Creative Futures at CoCa with Anna Brown
Perspectives is a series that explores what happens when designers tackle projects beyond traditional product development. This interview was undertaken by Camilo and Vince in Wellington, New Zealand, during a trade delegation sponsored by the ACT Government’s Trade Connect during November, 2017. We’d like to thank Petr Adamek, Sharyn Smith and Robert Holgate for making these interviews possible.
The second person we met while in Wellington was Anna Brown, formerly Enterprise Co-ordinator in the Design School at the College of Creative Arts [CoCA] at Massey University and now Director of Partners and Projects and Toi Aria: Design for Public Good at CoCA. CoCA is a Red Dot Award-winning school, and the only one in the Asia-Pacific to have received recognition from NASAD. Shortly after our conversation began, it became clear why. As a designer who works in entrepreneurship education, it was amazing to see how much experience Anna and her team has accumulated over the years. The way they teach creative disciplines to incorporate business thinking into their careers is awesome. She was knowledgeable, approachable and open to sharing some of the lessons they’ve learnt. Whether you are a student, educator or practitioner of a creative discipline, we are sure you will be able to learn something valuable from her experience.
“I arrived as a graphic design teacher, teaching typography and graphic design. I was pulled into a course called Design and Business, a core course which all students took. Initially, that was 250-300 students. In it, you would write a theoretical business model for a project like ‘how do you help a city council to develop a park’, that sort of thing. It was fine, but most students didn’t like it because it was so theoretical, and it had quite low engagement. So because I’d inherited the course I asked if I could change it a little bit. Because I’d had a design business in Wellington, I thought we could find a way to connect with real business problems. So I just went and talked to some people, and in the first year we had five organisations who said ‘here’s a problem we have’. We put those problems in the classroom with the students, and the students had to respond to them. The first iteration had forty teams, so each client had around 6 teams, and at the end of the semester the clients could choose one of the teams to go and work with on developing the solution they had proposed.”
Anna mentions that these live briefs led the students to develop things that had value outside the school, which they really appreciate. There were other learnings for the overall program, though. “We learnt a lot from that first iteration of the course. In particular that it wasn’t as interesting to connect purely with businesses that could already pay designers. There was a sense that there wasn’t much point in getting students to do a whole lot of work for a business if the weren’t going to use it. We learnt to be strategic about the kinds of organisations that we connected with. We preferred NGOs and organisations that had difficult, wicked problems. We ran that course over five years and had organisations that kept coming back. They were our repeat customers”. Anna tells us that one of these repeat customers was New Zealand Post, who was struggling with changes in the way people deal with mail and postage. They were exploring other things to provide to their customers, things like life management, and engaged with Anna’s course and students during the whole five year period.
Although that course still runs and is now called Creative Enterprise, Anna points out that it is no longer the only business-related subject in their four-year program. Every student now has the choice to do either academic, theory-based courses or industry-facing enterprise courses during their second, third and fourth years. They found that students tended to do the enterprise papers, favouring them over those that involve a lot of essay writing. The challenge was then to extend that initial experiment over the course of three years.
“Let me draw you a diagram”, Anna says, pulling out a piece of paper and a pen. “I spent a lot of time working on this!” Below you can see an adapted version of her diagram.
In their second-year students work with other students in teams of five that include graphic designers, industrial designers, fashion designers, fine arts and digital media and are socially engineered to contain different disciplines and genders. Each team combines their skills to work together and create something for one of three “market palaces” (as opposed to “marketplaces”): “The Market of Impossible Things”, “The Market of Immaterial Labours ”, and “The Market of Abandoned Materials ”. They chose this approach because they realised that having early-stage students develop consumer goods didn’t lead to the best outcomes. “Do we actually need another fifty concrete planters? It’s better for students to have to think about ‘how to sell air’. It’s much more conceptual, and it helps with the key learning of working in cross-disciplinary teams”.
The third-year course addresses the live briefs that were mentioned earlier. In the first week, the clients present to the students, and students prioritise which are their first, second and third options. “Because students have the chance to choose their client, the thing that connects them is the desire to work on a particular project. This is a great way to bring them together. We try to focus on client problems that are varied enough to require the diverse skillsets of these teams. That’s the challenge: finding clients who need a fashion designer and a digital media person. This breaks them out of the confines of a particular production technique or software suite. Our curriculum aims to break people out of their self-imposed silos”.
The fourth year is all about helping students take their skills, learnings and projects and think about them in an entrepreneurial way. “The fourth year course is called Creative Futures. In this one, they have to take their idea out to the world. It’s often a major project, such as the one developed by the Strategy Creative team, who is one of our success stories. They are really clever. They identified a need and built a product to solve it, took it to Kickstarter and raised over $70000”, Anna says proudly. In this course, students have already gained the maturity to form their own teams and understand the importance of crossing disciplinary boundaries to achieve good outcomes. “I see students evolve in this course. An example is The MisPrint Co, who was really shy but had a great idea” (You can read a bit about The Misprint Co in our conversation with Priscilla Loong, a graduate of CoCA who is now Activation Manager at the Mahuki Incubator). In the tenth week, they invite external angel investors to hear about the students’ work.
“Students have such amazing ideas, but they don’t think they can make it happen. They think it’s just a course they did. So we’re really grappling with making them understand that at that age, students rarely have a mortgage or kids and have a three month holiday that would be perfect for them to go on and give their projects a go”.
Anna and the team at CoCA are still experimenting, learning and improving their programs. They have tried incubation models, commercialisation programs and activities with other disciplines. In these experiments, Anna mentions that they have found that the creative students become better prepared for collaboration and entrepreneurship than business students. Rather than getting a job, the creatives focus on solving a problem, which can lead to them creating jobs not just for themselves, but eventually also for others.
Although they have built such an incredible program for creative enterprise, the most inspiring thing about meeting her was how much energy and enthusiasm she had for continued learning and developing an even better program. She is a true designer and design educator, who understands the importance of creative entrepreneurship. “One of the stories we tell at the beginning of every course is a quote by a former student, who said: ‘why do I need to know anything about business, I just want to make things!’, and that’s exactly why we need to do this. They need to learn to develop their own business plans so that they don’t have to rely on a business person to help them”. I couldn’t agree more.
Stay inspiring Anna, we look forward to a future of exciting collaboration with you!
Video of Creative Industries 2014 — the first iteration
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