Prof. Margaret Maile Petty On Impact In Design Education


For the last decade Margaret Petty has focused on innovation in design education and research. this experience has deepened her passion and commitment to promoting design as a means to positive social impact and change.

Recognising the challenges we face as design educators have never been greater or more complex, Margaret believes the potential of our disciplines to address these issues is equally impressive. She argues we need to prepare designers to speak many languages, to be able to work with engineers, scientists, artists, local and distant communities, to think like entrepreneurs, and to explore new technologies and tools while maintaining a design-led approach. Reimagining design in this way is her prime pursuit as an academic leader, researcher, writer, and member of the greater design community.


Margaret discusses the changing nature of design education, how it may be used to address community challenges, creating positive social impact and fostering a culture of collaboration.


HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE INTERVIEW (For full details, listen to the podcast)

[Tom Allen] - Margaret could you please share a bit about your background in design and academia? [2:05] 

[Margaret Petty] - I started out as a university student who was studying Art History and then I became interested in design because I liked the impact that it had - real world effect, which you could see and measure. I did my Masters and PhD.

What is it that drives you to work in academia? [2:45]

I was a bit self indulgent and did what was interesting to me and what I found excitement in, and that increasingly became design. As a design historian, I have a particular perspective which allows me to look across disciplines and see how design operates across the world, social, culturally, economically and I find that endlessly fascinating and incredibly important. For me it's been a continual process of seeing how I can contribute to that and luckily for me I have been given a number of opportunities, not only to teach and research in the university sector, but also to have leadership positions where I take great pride and pleasure at being able to support students find their paths, to help shape curriculum and research programs that have a bigger social and environmental impact.

With your vast experience across different continents, how have you seen the tertiary education sector shift and where do you see it heading? [4:23]

I started out at Parsons and Pratt. It's an interesting place to be because there are hubs for lots of professional designers who are working in disciplines who dip in and out and teach units but it's not a sustained community. That was really rich. Constantly I'd be exposed to new ideas, new drivers in industry, international students. Very rich, but kind of chaotic. I think it's quite unique to that market - New York and private design schools rather than government funded universities.

A workshop on the future of design education that Margaret co-chaired and developed in NZ (Helix).

A workshop on the future of design education that Margaret co-chaired and developed in NZ (Helix).

Moving to Victoria University of Wellington was the first time I'd be run into the machine that is big tertiary institutions. That was a huge change. Fairly quickly I was able to identify the different avenues and channels to get things done. The great thing about bigger universities is you have a tremendous resource in terms of support. While I'm not a big fan of bureaucracy I think it serves a purpose.

When I started at Victoria University that's when I had a much bigger role. What I was interested in then was the changing nature of technology coming into design and how that was changing traditional practices but bringing them forward. So looking at a way that they could be integrated without losing traditional skills. There were some significant shifts that happened then. Talking about technologies, they began to breakdown some of the disciplinary boundaries.

How do we understand what we're doing not in terms of disciplinary orientation but in terms of social challenge or technological innovation or opportunity that doesn't exist in these spaces.

That's something that as educators and designers that we need to respond to. To figure out how we prepare young designers for this rapidly changing environment. The trick is making change in a large top down organisation that changes quite slowly. [Margaret explains this challenge in further detail]. 

I was just overseas in London and Hong Kong and at the Cumulus Conference and it was either transdisciplinary design, multidisciplinary design, participatory design - these new approaches that many people are trying to figure out how to privilege rather than the traditional approaches. That's the biggest transformation because it's fundamentally changing the way that we have to approach design education. How do we get people to work across disciplines, in teams to be entrepreneurial... [Margaret explains further].

We’ve seen an increase in awareness about social entrepreneurship and ‘change by design’ in recent years so what do you believe tertiary educators can be doing in order to best prepare their students as changemakers and social innovators? [11:17]

To recognise the impact of design means we need to be able to look holistically (kind of systems thinking) and understand where opportunities lie for something that's not just going to be a better product or sexier piece of technology but something that might transform communities, might contribute to new practices or habits that will reduce our impact on the planet.

During the Configuring Light Workshop in Brisbane.

During the Configuring Light Workshop in Brisbane.

Margaret at the MIT Global Entrepreneurial Bootcamp in 2016.

Margaret at the MIT Global Entrepreneurial Bootcamp in 2016.

Previous question continued...

By and large this generation is one that understands the precarious position of human existence on the planet and isn't necessarily chasing money in a way that maybe previous generations might have.

The challenge is how do we prepare, enable, facilitate that kind of ethical approach to design in a way that can be translated and realised?

[Margaret explains in further detail.]

How does someone take that desire and skillset and create some kind of impact? I think that's where entrepreneurship comes in. The ability for an individual or team to say, 'I've identified a real problem, I understand it and I'm going to work through a design process to bring something forward.' And that's just another way to describe entrepreneurship. What we really need to do is put that as a core skill-set within design education... If you can't turn enough profit to support the development of that idea it's not going to go anywhere. That's the hard reality. Understanding the business side of it is really important. 

I think it is absolutely a fundamental 21st century capability because we know and many reports will say that this is a terrain that is going to continue to change and the rate of change is exponential. So the best translator skill-set is that enterprise/entrepreneurial mindset because that's something that is always questioning and provoking and looking at it from the end user point of view. [Margaret explains further.]

As a senior manager, leader and educator in a tertiary institution, what do you believe are some of the key ingredients necessary to foster a healthy culture of collaboration and innovation? [17:24]

I've found you have to be open to hear other people's perspectives, to be able to empathise with others, to listen and find opportunities where there's enough common ground that you can start something that's a real collaboration. I think top down collaborations don't work very well...[further detail in podcast]... the best collaborations come from people who start talking. I'm a big believer in proximity. It's really about creating a network within the community and knowing who is doing what and where and who those natural collaborators are instead of (a top down approach) - because then you don't really get anywhere [Margaret explains further.]

Last year QUT hosted the Qld Design Policy Summit. You have experience in pulling together different stakeholders from academia and industry. What are some of the challenges around pulling together different people to make such events happen? [20:10]

Pulling people together is easy... The hard part and the real challenge is how do you do something with that. How do you create real opportunities and collaborations post a conversation like that? [Margaret talks further about this challenge and her experience to date with this.]

A visual diary of the 2016 Queensland Design Policy Summit.

A visual diary of the 2016 Queensland Design Policy Summit.

You recently hosted the Social Lightscapes workshops in Brisbane with some colleagues from the UK - could you please share what these workshops were about and what were they aiming to achieve? [23:50]

This starts to get into my own research area... [Margaret explains further].

How can light respond to pressures in a community? How does is communicate values? How does it tell us about our own social relations and if we think about that how can we potentially change social relations, inequality? They've been working particularly on inequalities in light and social housing... [Margaret explains in detail some of the research from London and also about the suburb of West End in Brisbane and how the workshops unfolded in this community to see how different lighting strategies could potentially address community challenges, as well as some of the research findings.]

Have you come across any inspiring projects or initiatives recently which are creating positive social change? [28:50]

[Margaret mentions initiatives such as The Indigenous Startup Weekend, Enactus and issues such as homelessness.]

Are there any particular universities internationally that you believe are leading the way when it comes to delivering on strong social impact initiatives? [30:57]

I think if you look at Brown University and CMU, MIT, Harvard, King's College, London College of Communication (initiatives such as Mass Challenge). [Margaret explains some initiatives further].

I think there's lots of good models and wonderful programs around the world but I think we have to figure out what's right for Queensland and what our issues and challenges are and keep supporting, fostering and facilitating that. It's not a race, what's important is that we enable those that have a desire to make a positive contribution to society.

Are there any great design or social impact books that you could recommend to our listeners? [33:11]

[Margaret talks about an importance of a desire for learning as well as a broad list of literature with some resources mentioned below].