Tasman Munro’s global adventures in social design

London ambulance

When you intern with a radical thinker like Gijs Bakker, you would expect to undergo some kind of liberating realisation. This is exactly what happened to Tasman Munro who was the winner of the Design NSW Travelling Scholarship in 2010.

The realisation had to wait, however, as the first stop on Munro’s Scholarship adventure (not counting a 48 hour bicycle adventure in Shanghai) was an internship with the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design (HHCD) at the Royal Collage of Art (RCA) in London. The HHCD is a social design company established to support RCA graduates. Besides offering graduates the opportunity to work with major clients, every project is focused on sustainable, inclusive design. The HHCD had been working on the Ambulance project for six years, in a mission to redesign the entire system of UK mobile healthcare. Munro was lucky enough to be involved in the final three months of the project. He helped out on with design detailing of an overhead patient monitor as well as designing the graphics for the entire full scale prototype. The final design was unveiled at the prestigious London Design Week.

By day Munro was helping on a project to redesign the London Ambulances, and by night he was running a free community arts centre in the inner-city suburb of Hackney, which began after Munro met a passionate collective of artists outside his London office. He joined forces on a large project to transform abandoned shopfronts into spaces which would benefit the community. Over the course of three months he helped to build two galleries, a theatre, a conscious cafe and numerous rehearsal spaces, and ran a huge range of performances, workshops and community events.

In London, learning inclusive design strategies really hit home for Munro. He realised very few people were accommodating users with special needs because they would argue it to be ‘too difficult’ or were ‘a niche market’. “When in actual fact it isn’t a niche market as everyone benefits from improved usability,” he said. “Inclusive design should be the norm.”

With the momentum that had built up over the three months in London, Munro ventured to Berlin to explore the underground arts scene. “If you ever want to put an exhibition on, go to Berlin!” Munro exclaims. “It’s so easy, everyone is incredibly enthusiastic and supportive of the arts, it’s filled with wonderful creative people and arts spaces are fantastic and more than cheap – they pay you!”

Munro arrived in Berlin knowing practically no one and it took only a month to ‘wriggle’ his way into the art scene. “Before I knew it I had 20 local and international artists keen to collaborate,” he said. They collectively hosted a night called ‘Creative Adventures,’ which offered artists from across the globe the opportunity to share and discuss their work.

However, Munro was unaware that despite the excitement of redesigning ambulances, building galleries around London and hosting exhibitions for Berlin’s underground arts community, the climax of the Scholarship was yet to begin – his internship in Amsterdam with his design hero Gijs Bakker.

“I have always been incredibly inspired by Gijs Bakker and his courage to be radical. The world needs more radicals to challenge consumerism, drive culture and generate discussion.”


Inside Gijs Bakker's studio in Amsterdam

According to Munro, Bakker, an internationally collected jeweller and designer (he was one of the founders of the famous Dutch design studio, Droog), is an exceptional conceptual thinker. Bakker has spent decades exploring human behavior and challenging our relationship with design. Munro spent two months at his studio in the hope that his ‘cheeky attitude would rub off’ on him a little.

While under his tutelage, the young designer was told that he was “being too much of a product designer, step back and think more!”. Something Munro admits he and his peers heard at university, but for some reason when it came from Gijs Bakker, he listened.

“With Bakker, I had the liberating realisation that sometimes you don’t need a market for your design,” said Munro. He explained, that design education is often geared toward mass production, as designers we come up with fantastic ideas but are often cut down by self doubt which makes us question ‘is there really a market for this?.’

“When in actual fact we’re allowed to create things outside the market. Design is also a form of expression and sometimes creating one piece for the sake of exploring an idea is enough to generate discussion. It can be mass communication as opposed to mass production,” he said.

Munro describes himself as a sustainable social designer. When asked what that means, he answers: “It means that if I received a brief to design a million useless plastic salad spinners I’d probably turn it down.” The designer believes designers have lost their ability to empathize with users and certain environments, instead becoming obsessed with consumerism and ‘celebrity’ at the environment’s expense. “The up side is, it has forged a place for design within business and society, now it’s time to return design to its original intention and get on with things,” he proclaims with sharp optimism.

Since returning home to Sydney, Munro says he is more passionate than ever about social design. He carries this enthusiasm with him when he tutors at UTS, Sydney and in the near future, he will continue working with Christian Tietz on various environmental health projects, as well as continuing other projects overseas.

“It’s an exciting time for design as minds are opening and people are slowly beginning to care. I’m looking forward to working on a range of projects to nurture this shift.”