Read: Engaging with the public; the pointy end of design as a mediated practice

Date: April 20, 2015

Author: Paul Gough

'Where are the beacons of engagement for Australian design?' Photography by Harry Gough, March 2015

‘Where are the beacons of engagement for Australian design?’
Photography by Harry Gough, March 2015

CUSP is a thoughtful exhibition. It explores the many ways we might start to appreciate design and design thinking. It also invites us to consider how best to engage with and approach design as an interactive process that can transform lives and impact people’s futures. It is also a terrific title for a discipline that is so essential to Australian cultural identity. ‘Cusp’ suggests the point where two branches of a curve meet, but also a point that marks the beginning of a change.

It also raises some serious challenges about the way we perceive, present and patronise design in its many shapes and guises.

Reflecting on the exhibition, there seems to me to be three overlapping challenges: how do we best present design as a visual, spatial and haptic spectacle? How do we – as designers, educators, and practitioners – engage the wider community in appreciating design? How do we evaluate Australian design on the global stage: what are the indicators of access and excellence that mark us apart from others? I addressed some of these concerns in my opening speech at the Mornington Regional Gallery, and I will embellish them a little here.[1]

Showcase first. Where are the most outstanding national showcases for the best quality design in any country? Who sets the gold standard? Over the past fifteen years, universities and design institutes have taken part (sometimes enthusiastically, sometimes less so) in national evaluation schemes that have assessed the quality of research output art and design, media and crafts produced by academic-practitioners. Personally, I have sat on or chaired peer review panels in the UK, in central Europe, in New Zealand, and in Australia. Last year I chaired an expert panel for the University Grants Commission Council’s ‘Research Assessment Exercise’ in Hong Kong, a thorough and complicated exercise drawing in creatives, performers, and designers from all disciplines in design, arts, performance, and music.[2]

At its best, the design outputs that we evaluated were of global quality. They had played a key part in establishing international standards, they had influenced real world issues, helped effect behavioural change, invented new processes and materials, and added considerably to academic discourses about methods and rigour embedded in design research. Designers were not afraid of testing their hypotheses in real-world settings, of putting their designs through the full production pipeline from origination to prototyping, through proof-of-concept and on to full market testing and production. However, not all design fared so well, some of it was left untested, untried, mere academic exercises that had little life beyond the page. At its most unimaginative, the designs were placid, flaccid and plainly disengaged from the world of potential application and use. In short, a lost opportunity to engage with either the workplace or the test-bed.

Furthermore, too much of the design practice I have seen in research evaluations across the world has stayed locked into university departments or limited to design institutes. Much of the best design research is invisible to the public until it appears as (end) product, the broader public seeing and enjoying little of the process of enquiry, investigation, testing and placement. Why is this? Are designers unable to externalise their thinking, to share their processes? Is there a fear that one must not a shine light on the magic?
Perhaps the answer is simpler than that. As a diverse discipline design suffers by comparison with the multi-tiered and varied public infrastructure of the fine arts. Put simply, global design has far too few showcases, too few windows of opportunity to help elaborate [and illuminate] the essential steps in design thinking. Compare the limited visibility of design with the fine or decorative arts. Fine art has a mature public and commercial gallery system, it has a deep history of auction house behaviour and pricing structures, it has the cultural capital for which design still yearns. The apparatus of engagement is striated and strong. Once associated so indelibly with innovation, enterprise and industry, has design been mired by, what Martin Wiener, once identified as ‘the decline of the industrial spirit’?[3] Wiener’s argument suggested that after a mid-19th century high-water mark the British Empire’s spirit of entrepreneurship, competition and technical innovation faltered as traditional cultural forces – aristocratic lifestyle, gentlemanliness, manners, and public service – re-asserted itself over the innovating classes. ‘The economy lost its modernising drive, and the nation sank into decay.’[4]

In short, blue collar pursuits – invention, design, fabrication – were gradually overwhelmed by white collar attributes – professional, managerial, administrative.[5] Manufacturing economy versus a service economy; not doing but processing. A very contemporary challenge that faces Australia today.

I am being deliberately tendentious here, provocative to make a point. There are some outstanding examples of design showcases. Consider the Canadian Centre for Architecture[6] which was founded in Montreal in 1979 as a new form of cultural institution. Its express aim was to build public awareness of the role of architecture in society and to promote scholarly research, and also to stimulate innovation in design practice. Like many ‘Architecture Centres’ it is predicated on the conviction that architecture is a public concern; indeed as a design discipline the architects have rather stolen the global show in terms of creating precincts for public engagement.

In London the ‘Design Museum’ has a strapline that is provocatively avant-garde, determined to be ahead of the curve: ‘Someday the other museums will be showing this stuff’.[7] What it gains by being brazen, it perhaps loses in its commitment to public engagement, in sharing and garnering public benefit.

By comparison, those design galleries that co-exist alongside some of the great design research and teaching institutes across the world prosper by their overt commitment to telling the story of learning, of sharing the alchemy that leads to innovative design. P3 at the University of Westminster in London occupies a 14,000 square foot space developed from the vast former concrete construction hall in a former School of Engineering. Built in the 1960s, its dramatic scale offers extensive opportunities for a range of creative activities involving the public and the academic community from the Schools of Architecture and Built Environment and Media, Arts and Design. As one critic commented: ‘The Venue is extraordinary. Who would have thought that across from Madame Tussaud’s lay the 14,000 sq ft of an underground hangar, once used to test concrete for Spaghetti Junction and the Channel Tunnel?’[8]

Most institutes of higher education, driven by the marketisation of their income sources have had to become much more aware of how they reach out to their stakeholders. As well as attracting students and making their learning processes more apparent and more visible, universities – and design schools – have had to engage more readily and openly with professions and industry. The launch of a national initiative for work-integrated learning (WiL) across Australia in March 2015 is evidence of the heightened sensitivity of the relationship between educational ‘supply’ and industrial ‘demand’.[9]

To this end, globally renowned design schools such as Rhode Island School of Design and Parsons in New York have prioritised the interface between their students, academics, and a public keen to know more about the design process.
Parsons has two state-of-the-art galleries measuring more than 4,000 square feet in central New York, both with Fifth Avenue frontage. The main street-level exhibition and meeting spaces include plasma screens, a rotating wallpaper design, and an innovative student critique area which enables the public to observe the design dialogue that is central to a Parsons education.[10]

Rhode Island is even more emphatic in its commitment to engaging the public, expressly seeking to ‘expand opportunities for students and faculty to engage in art and design as forces for social change through research, service initiatives, projects and programs in the public realm.’[11]

Australia has many equally strong venues that combine educational facilities with public engagement. It might be achieved through the design of signature campus buildings such as the recent Dr Chau Chak Wing building at UTS in Sydney (the architect’s first Australian building), but perhaps the dialogic imperative works more effectively where the scale and the status of the building is offset by what Fleur Watson and Kate Rhodes have termed – on the CUSP website – as ‘conversational design curatorship’.

The programming of the Design Hub at RMIT University in Melbourne is an interesting illustration of creating an accessible resource that wilfully contrives discussion and engagement with a wide range of ‘publics’. Unlike a conventional ‘design museum’ or the signature campus building, the Hub aims to present work that is unfinished, designs that are still evolving, that are in flux between idea and realisation, or to grab that overused – but here appropriate – phrase, to exhibit a ‘work in progress’.

Design Hub is less like the traditional gallery, more like a studio environment with open access to an enquiring public. As Watson and Rhodes suggest ‘it focuses on the practice of designers who share a vision for something beyond the immediacy of individual practice and a desire to highlight the value to be found in design’s exploratory processes.’ It is a radical vision, which stretches the university ‘gallery’ into a new, fluid and indeterminate state, a rather novel ‘experience-as-testing’ site. The risks are apparent. Designers are required to lay bare their processes, to reveal the alchemy of their craft, and to expose work that is often incomplete, possibly still in the agonies of prototyping and exploration, produced by designers and teams still haunted by fear of failure and premature success. Exposed to public scrutiny in this way the interactive process requires a leap of faith not unlike crowd-sourced fiction or the online dialogues that many academics now encourage as a way of testing their work and sourcing new thinking.[12]

So having reflected on design and modes of public engagement, let me conclude by stating that CUSP is a timely show. Part of a new wave of translational storytelling about design it promotes a human-centred approach; it asserts that design can actively enrich the experience of life for individuals, organisations and communities. And it reaches far beyond aesthetics and products. CUSP convinces us that the very processes of human-centred design can be understood as a way of thinking, doing, interacting, and responding that could have the ability to impact the way we behave in and engage with the world in which we live. Unlike Tom Wolfe’s famous maxim about late modernism, galleries and cultural capital – that the public have never really been welcome – new design initiatives in Australia work best through rich dialogue, mediated encounters and the occasional wild conversation.

Image: Photography by Harry Gough, March 2015.


[1] My thanks to Sandra Brown, Gallery Director of the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, the curators, The Mayor, Cr Bev Colomb, Sandra Brown, Touring programs Coordinator, Australian Design Centre and the exhibitors for the invitation to contribute to the opening of this exhibition

[2] For an overview of the Hong Kong evaluation scheme see: http://www.ugc.edu.hk/eng/ugc/rae/rae2014.htm
Impact became the keyword for the recent UK research assessment scheme; an informative view of the ‘impact of impact’ can be read on: http://theconversation.com/the-impact-of-impact-on-the-ref-35636

[3] Martin J, Wiener, English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit 1850-1980 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

[4] See John Baxendale, History Workshop, No. 21 (Spring, 1986), pp. 171-174.

[5] Charles Wright Mills, White Collar: the American Middle Classes (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1956).

[6] http://www.cca.qc.ca/en

[7] https://designmuseum.org/

[8] http://www.p3exhibitions.com/

[9] For a number of links to the Australian initiative in WiL see http://acen.edu.au/

[10] http://www.newschool.edu/parsons/galleries-exhibition-centers/

[11] http://www.risd.edu/academics/public-engagement/
Sectors of public engagement focus include urban/environmental sustainability, wellness/public health and community-based art and design education. The goal is to support faculty, students and alumni in their efforts to connect art and design research and scholarship with the public sphere – locally and globally.

[12] Kate Rhodes and Fleur Watson, RMIT Design Hub: Curating Ideas in Action,  CUSP website, posted 31 October 2014, see: http://128.199.250.80/read-rmit-design-hub-curating-ideas-in-action/

Design Hub is the location for the RMIT practice research symposia held in Melbourne twice each year:
http://www.designhub.rmit.edu.au/exhibitions-programs/practice-research-symposium


Professor Paul Gough RWA is Pro Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President of RMIT University, based in Melbourne, Australia. A painter, broadcaster and writer he has exhibited globally and is represented in the permanent collection of the Imperial War Museum, London, the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa, and the National War Memorial, New Zealand. In addition to roles in national and international higher education, his research into the imagery of war and peace has been presented to audiences throughout the world. In addition to an exhibiting record he has published a monograph on Stanley Spencer: Journey to Burghclere, in 2006; A Terrible Beauty: British Artists in the First World War in 2010, and Your Loving Friend, the edited correspondence between Stanley Spencer and Desmond Chute, in 2011. Books on the street artist Banksy were published in 2012, and on painters John and Paul Nash in 2014.