Looking back on five years of design school

As designers, part of our mindset or outlook on life is to find and solve problems, be it everyday problems or larger, more complex wicked problems.

So it only seems natural for us to pick holes in our education, analyse and scrutinise various projects and coursework we completed. This can lead to a few outcomes, the first being that one is disappointed with their design education, the second, one being satisfied and the third, recognising the pros and cons of their tertiary education and balancing them.

My journey through design school was slightly different to others, beginning Industrial Design at QUT before moving overseas to London and studying at Central Saint Martins after my first semester. The opportunity arose to study in their foundation year, a combination of many different design and art disciplines with many talented and hardworking students, and I jumped at it. Saint Martins opened my eyes (and mind) up to what design could be, and I was slightly overwhelmed at the start, but towards the end I fell in love with the college and the city of London. It opened up the possibility for me that design could be more than just function, that objects could and do contribute to a space’s and person’s emotional makeup.

While it was incredibly satisfying to study design in London, I felt a yearning to come and live back in Australia. The landscape has an intractable pull; its open spaces, the light, ocean, the abundance of flora and fauna, and so I continued my studies of Industrial Design at QUT.

“…the focus of the project shifted from making the design as good as possible…”

Looking in from the outside, QUT had both strengths and flaws in its program. I felt the method of making a design project using a seven-point system and the structure of the deliverables meant the focus of the project shifted from making the design as good as possible, but rather towards achieving a certain grade, regardless of the design outcome. Being an academic institution this made sense, but it missed a lot of potential for the students to create ‘good’ projects. As such, I strove to create on each project something that I believed in and was my interpretation of the brief.

Each project I took as an opportunity to test various ‘theories’ for objects I had discovered while reading literature. Morrison’s ‘Supernormal’, the divergence of art and design, the role an object should play in one’s life and other concepts guided my projects. While still fulfilling the project briefs I also used them to explore various design philosophies, testing them and analysing them before moving onto the next, as a way to find the ‘right’ path.

All through my design education years I had a strong passion for making. Not ‘being a maker’, but allowing my hands to inform my design process and the final outcome. I felt this was a ‘usable’ method to allow the object to have the ‘human touch’, something I felt was incredibly important throughout my studies and something I still feel is vital to a ‘successful’ and well-designed object today.

I began participating in a student design collective called The Dub in my second year, after becoming more interested in design literature and wanting to work on projects that were realised. I was editor of D/zine, a biannual student-led design publication, for three issues, which has been received positively among the design community. It was a fantastic way to collaborate with many different disciplines in a way that usual coursework doesn’t allow and we produced some really interesting work as a result of it.

“…my university education also offered opportunities other design schools could seldom experience.”

A lot of my peers were disappointed with elements of their education and sought other means to develop their skills such as Auxiliary which allow students to work on industry sponsored projects in ‘real’ conditions. Many projects in the Bachelor degree at Saint Martins were industry sponsored as well, providing successful collaborations between industry and future employers.

However, my university education also offered opportunities other design schools could seldom experience. I studied Entrepreneurship as my second minor, as well as a host of other subjects such as Geography, Policy and a project at GOMA. This mix of business subjects with a design degree gave me an understanding of the world of business and industry, which I know students from other universities long for. I was surprised by the almost identical links between some Entrepreneurship subjects and Industrial Design and I feel there is much to be explored at the tertiary level in this area.

That being said, the degree, industry and world have all changed enormously since I started in 2012, particularly in the realm of technology. Our first year was entirely analogue, with the use of computer programs forbidden, whereas students now complete their entire projects digitally. It’s amazing how quickly things have progressed in the space of five years and it will be interesting how the new generation of designers approach issues.

I’ve been an artist since I was a kid; painting, drawing, sculpting with clay. Towards my late teens I became interested in carving and sculpture more seriously. Unlike design, art isn’t restricted by function and can explore other meanings and values. Alongside my Industrial Degree, which was also a study into the man-made environment of objects and products, I continued to develop my art practice and exhibit around the country.

I was incredibly fortunate this year to show at Swell Sculpture Festival at Currumbin. This public, outdoor exhibition was challenging in terms of a site-specific work, being weather proof and working on a larger scale than I had previously. I also won a competition put out to QCA and QUT art and design students to create a site specific artwork for a carpark façade, which will be built and unveiled next year. Artisan Queensland also invited me to have a solo show in their Ivory Street Window in September and it was amazing working with their staff to bring the exhibition to life.

I can’t ignore the influence of my art on my design work. I’ve tested and analysed if products should be devoid of any ‘sculptural’ influence or whether they should throughout my design projects and I debated on the validity of both arguments. I believe objects should incorporate an element of poetry or sculptural construction because of its potential to connect to the user on an emotional and spiritual level. It brings the object alive and embeds it with a particular ‘human touch’. This shouldn’t be all the object has going for it though, and many bad examples of this exists, but rather it should be balanced with form, function and materiality. I’m not talking about a Post-Modernist/Memphis attitude towards design, but rather a softer path like the work of the Bouroullec brothers, or Louise Olsen and Stephen Ormandy. I hugely admire Isamu Noguchi but at the same time I respect Prouve’s work, and there is a similar link between them in producing work with a certain lightness and purity.

Design is like cooking, you need to combine many ingredients in the right ratio to create the desired outcome, and the more you learn, the more complex the recipe becomes. I wish to build on my knowledge gained during design school and create objects which can have a positive impact on this world, finding solutions to issues like global warming, waste and obsolescence in objects.

Photo credit:
Cover image: Final project by Tom Emmett
Photo credit: Mundanity continued by Tom Emmett

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