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

The lecture will be followed by a panel discussion with Pelle, joined by Ann Light (Northumbria University, UK), Paul Dourish (University of California, Irvine, US) and Anne Galloway (Victoria University of Wellington, NZ).
All welcome – please pass on to your networks.

Venue: RMIT Design Hub, Lecture Theatre (Level 3), corner of Swanston and Victoria St, Melbourne

Time: 9th December 2014, 6-8pm. Please arrive at 5.45pm for a prompt 6pm start

Free event: Drinks and nibbles included


Be warned, this is not a regular design talk.

A curated list of industry professionals will lead discussions in small groups about the connection between design and social responsibility.You are encouraged to ask difficult questions.

Come ready to discuss ideas, argue your perspective, drink beer and be inspired. Walk away knowing what kind of designer you want to be.

P.S. There will be food trucks.

Organised by Thick and Oxfam Australia’s Design for Change.

Thick is a strategic design consultancy with a focus on health, education and public services. We believe in the power of business to transform the planet for good. We design and create products and experiences that improve the lives of people as well as build social, environmental and business benefit.

Oxfam Australia’s Design for Change is a unique university program run by Oxfam Australia supporting design and communications students, the creative industries and emerging professionals to use their skills, creativity and problem solving capacity for global good. Every year Design for change works with leading universities in Sydney and Melbourne to foster socially engaged design thinking and practices into the next wave of designers.


Oxfam Australia, Studio Thick

Energy and Digital Living is based on the sensory and digital ethnography methodologies and design research at Loughborough University, UK, as part of the EPSRC funded LEEDR project.

Energy and Digital Living website aims to disseminate both the ethnographic findings and design interventions developed from the work, as well as the digital-sensory ethnography methodology that was developed as a way of researching energy and digital media in the home. There are a number of articles published that take the ideas developed on the web site into more theoretical depth. These are linked to the site.

The site is intended to be used by scholars and practitioners from different disciplines who are interested in this field, researchers and designers interested in video methods and digital-sensory ethnography practice and in interdisciplinary work, and has the potential to be used for teaching around a number of areas.


Dawn O’Neill AM: Collective Impact and Social Change – a challenge and an opportunity for the Service Design community.
Collective Impact is a philosophy, a framework, an approach that is being applied to address many complex social problems in the US, UK, and now in Australia. The event, in conjunction with RSA A+NZ, will show how Collective Impact can facilitate long lasting social change by bringing cross-sector organisations together to focus on a common agenda. Dawn O’Neill AM will highlight where Service Design can play an intrinsic role in dealing with the wicked problems that beset all these initiatives and how design can contribute to facilitating improvements and better outcomes for the organisations and the people and communities they serve.

Dawn O’Neill, previously the CEO of beyondblue and Lifeline Australia, was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for services to the community and to Mental Health in 2009. Dawn currently provides business coaching and consulting to social sector leaders in collaborative and participatory change with a particular focus on Collective Impact. She is also the Chair of STREAT, an innovative homelessness social enterprise, a Director of Ten20 a newly formed venture philanthropy organisation sup-porting community based, collective impact initiatives and a Director of Big White Wall an innovative on line mental health and wellbeing service.

You can download the presentation here.


Collective Impact, RSA, Service Design Network Melbourne, RMIT University

For those who have attended our successful discussion panel in 2012, it will be a delight to know that Dom was back again in Melbourne to give us a talk on ‘Designing for change in public services’.

Dominic Campbell is a digital government specialist and founder of FutureGov. FutureGov designs digital products that improve public services, especially in areas of high importance, cost and risk such as child protection and social care.

FutureGov has a 30-strong team in the UK, and has been working with local government in Australia over the last couple of years. It’s great to have Dom join us to talk about how FutureGov has used service design to transform public services.

About Dom
Dominic Campbell is a digital government specialist and social innovator with a background in government policy, communications and technology-led change.

He is an experienced organisational change agent with senior management experience in implementing successful change initiatives within the local government sector, with a primary interest in emerging uses of new media and “social” strategies to deliver public service transformation and social innovation.

Dominic was recently voted in both the top 50 most influential people in UK local government and top 50 most influential users of social networking site Twitter in the UK.

GovCamp is about more than events – it’s an invitation is to be part of an ongoing conversation to inspire and shape new opportunities for public innovation.

It is an opportunity to talk with a mix of people – from inside and outside government, from the worlds of technology and policy, of community and universities – to talk about shaping an agenda for innovation and to make a start on that agenda.

This is a call to people who want to come a be part of a conversation about innovation in government.

GovCamp is for people like you
Public sector practitioners, advisers and leaders who are excited by these challenges, who seek to better understand the risks and opportunities within emerging trends.

There are no clever corporate games; just dialogue and an open exchange of ideas.  It’s a Saturday. It’s free time, casual and as “off-the-record” as you need.  And because it’s shared conversation, you’ll take away even more than you contribute.
Courtesy of our generous organising partners, registration and catering is FREE.


EPA Victoria, Futuregov

The food system is broken. The world produces enough food but still millions of people go hungry. Climate change, the role of powerful companies, poor people being ignored by governments. Theses are some of the challenges facing the world’s hungry.But we can make a difference and help create a future where everyone has enough to eat.

Clancy Moore has worked on human rights, justice and sustainability issues for over 10 years overseas and in-Australia including working in the favelas in North East Brazil and with displaced communities in the Solomon Islands on land and livelihoods issues. He currently coordinates Oxfam’s food and climate campaign, GROW which is bringing about changes in policy and practice of governments, citizens and the food and beverage industry to build a world where everyone has enough to eat. He teaches Sustainability at RMIT and has a Masters of International Development.

His  presentation can be downloaded here: GROW RMIT Presentation for Design for Change 110314.ppt

His talk is part of ‘Design for Social Change: Climate Change and Food Security’ course in the Communication Design program at RMIT University.

Commencement date: 2011
Project status: Ongoing
Partners: Australian Emergency Management Institute
Since 2011, in partnership with the Australian Emergency Management Institute (AEMI) that offer a course called Community in Emergency Management, Dr Yoko Akama (RMIT University) has been sharing her research funded by the Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre. Part of her research explores fostering a ground-up dialogue for community-centred engagement, based on the work she has undertaken in Victoria and Tasmania. Various professionals participate in AEMI’s course from all over Australia, from federal government, state-based emergency services, police, ambulance, NPOs such as the Red Cross and volunteering organisations and council staff. It is an intense, four-day program that takes the participants through a learning process on community engagement in urban and rural settings, with culturally and linguistically diverse communities and engendering a culture of responsibility in agencies and communities towards collective resilience. The two-hour workshop run by Dr Akama is nested within this program. It’s a hands-on process of learning-through-doing to ensure the participants get the ‘feel’ for what the methods enable.
This footage was taken in September 2013. Macedon residents were invited to Dr Akama’s workshop that centres on valuing and sharing the local knowledge. Playful Triggers (objects like matchsticks, toy soldiers and plastic animals) are used to indicate people and infrastructure on a local map, facilitating a discussion on potential fire hazards, risks and resources. Demonstrating this workshop enabled learning and awareness for the local residents, and also for the emergency management course participants who are learning about community-centred engagement.
Thank you to the participants from Macedon, Community in Emergency Management students, RMIT design students, Bushfire CRC and Design Research Institute at RMIT University. This video is directed and edited by Emma Thornhill, music by Khristian Mizzi.
Commencement date: 2011
Project status: Completed
Partners: The Squeaky Wheel, The Huddle, TAC, City of Melbourne, Victorian Police


My Bike Project was a bike skills and community engagement program for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse young people (aged 14 -16) from Melbourne’s inner north.

Headed by The Squeaky Wheel, the project came to life as a collaboration with The Huddle (North Melbourne Football Club Learning and Life Centre) – funded by a TAC Community and Road Safety Grant and supported by the City of Melbourne. With the enthusiastic support of Victoria Police, who donated bikes from unclaimed stolen stock and the professional hands of Flemington Cycles, all kids were able to train on, work on and finally take home their own bike. A team of volunteer Bike Buddies were recruited to help mentor the participants.

The project ran over 9 sessions, beginning in October and finished up in February 2012. It covering all the basics of cycling – stop-start training, how to use brakes, bike riding games, through to bike maintenance. Through this participants learned more about safe riding in traffic and looking after your bike.


Introducting the Social Design Methods Menu by Lucy Kimbell and Joe Julier
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