices wirelessly, while desks are illuminated by light from a prototype lamp made out of paper.

If you go to Aalto’s Design Factory, you never know whom you’ll meet. The CEO of Nokia occasionally drops by for the two-Euro networking breakfasts it holds twice a week. Here, face-to-face interactions breed collaboration, which is essentially synonymous with innovation.

Swinburne has now adopted the Living Lab model as its own, working collaboratively with Aalto University. Announced in August 2011, the Design Factory’s temporary home is on the Prahran campus, but only until the full facilities at the Hawthorn campus are ready for the proposed completion date in 2013. Nevertheless, students are already working at the Aalto Design Factory. In September, three industrial design students travelled to Helsinki for one month to take part in the internationally recognised Product Development Project program.

Like their Helsinki counterpart, the premises of the Australian Design Factory are admirable. It’s a place where students come together from design, economics, engineering and technology to “work on real problems that create real answers to make a difference in the world”. They’ll have the freedom and resources to create genuine solutions for client needs, from ideation and proof-of-concept to prototyping and testing.

One may ask: ’Why would big business or companies want to spend money on a student team?’ Friedman explains. “It’s huge value for them. Even if it’s expensive, it’s not comparable to in-house costs,” he says. “They can limit their research and design spending by giving it to the Design Factory and receiving an educated solution.” In essence, they’ll be sponsors who will gain access to design teams of six to 10 students – their very own A-Team to combat their design problem.

At Aalto, there are always more companies than student teams, which means the students have their pick of the project crop. It’s unclear whether Swinburne will be able to attract the same attention, at least to begin with, but the program shift looks promising.

Australia still strongly depends on its rich primary industries, but so did Finland until recently. In recent years, however, Finland’s focus has shifted to innovation instead, with great results. The Otaniemi area of Finland – the neighbourhood around Aalto Design Factory – has the top patents per capita statistics for Europe and the overall productivity growth has been on the rise, not to mention employment.

Critics may also question the presence of business in education. Are universities operating more like big corporations? This issue warrants a wider discussion, but Professor Friedman makes it clear that, just like Helsinki, students will be the priority. There are no guarantees for companies that they’ll get what they want. “Sometimes the companies will never develop the project further than this, but they value what they learn – new methods of innovation, processes, new ways of assembly, logistics. That’s real value for any business,” says Friedman.

Like most deans, Professor Friedman wants Swinburne to top the charts in prestigious university surveys such as the Shanghai, Times Higher Education and QS World rankings. Universities are driven by these rankings, after all, and rankings with the research performances they validate garners philanthropic support, justifies government funding and attracts the brightest students both locally and internationally.

The Design Factory also adds another dimension, in both physical and philosophical form, to Swinburne’s existing strategy: positioning Swinburne as a research-based institution with real global impact. Friedman says that many universities claim to have significantly more impact than they really do. He wants to measure impact in a way that is visible and able to be qualified. “Impact is when you can actually examine evidence and learn from the design process and the research around it; for example, when someone adapts or applies the design method to their work,” says Friedman. “Somebody might see something done in the construction phase – a method or process – that they can use. When people in your profession or outside your profession actually use what you do, that’s ‘impact’.”

So what makes a good designer in 2011? Professor Friedman says that the design profession is a contemporary field growing within the university. “Having few historical roots in the philosophical tradition deeper than the last few decades, we have yet to shape a clear understanding of the nature of design,” he argues.

According to Friedman, in today’s world, designers need to act more like lawyers, engineers and doctors, in the way that these professions make their decisions. “These are all professions where people have to solve problems for other people. If you want to say design is about creativity and intuition, our kids don’t lack for that, but you must not make decisions that are based merely on intuition,” he says.

“When you jump into the crucible of the design process, you need a foundation of knowledge. It’s not just a matter of taste,” says Friedman. “In the Middle Ages, when we were building cathedrals or bridges, we tested them by seeing whether they stood up and it was common for them to fall down. We can’t afford the ‘see if it breaks’ test today. Design is a serious profession, and millions of dollars are at stake on some of the decisions we make.”

In this regard, Friedman’s goal is to send designers out into the world who are able to make good decisions when they create or make things – for there to be positive consequences for all of us. He makes the argument that today, designers, in addition to their civic responsibilities, have unique responsibilities. “The choices they make are capable of making huge differences in the world,” says Friedman.

“Over the 10-year period following graduation, the attrition rate for graduated designers is 90 percent. I’d say that’s not good enough,” he adds. “We want to give people the skills and habits of mind, the ability to analyse, construct, synthesise, create and have the critical skills to help them live a responsible life in society.”

We could surmise that, for Professor Friedman, being a good designer is someone who can make good decisions from a critical foundation of knowledge. Of course, designers in Australia face their own unique challenges. Industrial designer, Justin Hutchinson, who taught product design/engineering at Swinburne from 2005 to 2010, contends that, as an industry, industrial design has never really reflected the needs of the Australian consumer industry, as products designed for mass manufacture require a much larger population to justify the tooling.

Friedman wants design education to be grounded in current contexts – global warming principal among them – along with emerging technologies in the digital and nanotechnology fields. “Frankly, we think that the world can no longer afford to be going the way it’s going. We have economic crises, we have ecological crises,” he says. “Anything that people can do to add value and to create new ways forward is what is needed.”

Perhaps the question should not be about whether the course will prepare graduates for the real world, but whether the real world has the necessary conditions for innovation. Some could argue that, currently, the Australian market is simply not big or diverse enough to encourage such innovations. The mining industry may be booming, but manufacturing is vanishing, thus creating a split-level economy. “We’re at a different phase in terms of economic evolution. I have a suspicion we may wind up with different kinds of partnerships with companies,” adds Friedman. “What does that mean? I can’t really say.”

Hutchinson, who currently runs a mentoring program at the Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne, says that Australia’s export market has also suffered due to the large distances separating us from the current two largest consumers: Europe and the US. “This has also been compounded by the world’s power-based elites fuelling disparity in the markets and thus channelling manufacturing into Asia to help build local economic prosperity. Industrial design has, therefore, never gained a footing, while interior design is site-specific and contextual, so it has been warranted.”

The current pressure on local manufacturers to keep up with the rising Australian dollar is also a key challenge for the design industry. But the serious challenge for design institutions like Swinburne is to be agile enough to keep up with the changes emerging as we transition from a post-industrial economy to a more knowledge-based society, valuing sustainability and information over excessive material gain.

As more Australian businesses go to Asia for manufacturing, the design industry will need to evolve to survive. The argument could be made that, rather than modelling ourselves on our European counterparts, we should be focusing on how we can create new synergies with our Asian neighbours. Only time will tell whether the Design Factory will work in an Australian context or whether it will produce good designers that are capable of changing the industry. Yes, it’s a great response from Swinburne University if it works in tandem with the Australian economy, but it can’t do it on its own. The question we should be asking of our universities, design programs, government and industries, is not whether we can produce good product designers, but rather what we can do to keep them here in Australia.



Image The new Design Factory at Swinburne University will be part of the Advanced Manufacturing Centre (AMC) on the Hawthorn campus. Local firm Sinclair Knight Merz (SKM) with London’s Wilkinson Eyre Architects have been commissioned to realise this facility.

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