Designing outside the box

Cockatoo Island camping ground. Photo by Cathy Lockhart.

Cockatoo Island camping ground. Photo by Cathy Lockhart.

In summary: 
  • Design Camp is a three-day immersive experience on Cocaktoo Island, and part of the first-year subject Design Thinking
  • The aim of the camp is to take students out of the traditional learning environment and encourage experimental thinking

‘Design thinking’ uses interdisciplinary strategies to solve complex problems. It’s also the name of a first-year subject in the School of Design. The subject’s unique approach to teaching and learning sees students spend three days immersed in design on Cockatoo Island.  

Imagine camping with your classmates in the middle of Sydney Harbour, using design thinking day and night to complete group projects. By the end of the trip you’ll have made new friends, understand the thinking styles needed in design, and have experienced first-hand how important interdisciplinary collaboration is. Welcome to Design Camp.

Course Director for Interdisciplinary Design studies Alexandra Crosby explains, “The idea of the camp is to take students out of the traditional learning environment in order to encourage experimental thinking.”

Alexandra Crosby. Photo by Joanne Saad. Alexandra Crosby. Photo by Joanne Saad.

Crosby coordinates this annual camp along with a handful of tutors and lecturers from the Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building.

Design Camp is essential for young designers who haven’t necessarily identified their area of expertise, Crosby says. “It’s a chance for them to get to know each other and realise that great creative practice isn’t always going to happen when you say it’s going to happen. It might happen later in the day or around the campfire.

“Immersing the students and encouraging them to negotiate that with their peers helps everyone keep an open perspective about design.”

Students are set a number of tasks and design challenges around the idea of mapping space. But this isn’t a lesson in topography or geography; the maps students create respond to the sound, feel, emotion and history of the island.

“From the get-go the camp really challenged us to think in different ways,” says Bachelor of Design in Visual Communication student Elowyn Williams Roldan, who completed Design Thinking in 2013.

“Staying on Cockatoo Island for three days means we were immersed in what we were designing and so naturally able to design better. Reflecting, I realise the best work you create comes from a place of great understanding – the more you understand the place or idea or client you’re designing for, the easier it is.”

Students present their work at Design Camp. Photo by Alexandra Crosby. Students present their work at Design Camp. Photo by Alexandra Crosby.

The theory students need to understand the spatial and historical context of Cockatoo Island is taught through critical thinking exercises in the Design Thinking subject, with Design Camp taking place in the last week of semester.

“Students do a lot of work leading up to the camp,” says Crosby, “So they’re quite prepared to be in these intense interdisciplinary groups of four or five students and get straight into the projects once there.”

Thanks to a Vice-Chancellor’s Learning and Teaching grant and a secondary Learning2014 Festival Grant, Crosby and her colleagues are now developing better resources on the Indigenous history of Cockatoo Island.

“A big part of Design Camp is thinking about temporary intervention in to a space,” explains Crosby. 

“Students need to know about and understand the complex history of the island – and because it’s a heritage site they need to leave it exactly as they found it, which is a good design challenge!”

This concept of temporary intervention is made clear every second year when the Biennale comes to Sydney. The boycott of the 2014 Biennale provided the opportunity to talk about refugees in Australia, the ethics of design and the context of the students’ own presence on the island.

Says Crosby, “These experiences are important so designers come out of a degree in Sydney with specific skill sets and understandings of place.

“As a designer you may need an understanding of geography or anthropology or history, so the island is a really interesting place to introduce those different types of knowledge.

Cockatoo Island at sunset. Photo by Alexandra Crosby. Cockatoo Island at sunset. Photo by Alexandra Crosby.

“We are part of a layered history, so having a sense of local context and local history is essential to design – and harder than it sounds.” 

The practical experience of an immersive camp, combined with the first-hand exploration of these complex theories, means that design students return to the mainland with hard skills they will use again and again.

“Design Camp was a really valuable experience in shaping my design thinking skills,” says Williams Roldan. “Design thinking is what designers are employed for, technical skills are important but really, designers are employed to think differently and visualise those different thoughts.”

Crosby admits that although it’s sometimes hard to see the development of students directly after the camp, the learning objectives have become very clear by their third year.  

“Students say it was a formative experience and that they owe their skills in negotiating and completing projects with confidence to their experience on Cockatoo Island.

“It’s great to see students work together across disciplines on their final projects or in their honours year and to realise they know each other because in their first year at UTS we threw them together at Design Camp. It’s so exciting because that’s what the real world is like – designers will never work with groups of people in the same year or major after university – design is always collaborative.”

Williams Roldan agrees. “For a lot of people it’s the beginning of long friendships. From my experience this support and camaraderie has been formed out of many collective experiences, deadlines, late nights, lectures and things like Design Camp.”

The Design Thinking subject aims to show students that great creative work is rarely an accident. Immersive exercises like Design Camp show young designers how important interdisciplinary collaboration is to achieve that creative breakthrough.

Says Crosby, “I really like the idea that we’re showing them how to think like designers and teaching them to learn wherever they are.”

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