On being a design student today: COVID’s push-pull with instrumentalism and maturity

Dr Neal Haslem (RMIT University, Communication Design School of Design)
2021 Conference

This paper makes a case that design education is at a crossroads, brought about in large part by the COVID crisis. Through COVID we have found education dragged towards a highly instrumentalist (and reductive) view of the purpose of education (to get a job), the purpose of practice (to do jobs), and what we should be prioritising as educators (to get them all jobs). We stand, exhausted by online teaching, in danger of losing touch with what brought us to teaching: the lively, dynamic interplay with those new to the worlds of design.


Yet we also see students and lecturers displaced productively from their traditional and habituated roles. We see a flattening of hierarchy, a shift in what it means to be a student (or teacher) of design and, through this, new potentials for valuing the non-instrumentalist capacities of practice. Our collective global existential crisis might allow us to be reborn into new conceptions of why we are here. Might we be forced to mature our understanding of what it means to be a design educator, to be a design student, and to practice design?


This short paper reflects on a series of events taking place in tertiary design education during the last two years: impromptu interdisciplinary online studios, global collaborations, and peer student-staff communities, as well as the collapse of traditions and the revealing of canons as myopic and anachronistic. It will reflect upon the concomitant disciplinary and pedagogical knowledge produced through these sudden shifts and conclude with a possibility for a hopeful future of a greatly matured Twenty First Century practice.

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About the author

Dr Neal Haslem is a communication designer, design educator and a practice-led researcher into and through communication design. He has a background in design studios across a wide range of projects and media. He commenced his Masters by Research with RMIT in 2004 and following this his PhD, completed in 2010. He has been a full-time lecturer with RMIT since 2011. From 2014-2018 Neal was Program Manager of the Bachelor program. Since 2018 he has been Associate Dean, Communication Design. Neal’s research lies in the intersection of design practice and the community and the intersubjective action with which design reveals and actualises possible futures. His projects include the design action group PPPPP, Homefullness; an international interdisciplinary project tackling the intractable problems of housing stress and homelessness and Flowers of War; an international collaborative commemorative artwork involving public participation. He has recently started collaborating in the Commoners Press experimental letterpress coop. Neal is a founding member of CDEN (Communication Design Educators Network).