Case study: Designs on a better world

It might be the newest kid on the block at AUT University’s School of Art and Design, but Andrew Withell and Dr Stephen Reay have big aspirations for their product design programme.

Dr Stephen Reay (left) and Andrew Withell of AUT’s School of Art and Design showcase some designs by the first graduates of their product design programme.

It might be the newest kid on the block at AUT University’s School of Art and Design, but Andrew Withell and Dr Stephen Reay have big aspirations for their product design programme.

Now in its fifth year, the programme has had its first group of graduates, and its students are performing well in prestigious local and international design competitions. Among them are postgraduate student Michael Grobelny [see his story in Idealog #33] and undergraduate Nancy Wang, both finalists in the highly regarded American Industrial Design Society Awards.

Contrary to popular belief, product design isn’t merely about creating something highly functional or aesthetically pleasing. In fact, it’s more about the end user than the product.

“Design is a social science,” says Reay. “Understanding the people you’re designing for is crucial. We want our students to develop strong personal values that they work into their design activities. You’re not designing a chair for yourself; you’re designing for a user group, so you must understand who those users are, what drives them and what their needs are. It’s about having empathy for your user.”

The ability to research and develop good insights from that research are fundamental tools for a product designer, he says. “They need to analyse things, seek patterns and draw out insights, which are really just design opportunities.”

Clearly passionate about their field, Withell and Reay hope that enthusiasm will rub off on their students. Both are currently working on their own research—Withell is undertaking a PhD in design methodologies and processes, and Reay is exploring issues around eco-sustainability and the role of design.

These research interests permeate their teaching and link into the very lofty goal they have for product design: to make the world a better place, predominantly through sustainable design.

“It’s about preparing our students for a changing future,” says Withell. “Major social and environmental issues will confront this generation and we want them to be prepared, and see them as real design opportunities. It’s an exciting time to be a designer. We can provide frameworks and discuss theory to help them respond to these emerging issues.

“We can’t teach values but we can ask students to develop their own set of personal values to help them to begin to understand their roles in the world.”

It’s what Withell calls ‘affective’ teaching and learning. “Our job is to open them up, expose them to new ideas, and challenge them to discuss broader social or sustainability issues, which are the trigger points for innovation.”

Reay talks about a human-centred design that has a positive impact on the world. “Why would you not do this?” asks Withell. “All their projects have a deeper sense of values. It’s the difference between design and design thinking. Design is the form, design thinking is how you can apply this thinking to everything—the product, the systems, the service, the design of a business, solving social problems.”

He believes the most successful businesses are those that really engage with design as a design thinking process, and cites local examples such as Icebreaker, Methven, Fisher & Paykel Appliances, Formway Furniture and Air New Zealand.

“These innovative companies put design thinking at all levels and bring enormous value to the New Zealand economy.”

And that’s the role Withell and Reay see local designers playing: adding value to our abundant natural resources and having a positive impact on our economy.

“It’s no good exporting merino wool to Italy so they can make expensive suits,” Withell says. “We need to create the businesses that export the suits. A company like Icebreaker takes the merino wool clip and uses design thinking at all levels of the organisation—from the business strategy to the products, branding and channels to market—to add value to our wool. They’re the type of businesses we want here because they bring a tremendous amount of value back.”

It’s examples like this that Withell presents in his business innovation class, which takes students through the key stages of the innovation process, managing IP, and working out costs, pricing and types of manufacturing.

Withell and Reay have high hopes for their programme and are keen to work closely with the university’s business school. “We want to be New Zealand’s leading design educators,” says Withell. “We have a strong vision and we want our students to have a positive impact on the world and believe they can all feel like they’re making a positive contribution.”

Through the product design department’s industry partnerships, students learn about the key role design can play in business. They’re given opportunities to engage with companies such as Zespri, Fisher & Paykel Healthcare, Medicine Mondiale and Trade Aid, receiving mentoring and working on real live projects. Three final-year product design students recently spent a semester working with F&P Healthcare, impressing the company with their concepts and prototypes for a redesigned hospital humidifier.

“We encourage our students to be entrepreneurial,” says Reay. “We want them to be capable and motivated so that when they leave university, they’re in a position to add value, be it financially or otherwise, to any organisation or community they choose to work in or interact with.”

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