Design Knowledge doesn’t just come with the completion of a degree. It is an accumulation of information, skills, methods and aesthetics that are acquired in many ways over time. To gain this knowledge a designer must force themselves to move out of their comfort zone and into events and opportunities where they can experience new practices and people.
The Powerhouse Museum hosted Design Knowledge: An Insiders Guide, a talk held during Sydney Design Festival in September, to show just how important it is for young designers to take as many opportunities as they possibly can to gain experience, new skills and a sense of what you might call ‘design context’. In its most simple incarnation this might take the form of international travel or enrolling in a post grad course but might equally be to pursue an internship, exhibit at a design fair or enter a design competition.
For Henry Wilson, one of the four guest speakers who presented their career motivations at the Design Knowledge talk, it was the decision to apply for a Masters Degree at Design Academy Eindhoven. While Wilson found Eindhoven itself an extremely dull town (with a population of just 216,000 it is barely a city), the very fact that he was based in the Netherlands forced him to rethink his approach to design and helped develop his interest in the simple re-interpretation of existing objects and concepts that have become his signature.
“Design Academy Eindhoven offered me an introduction to conceptual design and instilled in me a framework of enquiry that can be applied across any decision making process. Having this conceptual approach has helped me to develop a design ethos which I can apply to projects across any scale and materiality”. Henry Wilson
The three other designers on the Design Knowledge panel also gained valuable experience internationally. In the case of Alex Gilmour and Tom Fereday this was the result of winning internships after entering design competitions – Gilmour with Marc Newson in London by winning the Qantas SOYA award in 2010, while Fereday won an internship with Moooi in Amsterdam after winning the 2014 Space Design Residency.
“A three month residency with Moooi was an incredible experience for me to see another world of design. Learning from their experience and taking mentorship from Casper Vissers allowed me to reflect upon my own design direction and why I do what I do”. Tom Fereday
The fourth speaker on the panel, David Caon, worked overseas for many years – not only for Newson in Paris but prior to this with one of the founders of the Memphis Movement, George Sowden in Milan. These exciting opportunities came about because Caon enrolled in a Masters degree in Automotive Design at Coventry University in the UK, only to discover that it wasn’t the right course for him. After a trip to Milan he discovered what it was like to work within a large design community and to explore a more diversified approach to design.
Milan was a thrilling and the ultimate career forming experience. Putting himself into what was considered to be the centre of world design, enabled him to come in contact with with some of the most exciting young talent of his generation such as Jerzey Seymour and collaborate on a variety of unusual projects. For someone who started out in Mount Osmond, a small suburb in Adelaide, Caon was already a design veteran when he moved back to Australia from Marc Newson’s Paris studio in mid 2007.
What is important is not so much the details of what each of the designers did to inject a more diverse understanding of design into their careers, but the fact that their proactive attitude resulted in new and often unforseen opportunities presenting themselves. Through this they were able to refine their design practice, meet inspiring people and do some exciting, even ground-breaking work.
During my introduction for the Design Knowledge talk I touched upon Fabrica – the communication research arm of the Benetton Group that was founded back in the 80’s and is still going strong. This hybrid school / design studio department of the high street clothing brand is currently headed by designer Sam Baron, photographer Enrico Bossan and social campaigns expert Erik Ravelo. In the past designers such as Jamie Hayon and visual communications director Omar Vulpinari have been members of the Fabrica staff. Being forced to adapt to living in another country and dealing with new communication issues can be a positive experience in itself, training the designer to think in new ways and work harder to communicate ideas more succinctly. Being given the opportunity to work on projects of an international standard, as is done on a regular basis at Fabrica, brings with it some major challenges but also strengthens a young designer’s abilities and opens their eyes to possibilities that are not always available in their home countries.
Of course there are many schools all over the world that offer postgraduate programmes and special hands-on courses for young graduates, Design Academy Eindhoven and Fabrica are just two of the hundreds that exist worldwide. Post-grad courses are certainly not for every young designer and there are many other ways to grow an understanding of design and to further a career.
Entering work in exhibitions and competitions is well-trodden path for most young graduates and a good way to become noticed in a crowded market place. But the experience also offers hidden benefits – the rigor of real world deadlines and learning to accept criticism are just a few of the many lessons to be learnt from participating. Local examples such as the Bombay Sapphire Award, Workshopped, the Australian Furniture Design Award are all worthwhile but there are also a huge number of international exhibitions geared toward young designers such as Salone Satellite in Milan and the Greenhouse in Stockholm along with a huge number of design competitions sponsored by companies like Lexus, Norman Copenhagen and Andreu World.
While there are significant costs attached to all of the methods mentioned above for expanding a designer’s horizon in terms of career opportunities and experience, they can ultimately pay handsome dividends. For RMIT graduate Jarrod Lim, winning an Apex Club Australian Foundation Scholarship allowed him to travel to Milan and to seek out internships with some of the world’s best furniture and lighting design studios. A six month unpaid internship at Patricia Urquiola’s studio led to 9 months of paid work and a wealth of experience that ultimately gave Lim the conviction to exhibit at Salone Satellite a few years later. His designs were well received at Satellite and were included in ‘Once Upon a Chair’ – a book that selected the best in global furniture, lighting and interior object design from 2009. Several pieces were taken up by British lighting company Innermost, while others have been licensed by Italian companies Bonaldo and Sintesi. For Lim the experience of working for one of the most famous furniture designers in the world was a launchpad for his career and now his own furniture brand.
Similar results have come from internship and exhibition experiences for many young Australian designers including Ed Linacre from Copper Industrial Design and Adam Cornish who both went to Milan with the RMIT / Monash / Swinburne design platform, The Melbourne Movement.
“Exhibiting with Melbourne Movement at Milan’s Salone Satellite was an exciting opportunity to show my work on the world stage. The confidence I gained and the connections I made really started an ongoing process of working with some of the best brands in design and eventually lead to my continuing collaboration with Alessi”. Adam Cornish
Young Sydney designers DAAST are just back from being part of the London Design Festival, showing their work at Design Junction. Andrew South Jones and Alexander Kushin felt that although the experience hadn’t been perfect, it was ultimately a good learning experience.
“It was great to go and see the level of work in Europe. The market is completely different in the UK – more open to experimentation and new ideas. Hopefully the Australian market will start changing in the near future to allow more creativity for its local designers.” Alex Kushin, DAAST
For recent design graduates the message is clear that exposure to a variety of design experiences and different ways of working are key. There are such a huge variety of opportunities available both locally and abroad that there really is no excuse not to investigate them. Like a positive version of a Pandora’s box, taking the initial steps to gain a heightened awareness of design can be the start of an incredibly dynamic career. As the Nike slogan says: ‘Just do it’!