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
Commencement date: 2014
Project status: Ongoing
Partners: Oxfam Australia, RMIT University

This is a communication design 3rd year studio offered at RMIT University. It enabled students to have the unique opportunity to work with Oxfam Australia to explore complex, systemic issues on climate change and food security through designing and research. Throughout the 13 week semester, the students undertook intensive design research, ethnography and fieldwork, which was synthesised and analysed through critical mapping. The students were required to design an innovative strategy that enables young people in Australia to see, feel and think about their enduring connection to the global communities who are affected by climate change, and help young people in Australia to take action.

The insights and strategy were presented to Oxfam on two occasions, one at mid-semester presentation and the end of semester presentation. These presentations were attended by Oxfam representatives who gave the students input, critique and advice appropriate to the assessment criteria.

If the strategies proposed by the students show potential, Oxfam representatives will discuss their choice with the lecturers and may invite those students to develop their strategies further, after the semester has ended. These students will be consulted and involved in further developing their strategy for Oxfam’s GROW / Climate Change and Food Security campaigns and be part of influencing their strategy.

The slides below were the presentations that were made to Oxfam Australia in June 2014.

Jennifer Smit: A treasure hunt

Jared Ow: #changechallenge

Celeste Galtry: A new donation platform

Jennifer Thy: One mother, one dollar campaign

Marina Sellstad: Gamification Earth

Alexandra Kimpton: Flourish

Eliza Lambert: The Social Green Pop-up Bar

Ally Parker: Brand zero

Gabby Lovell: Queen Vic Market cooking school

Luna Hao: The vegan day planner

Rachel Gan: Hello Fresh activity pack + grocery delivery service

Rainie Nguyen: The 30 Day Challenge App

Hanxun Chen: The disappearing island public installation

Diamy Pham: Packaging tips for a busy lifestyle

Yi Cheng: Pop-up disaster showroom

Francesca Carey: Oxfam Tap

Mathias Kasambalis: Connecting people through public art installations

Monica Sutrisna: Craft food template for healthy eating

Pei Seen Chew: University organic market co-ops

Bo Young Lee: Plant Me

Patrick Lavery: UGLI pop-up stores

Both design and ethnography situate their practices in the social. What aptitudes do these practices have that are mutually supportive and/or beneficial? What can ethnographers teach designers, and what can designers teach ethnographers?
Both design and ethnography accept the subjective, and a rich relationship between the researcher and the researched, as a welcome and generative aspect of research and practice. Neither practice aims for–or makes claims to achieve–positivist truth or scientific knowledge.
In many ways the two practices operate in similar territories with similar understandings of agency, responsibility and individual accountability. Yet they are not the same, what are the important, mutually beneficial, differences? and what might these differences in understanding and practice tell us about nascent future practices like Design Ethnography?


For this special panel discussion members from both DERC (Digital Ethnograpy Research Centre) and DFL (Design Futures Lab Research Group) have gathered to probe the above questions–questions which are quickly becoming fundamental to the future of research inquiry within the school of media and communication at RMIT University.

Related to this topic is a talk by Paul Dourish (UC Irvine, California) for the first Digital Intervention Seminar Series on ‘Ethnographic investigation of robotic deep space exploration’ at RMIT Design Hub on 27th March 2013.

PDF – The New Journal of Design Strategies

In this, our first issue under the new title The Journal of Design Strategies, we
address the theme of “change design.” The phrase hearkens back to the 2008 Changing the Change conference in Torino, Italy, organized by the sustainable design theorist and Politecnico di Milano professor Ezio Manzini, and responds to the “Design Research Agenda for Sustainability” that emerged from it.

The Journal of Design Strategies published by Parsons The New School for Design
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