A decade of design: Education

April 28, 2011

Professor Tony Fry discusses the impact of sustainability-based design thinking and practice on the progress of design education in Australia.

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I might preface that these remarks are framed by a particular history that has seen the purpose and objectives of design change in recent years. In general, design education is found stuck in an instrumental model, orientated toward past and present modes of service provision. Not only is this insufficient, but it fails to provide students with the intellectual wherewithal to deal with what they will soon have to face in the not too distant future. It does not give them the means to commercially and culturally function in what will be an expanded design domain. Yes, service providers are still needed, but designers have to do more than this. Increasingly, a highly developed critical sensibility is demanded of them. As modern day problem solvers, designers need to prove substantial capacities to transform in terms of what design delivers (starting with the brief), and in doing so, be willing to share new knowledge openly, with strong communication skills. Almost all claims of this currently being inculcated by design educators are illusory.

Ten years ago I was director of the EcoDesign Foundation (EDF) in Sydney. The institution was ahead of its time on three counts. In research it was, for instance, working on climate adaptive design (which is yet to be taken up at the scale it needs to be), while at the same time developing a new design philosophy (now arriving in Australia and overseas as ‘design futuring’). As a design consultant, EDF had undertaken major renewable energy projects; worked with BHP Steel and other corporate and government organisations on the advancement of sustainability; as well as being an environmental manager of several Sydney Olympics projects. All of this background, and more, informed off-campus design education that it had been providing for three universities in Sydney from 1994 onward. This included degree program content and the Sydney Design Forum, which brought students from the three universities together, in dynamic and very popular educational design events.

All this is to say that EDF was a pathfinder in sustainability-based design thinking, practice and education. To a very large extent, what it was doing a decade ago is still ahead of the game in design schools. The test of progress here can be measured by the degree sustainability has transformed the curriculum of the schools. Quite simply, if the institution hasn’t done this already, the educator’s activity is merely token.

It has to be recognised that humanity now faces an unfolding situation that requires a new breed of designer – designers who lead rather than follow. These are people who are able to find ways to introduce radical affirmative change; are able to work in teams beyond the bounds of their particular disciplinary backgrounds; and are able to find the means to initiate projects – not just provide a service. Able to establish a very different dialogue with government, communities and clients, they have a new understanding, and appreciation, for the responsibility that is inherent in today’s design thinking. These people are ‘redirective practitioners’ and as such have a capability to create significant change that contributes to the establishing of our viable futures. The idea is to go well beyond our current modes of both sustainability thinking and practice, as it so often supports sustaining the unsustainable. Is it not?

After moving to Queensland in 2002 to establish a hardwood plantation, working with design institutions in the US, and undertaking an intensive period of research (which resulted in the publication of my book Design Futuring in 2009), I started working to establish the Master of Design Futures program at Griffith University Queensland College of Art (QCA), in Brisbane. This program arrived in 2008 and a post-sustainability project is now informing the total design program at the college. The design futures approach works on three levels: the transformation of practice; the development of strategies that are able to deploy this practice; and finally the creation of a clear sense of what needs to be created – which is named ‘sustainment’.

Sustainment is a process of making time in the face of ‘defuturing’ – the negation of time, of finite species on a finite planet. Sustainment is also a naming of the project that develops and mobilises this process. Like EDF, Design Futures and Sustainment is ahead of the game. It has gone well beyond my project, and the QCA program. Current and future postgraduate students from Europe, Asia and the Americas are taking this philosophy and practice to their own respective countries, and are applying it within context.

Design Futures’ current activities are proliferating in Australia, and they’re beginning to influence the agenda of many other more progressive design institutions around the world. By the end of the year there will be design future presentations in London, New York and perhaps Rome.

Tony Fry is Professor of Design at Griffith University, and his book Design as Politics was recently published in the UK and US. A new course is underway at QCA this year, and the institution will be hosting an international design hothouse in July 2011.

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