Making sense of everything: inside the design mind

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been traversing my world of design teaching and research, using my Bullet journal to help me organise production of slide decks, drafts of a book chapter, initial ideas for a book, planning learning sessions, reviewing other people’s PhD projects, designing imaginative new interactive content and keeping a grip on the administrative tasks that university researcher-lecturers confront every hour.

Elise Van Den Hoden’s articulation of everyday life in the closing stages of Episode 33 of the Avid Research podcast series is not far off what it really feels like to work in academia. From the outside (and to a non-academic) it may look like a work-life world of regularity (timetables, schedules, assessments) punctuated by periods of grant-writing, research planning and learning content production. From the inside, the lived reality is quite different.

Ideas, demands, responsibilities, thinking, drawing, writing, clicking, reading take place in a warped space-time, where the consequences of doing or not doing one task on any particular day can shape a week or month ahead or where ideas picked up in one (say teaching) context shape concepts being developed in researching and writing. For example, I’m working on an idea for a book exploring design paradigms on the back of an explosion in the complex field(s) of design which has seen emergent forms of design (critical, social, policy, systemic) come into the public consciousness. In parallel, I’ve been writing and delivering a learning programme – GRD5012 Design Paradigms – in which my Postgrads have been exploring the vast universe of design since the year dot 1.

In tandem with my other postgrad teaching, I’ve been supervising Masters by project and PhD students, each of whom (I’m proud to say) are developing enlightening projects which I am sure will make meaningful contributions to (for example) health, climate, inter-cultural futures. Yesterday I co-led a workshop for/with research colleagues on our collective response to the climate emergency which relied on my experience in pedagogy and consultancy to frame and facilitate a generative and collegiate session using visual methods.

With both my students and colleagues I find myself demonstrating the very attributes of designerly thinking that designers and design researchers have advocated for decades (ad nauseum): divergent and convergent thinking; thinking holistically and diving into the details; building conceptual and artefactual prototypes; thinking systemically; amplifying messages or ideas; and asking questions.

How can I do this? Or how can I continue to do this? How am I able to read – in one week – James Lovelock’s Novacene, Wes Sharrock and Rupert Read’s Kuhn: Philosopher of Scientific Revolution, and Nachiro Matsumura’s Shi-ka-ke: the Japanese Art of Shaping Behaviour Through Design (and many other texts it must be said) and then jump to a concern about how my drawing of a concept (Earth, Solar Energy, the Commons) may or may not encourage a non-artist to try using visual methods to express their research ideas?

As an academic in design I’m often asked to see if I can ‘facilitate’ a generative session with [insert stakeholder group here]. But I don’t just facilitate. I design. I design learning. I design experiences. And I read. I deep-dive into theory. I read about designing regenerative cultures (Daniel Christian Wahl) and James Meek’s excellent account of wind turbine production in the London Review of Books, and swing from Gaia theory to Taylorism, Noongar culture to Tim Parks’ fictional account of life in an Italian university. I confess I have an insatiable hunger for knowledge and a broad and varied reading list every day and week (the LRB has become a staple ‘leisure’ read; design theory, history and criticism my go-to midweek textbooks; journals galore on specific topics related to my teaching and research in a given week; The Guardian, Meanjin and Griffith Review (for an Australian perspective) to take me out of my design bubble. Throw in the new texts that come to light (or may be helpful for future postgrad units) and pretty much all the major publishers get a look in!

Occasionally, this volume of reading, thinking, writing, designing, talking and listening (I forgot the excellent podcasts I listen to including Jarrett Fuller’s excellent Scratching the Surface and Cory Doctorow’s Craphound) surely raises the questions why? and how? Surely this shows a chaotic and distracted mind? ( I really have left off a whole list of podcasts, magazines coming from the Stack magazine service and new printed and ebook texts I’ve acquired the last few months). Well, yes – and no.

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to meet Alan Wilson who was then – I think – Chair of the Arts & Humanities Research Council in the UK. He authored a book called Knowledge Power: Interdisciplinary Education for a Complex World which outlines a framework for university education that acknowledges that a fundamental understanding of principles across disciplines in science, technology and the humanities will prepare us better for the future. So too, Ronald Barnett’s Realizing the University in an age of supercomplexity has shaped my interest in making sense of a chaotic world. Barnett taught me a couple of times when I studied briefly at UCL for my Postgrad Cert in Higher & Professional Education (PGCE).

Like other authors who have inspired me on a lifelong journey of learning and designing (Richard Buckminster-Fuller, Stewart Brand, Bruno Latour amongst many others), Wilson and Barnett’s interest in human knowledge and planetary futures remind us that the university of the 21st century is still – despite our overwhelming immersion into the liquid world of social media, misinformation and prejudice – the place to develop new ideas, critique the past and present, and shape better futures. Add in the generative capability of design – the ability to make sense both for ourselves and others – and you begin to get a better sense of the everyday life of a designer-academic.

‘Things’ still get designed. But with a lot more thought than ever before. Sketching ideas and making connections on paper still takes place as a form of practice. As does curating the human universe of ideas for peers and students. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.


1 Defining the year ‘dot’ – the beginning of the ‘design’ – is itself thwart with practical and philosophical problems. It is also the wrong question. Our challenge isn’t to ask ‘when’ but ‘how’ and ‘why’?

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