Towards a Wider Understanding of Design

essay / Michelle Wang

Commonly understood, design is problem solving. Typically, designers are given a problem in the form of a brief and asked to come up with a solution through design—but what if designers could be more than just problem solvers? What if designers could find problems instead of solutions? 

One problem the design sector faces is the problem of diversity. Why is the 50/50 gender split at university is not reflected among practising designers? This is not a problem that is unique to design, but it is a problem that is obscured by the lack of readily available statistics on the design sector in Aotearoa New Zealand. So when the jury for the Best Awards was announced mid-2018, designer, typographer and artist Catherine Griffiths used the numbers and names of past winners of the Designers Institute of New Zealand’s supreme award, the Black Pin, and the 2018 jury make-up to create three posters to visualise the lack of gender equality of design in Aotearoa.[1] Of the 43 Black Pins that were awarded in the past 20 years, 40 were men and only 3 were women. Of the 61 judges, 46 were men and 15 were women. Griffiths shared these posters on social media and the response revealed frustration and anger from the community over the disparity. This led her to set up a website Designers Speak (Up) as a platform to give designers in Aotearoa a voice and the Directory of Women Designers as an index of designers who identify as women soon after.

Earlier this year, an open call was extended to members of the Directory to design a poster that addresses any social, cultural, or political issue of their choice. The submitted posters form the project and exhibition Present Tense : Wāhine Toi Aotearoa, which set off on it’s hīkoi from Ramp Gallery in Kirikiriroa to other spaces and galleries around Aotearoa, as well as online and on social media. Limited to the colours hexadecimal red #ff3333 and white, the posters respond to contemporary issues such as mental health, sexual harassment, and period poverty, as well as responses to March 15 shootings and Ihumātao. By empowering its designers to find problems in society at large without any obligation to provide answers, Present Tense helps to build an expanded understanding of what design can be.

The potential for design to be more than just problem solving is not a new idea at the Ilam School of Fine Arts. In 2014, a group of Ilam graphic design students worked out of The Physics Room Contemporary Art Space for a whole academic term. Organised by Luke Wood and Brad Haylock, lecturers in design from Ilam and RMIT University respectively, (Graphic) Design School School, was an attempt to “jointly problematize what we do at ‘design school’”.[2] Students were asked to study examples of design pedagogy around the world and formulate a curriculum to follow for the rest of the term. Serendipitously, part of the (Graphic) Design School School programme was a trip to Cass with students and practitioners, which Griffiths also participated in. Several alumni like Ella Sutherland, Katie Kerr, and Matthew Galloway champion a research-based practice and often exhibit work in spaces that typically show contemporary art. According to Wood, many of their best students are unemployable.[3] Not because they lack the skills to work as designers but for students who are used to driving their own socially conscious projects, the commercial production work that they often end up doing straight out of university is deeply unsatisfying.

This unconventional graphic design pedagogy is perhaps because at Ilam, graphic design is taught as part of a fine art degree. A century has passed since the Bauhaus was founded in 1919 as combined fine art and applied arts school but today design and fine art are usually entirely separate degrees. This segregation of the art and design departments at universities is one of the reasons why art and design are often seen to be oppositional disciplines. What seems to happen when design is taught within an art school is that the focus shifts from problem solving to problematising. By their third year, graphic design students are meant to have an understanding of “practitioner-initiated, speculative and critical practices”[4] and are encouraged to create work and develop a practice that is also speculative and critical. That is, they should challenge assumptions about design, explore issues in society at large, imagine possible futures, and hopefully provoke a response in the audience. 

Critical Design and Speculative Design are two terms that have cropped up in recent design writing, along with terms like Discursive Design, Design Fiction, and Anti-Design to describe unconventional or non-commercial design practices.[5] There is a lack of consensus between writers on how exactly to define each term, but there does seem to be a consensus that design is moving away from an understanding of the discipline as mere problem solving.

Design writer Alice Rawsthorn believes that Critical and Speculative Design, or “design as an attitude” as she puts it, is easier now than it used to be.[6] Digitals tools are allowing a new generation of designers to escape the bounds of commercial design practice. Even just a decade ago, outside of design schools like Ilam, designers had little scope to be critical or speculative. Designers are seen to have the great privilege of working a creative job and be paid for it. However, this perceived employability or commercial viability means that designers are barred from most of the funding pools that artists have access to. The occasional exhibition at other spaces aside, Objectspace remains the only gallery space in Aotearoa dedicated to exhibiting design. Having limited access to funding or gallery spaces used to mean that for designers there were few avenues to develop personal creative work and few places to show it. Today designers can crowdfund projects and create low-cost digital projects. They can also take advantage of digital platforms like Designers Speak (Up) which is unfunded, and dependent on the voluntary effort by Griffiths, a group of contributors, and funds brought to the project by the galleries for physical iterations of Present Tense.

While design in this expanded form is no longer limited to problem solving, the desire to solve problems does not disappear. Each poster in Present Tense can be seen as a solution to the brief set by Griffiths inviting them to use the poster format and design language to address an issue of their choice. So in this sense, the designers in Present Tense are problem solving, but they do more than solve a protest poster design problem. They work critically and speculatively, asking questions of society independently, free from client expectations or market forces. The issues that they attempt to tackle are often at a societal or ecological scale. These issues do not have easy solutions, but designers can play a role in communicating the issues visually and use design as a way of moving towards a solution. 

Despite the potential of digital spaces to hold a wider range of design practices, most design in Aotearoa is still of the problem solving variety. We are far from an expanded understanding of design even from within the design sector, but with a project like Present Tense : Wāhine Toi Aotearoa exhibiting at the Ilam Campus Gallery, it feels like designers are becoming more aware of what design can be and what it can do. What would the world be like if designers could be more than just problem solvers?


Michelle Wang / Assistant Curator, The Physics Room

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[1] The Best Awards are the way the Designers Institute of New Zealand (DINZ) recognise the best design in the country, two Black Pins are awarded annually to individuals for outstanding achievement.

[2] “(Graphic) Design School School”, The Physics Room, accessed September 14, 2019,

[3] “Our Best Students Being Unemployable”, Luke Wood, accessed September 14, 2019,

[4] “Graphic Design 3”, University of Canterbury, accessed September 14, 2019,

[5] Ivica Mitrovic and Oleg Šuran, Speculative – Post-Design Practice or New Utopia? (Zagrab: Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Croatia & Croatian Designers Association, 2016), 6.

[6] Alice Rawsthorn, Design as an Attitude (Zurich: JRP | Ringier, 2018), 8.

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essay / Disappointing the past and failing the future / Emma Ng, October 2019

curatorial text / From Protest to Present / Sophie Davis, October 2019

essay / Towards A Wider Understanding of Design / Michelle Wang, October 2019

essay / Te Marama / The Moon / Elle Loui August, September 2019

interview / Painting the town red / Jeremy Hansen, September 2019

essay / Mauri — an opportunity to connect / Desna Whaanga-Schollum, August 2019

artist text / On being present… / Mere Taylor-Tuiloma, August 2019

essay / Snakes, Ladders and Tables / Chloe Geoghegan, July 2019

curatorial text / No longer the exception / Lucy Wardle, August 2019

essay / Broken record / Lana Lopesi, April 2019

curatorial text / This present future / Wendy Richdale, April 2019

radio / Erin Broughton & Catherine Griffiths / Yujin Shin, August 2019

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return to Present Tense : Wāhine Toi Aotearoa