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

What could citizen-centred governance look like to tackle issues on climate change?

This design studio was taught in the Communication Design Program, School of Media and Communication, RMIT University, in partnership with CityLab (City of Melbourne) and Victorian Eco Innovation Lab (University of Melbourne) during July – October 2015. It aimed to introduce design students to consider new models of local governance in 2040 for a future that is hotter, more crowded but has adapted to climate change and its impacts. This studio, led by Dr Yoko Akama, Tania Ivanka and Dr Idil Gaziulusoy helped students learn about emerging movements like service design, speculative design and design ethnography to propose a citizen-centred future for the City of Melbourne.

The studio introduced students to the development and use of participatory, human centred design methods and how these can be used to engage citizens in dialogue about, and the design of, a low-carbon future. In order to deliver this learning, the studio structure included in-class exercises on participatory methods, guest lectures by the studio partners, interviews with local practitioners who are at the forefront of citizen engagement on these issues. The studio centred around several workshops with citizens where students could develop, iterate and test their participatory prototypes with the participants.

“The lecturer explained that we as designers have been educated to be problem solvers, fixated on delivering a solution. This studio however, was not aiming to design a solution, but to design the process. With this acknowledgement, all of my stars seemed to align and I felt I gained a whole new understanding. .. our main focus revolved around developing prototype’s to be tested in real life settings using all we had learned around human centred design so far. This process held the most intense and insightful experience within the studio. As we were to test these prototypes on industry professionals, only just having learnt half the concepts we were exploring with them a few months ago, it was definitely an exciting process. Being able to learn from the things that may have gone horribly wrong and even get feed-back from our participants held so much value in the development of my work and also myself as a designer. Real life interactions were incredibly valuable. Being able to reflect on the process to inform and iterate future work is such an essential element to design and this studio thoroughly underlined that notion.” Galen Strachan

The process and outcome of this studio are captured by a selection of outstanding student projects:

Repurposing Waste by Carlotta Solari


Public Transport mapping by Galen Strachan


Swapping waste and resources by Harry Jones


A city of windturbines by Robert Sorensen


Household Foodwaste prototype by Anita Shao


Green infrastructure by Mary Hoang


Power Up prototype by Maria Ferreira


Bus it by Michael Santos


Wasteful Packaging prototype by Sasha Taylor-Leech


This talk deals with the role of creative practice in design research and its contribution to knowledge in product design for sustainability. It describes how the creative activity of designing, as a component of the research method, can be a powerful way of developing and illustrating ideas and advancing an ethos of sustainability. The discussion looks at how the inherently unpredictable design process can synthesize disparate, often diverging, priorities into a unified whole. This creative facet of design research is discussed in terms of its relationship to an understanding of design for sustainability that embraces not only social and environmental considerations but also deeper notions of human meaning and purpose. This position is complemented by a series of object examples, which demonstrate the potential of propositional design to advance knowledge. Importantly, within such a practice-based approach, such objects are regarded not as solutions, but as questions in form.

This event is co-hosted by the Design Research Institute, RMIT University and DESIS-Lab Melbourne.

Stuart Walker is Professor of Design for Sustainability and Co-Director of the ImaginationLancaster research centre at Lancaster University, UK. He is also Visiting Professor of Sustainable Design at Kingston University, UK, Adjunct Professor at Ontario College of Art University, Toronto and Emeritus Professor, University of Calgary, Canada. His research papers have been published and presented internationally and his conceptual designs have been exhibited at the Design Museum, London, across Canada and in Italy. His books include: Sustainable by Design; The Spirit of Design; and The Handbook of Design for Sustainability. His latest book is Designing Sustainability: making radical changes in a material world.

For more information please contact

At its best, design gives us access to a better world: good design promotes efficiency, sustainability and perhaps even delight for those who experience it through living or usage. But designers are also decision-makers who must choose who they work for, what kinds of products they design and how they design it. What happens when design is used to kill? Should we celebrate designers with ethical blindspots? How should a designer approach a brief to design a potentially harmful product? To what extent should designers be held accountable for the real world applications and consequences of their designs?

On Thursday 12 March, Assemble Papers will be convening a panel discussion on the Ethics of Design in an attempt to tackle some of these questions.

Speakers include:

Philippa Abbott – designer and founder, A&D Projects
Ewan McEoin – Senior Curator of Architecture and Design at the NGV / Founder of Field Institute (food lab)
Robert Sparrow – philosopher, bioethics and applied ethics, Australian Research Council “Future Fellow”


Eugenia Lim & Rachel Elliot-Jones – Assemble Papers

The Ethics of Design panel runs as part of the wider programme of talks associated with the Remote Controlled Terrorist Coffin.

Global Sustainability Jam is a worldwide hackathon. Teams gather on a Friday in November and imagine, refine, design, prototype, test and pitch new, novel services from the shared “secret” global theme.
Friday, 21 November 2014 at 6:00 PM –
Sunday, 23 November 2014 at 6:00 PM

Tickets at Eventbrite
In the spirit of experimentation, co-operation and friendly competition, teams will have 48 hours to develop brand new services inspired by a shared theme. The theme will be announced on the Friday night at the event.
You can expect to:

  1. Have fun!
  2. Build creative confidence by working with Design Thinking tools and methods.
  3. Hone you persuasion, facilitation and collaboration skills with people you meet at the Jam and choose to work with.
  4. Meet new people, make new connections, build a network of like-minded explorers looking for new and better ways to create change and deliver value.

Be part of a global changemaking event with more than 100 cities particpating!!!

This is a global movement to hack sustainability issues over a weekend with likeminded changemakers using a design prompt. We use design thinking, service design processes and tools with play and action. The motto of the global movement is DOING NOT TALKING! … and YOU’RE INVITED!

Brought to you by the Crew at Jam Melbourne hosts of the Melbourne Chapter of the Global Service Jam 2014

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
Commencement date: 2014
Project status: Current
Partners: RMIT University, Oxfam Australia, Victoria Eco Innovation Lab, Swinburne University, Monash University, Victoria University, Melbourne University

This project builds on a course piloted with final year Communication Design students in 1st semester 2014 at RMIT University. Developed in partnership with Oxfam’s Design for Change program, students designed communication strategies to engage Australian youth on climate change and food security. The teaching was integrated with research expertise and introduced human-centred design methods to assist student’s learning of design’s role in addressing complex issues.

This project further consolidates the 1st semester fruitful outcome and Oxfam’s enthusiasm to continue the successful partnership. Several workshops are planned with various stakeholders to call upon a range of expertise in Oxfam, RMIT and beyond to ensure evaluation and critical input to deliver internationally relevant curricula that integrate social and sustainable principles into design curricula, has potential to transfer into other fields, and enable students to be work-ready in local and global industry.

Anyone interested in learning more about this project, or taking part, please contact Tania Ivanka (

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
Sharing Cities: Activating the Urban Commons
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