A “Non-Designer” in a Design School

Being a Non-Designer in a Design School

In 2007, I joined QUT’s School of Design as a lecturer/research fellow. What was quite unusual about this appointment, however, is that I do not have any formal qualifications in design. My educational background is in psychology. I hold a BA (Hons) and a PhD in Psychology, as well as a BCom in Marketing Management (for the record, I rarely disclose this qualification to colleagues, fearing that this might make me the key person for any marketing, branding and communication work), all from the University of Otago in New Zealand. In this chapter, I reflect on my experience being a non-designer in a design school and how I have a crafted a unique role for myself, culminating with promotion to Professor of Design Psychology in 2019 (I have essentially created this title to reflect my expertise, inspired by others across the globe). Before I reflect on the origins, advantages and disadvantages of this transdis- ciplinary appointment, and my learnings and misadventures in crossing disciplinary tribal boundaries, I will start with a discussion about the changing role of disciplines and disciplinary knowledge, and why transdisciplinary appointments such as mine may become more common.

The Context – Understanding and Crossing Tribal Boundaries

Becher’s (1989) book was the first to deeply explore discipline-based differences in values, norms, behaviours, ideologies and operating paradigms. Becher introduced the tribes and territories metaphor to explain how knowledge structures of disciplines (academic territories) strongly influence the values and culture of academics, who share a framework for understanding the field’s subject matter and live in disciplinary tribes. As Becher and Trowler (2001) explain, “being a member of a disciplinary community involves a sense of identity and personal commitment, a way of being in the world, a matter of taking on a culture frame” (p. 47).

In expanding on what is and is not considered a discipline, Trowler (2012) recently argued that, while he viewed nursing studies as a discipline, he felt design was too broad a term given the differences in the field of knowledge and disciplinary backgrounds. As a disciplinary field, design is diverse - ranging from fashion and product design to multimedia graphic design, to architecture, landscape and interior design. My own School of Design, for example, consists of seven design disciplines grouped under two broad clusters: spatial design (architecture, landscape architecture and interior architecture) and experiential design (interaction design, fashion design, visual communication and industrial design). Despite sharing a broad commitment to creating and making, each of these unique design disciplines is underpinned by differing intellectual frames, assumptions, processes and methodological approaches.

Rodgers and Bremner (2016) have even suggested that design disciplines have dissolved, arguing that “design today is characterized by fluid, evolving patterns of practice that regularly traverse, transcend and transfigure disciplinary and conceptual boundaries” (p. 22). As many of the complex challenges of the 21st century (climate change, sustainability, health, ageing populations) warrant fresh interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approaches (Land, 2012), situations such as mine - being located outside your academic tribe - may become more mainstream. Thus, this chapter critically reflects on my learnings from this unusual experiment in trans- disciplinary research, teaching and practice.

At the outset, I must acknowledge my privilege; while my path has been windy and unexpected, I am now a full Professor. The most recent statistics in Australia suggest less than a third of PhD graduates will secure an ongoing academic job, and the competition for these roles is intense. For example, in an auto-ethnogra- phy of failure during the academic job search entitled “/ know I’m unlovable,” Herrmann (2012) outlines, in detail, how he lost his confidence after multiple rejections. While Herrmann ultimately landed an ongoing academic position, the most recent Australian statistics suggest approximately half of employed doctorate holders are working in tertiary education and research, with the remainder in business (~23%) and the public sector (~24%; ABS, 2016). Of course, while not all PhD graduates want an academic role, such stories and statistics remind us that we must have open conversations with the higher degree research students we supervise about their expectations, different career paths and strategies that will help them achieve their dreams - and to make them aware that securing an academic job is no easy undertaking.

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