Christian Duell On Harnessing Design Thinking To Tackle Complex Problems

Christian Duell (photo credit:  Abi Varney )

Christian Duell (photo credit: Abi Varney)

Christian Duell is a design strategist, social entrepreneur and part-time musician. He is the founder of design consultancy White Light and the Be Awesome social initiative and is the past Manager of the Asia Pacific Design Library. 

As the Manager of the Asia Pacific Design Library at the State Library of Queensland, Christian explored opportunities to connect and engage industry, academia and the public in the generation of new ideas and content centred on design in the Asia Pacific. In 2012, through the State Library of Queensland, Christian lead the launch of ‘Design Minds’, a unique online platform that promotes the role of design thinking in 21st century learning. 

Christian is passionate about the opportunities that arise through travel, collaboration, chance encounters and new relationships formed across a range of creative fields. He continues to explore these opportunities through education, design, art, research and music.


Christian discusses the shift in his career from architect to design thinker creating positive social impact. He shares insights into the co design process & impact measurement as well as talking through learnings from the creation of the Be Awesome Festival.


Highlights from the interview (find full details on the podcast)

[Tom Allen] - Christian, could you please share a bit about your background and what led you into design and social entrepreneurship? [1:44]

[Christian Duell] - It started for me in my university degree as an Architect. I call this part the linear part. I was on a linear pathway where I left high school, went to university, finished and practiced for 2 years. I found myself working for the world's biggest design firm as an architect. There was one particular moment which took me off that linear pathway of being a traditional designer and that was a work Christmas party. We all lifted up and had a big night and then came back to the office and overnight 30% of our office was made redundant. That was a trigger for me because I'd seen people I had grown to think of as my family and suddenly they became a number in a spreadsheet that had to be done away with. I realised the company I was working for wasn't my family and when it came down to it, profit was the number one driver of their success. That's an important moment for me because it has informed my drive toward working on social impact. Instead of quitting, I was convinced to take a leave of absence. I planned a six month sabbatical and was going to travel around Scandinavia but a volcano erupted in Japan and screwed up my travel plans. I ended up travelling around Egypt, then Madrid and stumbled on the Media Lab Prado. They were offering a residency and I ended up working with a team with a range of different creative backgrounds. 

[Christian talks about the work with a local community group in Madrid]. It was transformational because I found myself using the creative process I had learnt as an architect and here I was applying them in a different context to help a community group solve a social problem. [Christian explains further]. So I made a commitment to pursue the things that excite me and explore my curiosity of using creativity. That lead me to managing the Asia Pacific Design Library, then time in Iceland and now in Melbourne doing social impact work and juggling my time to organise the Be Awesome Festival.

The Be Awesome Festival (photo credit: Romy Willing)

The Be Awesome Festival (photo credit: Romy Willing)

It’s an exciting time for you at the moment as you are in the lead up to delivering the Be Awesome Festival. Could you please share with the listeners what Be Awesome is about and what it’s key goals are? [8:38]

Be Awesome started as a blog. I had some pretty crazy experiences [he explains further], so I created a blog to share some of the lessons I learnt through those life experiences. I found I was sharing those blogposts through social media and gradually a little community grew. There was some drive to turn it into something. We started some initiatives kind of like positive activism. [Christian explains further].

Around 2014, I visualised a giant, pimped out school bus pulling onto an oval, robotically unpacking like a transformer into a giant mega structure. I imagined the school kids looking out from their boring maths classroom and suddenly being told, 'this is the Be Awesome Festival and you're going to spend the rest of your day in this structure.' I saw all the things inside that structure that light me up. [Christian explains the details].

It felt too big and I didn't know where to start so I put it off for a while. Eventually I was challenged to create the Be Awesome Festival pilot. [Christian explains the pilot festival details.] It just went off and it succeeded. Now this is the next scale and iteration of that model, bringing it to a new city (Melbourne), learning from the first pilot and hopefully being able to scale it up from here. 

[Christian discusses the new crowdfunding campaign for Be Awesome and why they have chosen to use crowdfunding instead of a government grant to make this initiative happen].

Melbourne's a good place to be running the second iteration of Be Awesome because there's a great scene down there. Is that why you moved down there? [13:44]

[Christian discusses how he met his partner, their travels and returning to Brisbane with itchy feet. They were eager for a new place to live but didn't want to start from scratch so they moved to Melbourne. He talks about how it feels welcoming and supportive in Melbourne.]

Melbourne’s known for its strong social enterprise scene - how are you involved in that and what initiatives are happening in the city that you find particularly inspiring? [15:13]

It's a great time to be in this space because it feels like there's a revolution taking place in social, purpose driven organisations.

[Christian talks about the Purpose Conference and how it's just one of a few events putting a container around that movement].

I really see it like Melbourne is globally one of the forerunner's in this movement. That business for social impact is going to become the norm. Our society is demanding it.

[Christian explains further about how he's spent time building up his own practice and how he has been involved in events in Melbourne. He also discusses initiatives such as Streat, Kinfolk and Donkey Wheel House.] 

Profit for purpose is possible. There is living breathing examples of that. There is almost no excuse. We've got the benchmarks and templates to follow these living examples.

In your work as a design strategist and from the projects you’ve worked on, what are some of the challenges you typically experience and how do you work around them? [18:00]

[Christian talks about the consulting work he has been doing with White Light and how it's very much a 'yin yang' situation with the work he's doing with Be Awesome. His consulting work is working to tackle wicked problems. He talks about his clients and how much of the work is around alcohol and drug abuse and homelessness. He talks about his collaboration with Peer Academy and how words like 'design thinking and human centred design are buzzwords.]

We're talking a lot about co design at the moment. The way I see it, is it is applying human centred design in collaboration with the people who are most impacted by the problem that you are trying to solve.

[Christian explains his projects further and how the design thinking process unfolded. He believes it's quite revolutionary because so often the government tells the community what they're creating and that was design for, with and by the people most impacted by a problem.]

The Be Awesome Festival (photo credit: Kristina Sechenova)

The Be Awesome Festival (photo credit: Kristina Sechenova)

With impact sometimes being a difficult thing to measure, are there any particular methods or tools that you use to measure social impact? [22:09]

It's one of those things that isn't being done well.

[Christian discusses how it was difficult for him to do with previous work but how he has used Community Indicators Victoria as a way to benchmark and measure impact. He talks about qualitative and quantitative insights and how they applied those insights to an indigenous issue to measure outcomes.]

Dee Brooks said, "when it comes to impact measurement, one simple way to look at it is asking the question, 'is anyone better off?'"

I found that really helpful because we can also overcomplicate this sometimes.

How have you seen the design industry transform over the years and where do you see design, social enterprise and social innovation heading into the future? [26:30]

When I think about the design industry and social innovation. I think of those things quite differently at the moment. I'm quite removed from the traditional design community. I've seen particular design disciplines pick up the design thinking and social change stuff more comfortably than others. This was particularly when I was managing the APDL. I had a lot to do with the broad design community.

Industrial designers and graphic designers are picking up the principles of design thinking and using them for social change much more naturally than some of the other, more traditional design disciplines.

I felt this came more naturally for them because they are used to applying the process and principles more broadly to different challenges.

[Christian talks about the architecture community further.]

I've in the past given a lecture to first year design students about just how valuable a design education is and I believe we are all inherently designers in some way. These tools and this process is something that we can all use to drive change in our lives and the lives of others. I'm feeling optimistic about it. I feel that the millennials, that this kind of movement toward positive impact is in their blood. I think there's a lot of hope for the movement.

I feel that social impact is going to become an inevitable part of the way we measure the success of our organisations in the future.

What advice would you give to current students in a traditional design education who are interested in looking more into this space? What advice would you give them to move and shift towards the social impact space? [29:53]

I would encourage them to know themselves really well. Learn to know themselves really well. I also see a flipside to this movement which is the celebrity social entrepreneur - the guru, the founder, the one person at the front of an organisation who is celebrated. I don't support that. In the work I do with Be Awesome, very quickly it became something that was shared by many people and I was just one of those people. 

[Christian discusses this further.]

It's a new dilemma for the next generation because I grew up with a message that I needed to get a secure job so that I could have a secure future. That security doesn't exist anymore but there's this whole other pressure that you have to change the world. Know yourself and find ways that you can be in service to others that don't require you to be a hero. Work to your strengths and be patient.

Could you please recommend 3 great books that you think would inspire our listeners? [32:17]

[Christian talks about the books listed below in detail and how they were quite transformational for him. He also discusses how they have been inspirational for his projects.]


The message with Be Awesome is that we're trying to empower the next generation to realise that in every moment, even though we may not be able to control the circumstances of the situation, we can control the meaning that we ascribe to the situation.

We do that through self awareness.


You can contact Christian on Linkedin or Twitter. Please feel free to leave comments below.