Designing Future Designers: a propositional framework for teaching sustainability


RMIT University, Oxfam Australia

This report documents insights and questions that arose from teaching sustainability in design. Sustainability in this context includes overlapping spheres of social, political, economical, environmental, technological and spiritual and an awareness of how our everyday lives are already implicated relationally to all other constituents of the world (Fry, 2009; Ingold & Gatt, 2013; Walker, 2006). In other words, the literature review summarised here questions the sustainability discourse that is only limited to the environmental sphere alone. Sections in this report will present a discussion where an alternative six spheres are presented as a framework for design and designers to locate their practices within. These six spheres are presented as opportunities for design to intervene in the collective creation of new relationships, which emerge as possibly more considered alternatives.

Industry-based professions like graphic, industrial, fashion, architecture and landscape design often tend to emphasise technical knowledge and reinforces specialisation as a way to demonstrate expertise (Giard & Schneiderman, 2013). One major critique that we make is how sustainability in such framing has been added on to become a specialisation in design, reflected in terms like ‘eco-design’ or ‘design for sustainability’. This means that the status quo of business growth, marketing and novel aesthetics is maintained, inadvertently perpetuating a cycle of rapid consumption and obsolescence in existing industry practice (Walker, 2011). This critique is elaborated further in Chapter two. In this view, sustainability is largely framed in a product-centred way by minimising resources, energy and waste or incorporating renewable technology, and though well-intended, we see it further disentangling the web of spheres discussed above.

Of more concern for Learning and Teaching in design is an approach in education that seeks to make students ‘industry ready’, which can reinforce such industry practices. This is reflected in how briefs are considered, often relying upon a linear Problem Based Learning (PBL) model and developed through studio-based courses that try to imitate situations that students are supposed to face as industry professionals (Roberts, 2004). Chapter two in this report also evidences this from the accounts that were shared by design educators and our own critical reflection of the class that we taught, highlighting the need to question and redesign paradigms of design if design education were to progress forward.

Yet, there is also an emerging discourse that acknowledges the need for design to be entangled in ‘wicked problems’, which is seen in movements in transdisciplinary design, transformation design, participatory design and design for social innovation (Burry, 2013; Manzini, 2010; Sanders & Stappers, 2008; Sangiorgi, 2011; Steiner & Posch, 2006). These are touched upon in Chapter one. The discussion here suggests that a ‘wicked problem’ requires various stakeholders, beyond design and designers, to collectively draw on their local, situated knowledge (Parker & Parker 2007) whilst breaking out of the narrow ‘problem-solving’ mould that characterize much community change work (Darwin 2010). Interestingly, design here is seen as pursuing a methodological approach, not to deliver an end result – either a piece of technology or interactions among people – but to consider how various stakeholders can work together to co-design an action platform that can enable a multiplicity of interactions possible within the complex dynamic of the real world (Manzini, 2011).

These concerns, notions and frameworks have been central to developing a framework of ‘designing re-connectedness’ to assist in design education.
However, to prevent students from being overwhelmed by the ‘wicked’ complexity and an over-saturation of fear and facts, which we observed when immersing students in such studios, we extend upon Buchanan’s notion of placements (1992) as a way to initially position the student-designer’s entry points into a ‘wicked problem’. We see this as a pathway to designing re-connectedness in contrast to designing for sustainability, examined in Chapter three. Designing re-connectedness is a proposition in design education to equip students with methods, theory, structures and mindsets that enable their own pathway of inquiry and develop a change-making practice. It is a visual method we developed through this study that keeps all six spheres that are entangled in sustainability in view, whilst locating an intervention as a working hypothesis for exploration and development. The approach aims to assist with questions, reflects and communicates the student-designer’s awareness, perspective and concerns, and helps to reveal their systemic relationship and personal responsiveness to the spheres they are entangled within.

We propose the importance of building capacity in students-as-future-designers to help them ask critical questions towards locating their own possible points of design intervention among the sphere of interconnectedness. We have developed the six spheres diagram as a way to scaffold this process. This reflexive approach necessitates that students begin by consciously designing themselves, where design becomes an inward movement of change rather than an external one of changing systems, products or behaviours. We suggest that a classroom can be a safe-yet-challenging environment to scaffold ways for students to start interventions they make to themselves and their everyday practices. In parallel, the reflexive approach also demands the design educators to address their own assumptions of design where again, starting with an inward movement of change rather than towards an external application in curriculum or student-centred learning.

This report is shared through the Creative Commons license (see x for more detail), and made public with the aim of assisting anyone who is interested in understanding and teaching sustainability in design. This work is associated with the international network Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability (DESIS) through DESIS-Lab Melbourne, where the authors belong. We conclude with suggestions to investigate alternative pedagogical methods in design beyond what this study researched, examining a broader sample of educator’s approaches as well as their institutional frameworks that guides their teaching. This may necessitate re-visiting the way sustainability is framed and addressed in the guidelines for Learning and Teaching in design education, which tends to focus still on environmental spheres or Triple Bottom Line, and overlook the other spheres proposed in this report. The workshop method that was piloted among design educators could be further developed as a productive means to scaffold ways to discuss, exchange and mutually learn how the six spheres of sustainability can be integrated into pedagogy.

 Download the PDF: Designing Future Designers 2014

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