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  • Writer's pictureHyacinth Steele

Lost and found

The grown-ups advised me to put away my drawings of boa constrictors, outside or inside, and apply myself instead to geography, history, arithmetic, and grammar. That is why I abandoned, at the age of six, a magnificent career as an artist.” (Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince).


As a learning designer my job title ominously bears the word “designer”. However, engaging with the modules in the Masters of Education at Charles Sturt a few years ago introduced me to design methodologies and processes that I had not been introduced to before. Although I briefly studied Graphic Design, I soon dropped out and enrolled in more “sensible” subjects that would introduce me to educational theory and practices—Constructivism, Connectivism and Cognitivism.

I packed away my pencils, art journals and paints to turn my attention to scholarly pursuits of researching how we learn and how we create and how we share knowledge.

However, there was an important piece of the puzzle that was lacking in my understanding of how to create effective, engaging learning experiences and spaces. In the last semester of the Master’s the last puzzle piece was handed to me. I came to realise the subject Designing spaces for learning was more than a puzzle piece though, it was a gift that gave me permission to use creative storyboarding techniques to sketch my ideas and reconnect with my pencils and paints, use my iPad and iPhone to capture moments of insight and create a learning space for myself that inspired me.

The observation tasks during the course promoted a new sense of mindfulness as I engaged with the environment and spaces I found myself. Reading Tim Brown's Changed by Design (2009) encouraged me to share design thinking processes at our weekly work team meetings. Our team put together an inspiration wall with pictures of the work environment we wanted to work. We dared to imagine spaces filled with light and colour and plants and us. Sadly, the team was 'restructured' and we are now back in the grey city with odd pop ups of brave attempts to inject personality or colour into a spaces that are evidently not designed to inspire creativity or individuality.

Of course Covid-19 changed this yet again and we all packed up our laptops and Jabra headphones and sought refuge in the relaxed confines of our homes where we dared to talk loudly, don comfortable shoes and listen to music while we worked. I have heard it whispered on unrecorded Zoom meetings that not many want to return to the grey city.

So what?

Landmarks along the way of my design awakening included Thornburg’s (2007) primordial metaphors for learning in the twentieth-first century and McIntosh’s (2015) notion of having a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) to inspire vision. I must confess I only associated big and hairy goals as setting aside the time to shave my legs. There! You can see what an eye opener this subject was for me. Jokes aside, I pondered Bennett (2006) who posed six questions which needed to be asked when designing spaces. Pixar showed me what courage meant by reinventing themselves (Catmull, 2008) and Brown challenged me to put people first (p.77), embrace constraints and plan for “serendipity, unpredictability and capricious whims of fate” (p.23) with stern reminders to avoid “imitations of an earlier invention that are no longer relevant to the discovery of specific possibilities in a new situation” (Buchanan, 1992, p.13).

Now what?

Shifts in the national education agenda driven by Covid-19 and worldwide changes to education and the economy has spurred students to seek flexible study options increasing the pressure to design for digital and experimental spaces. I am a small voice amidst all the posts on Covid-19, Trump and Trump. I say to anyone who will listen " design thinking processes and methodologies provide frameworks and strategies to innovate and design learning spaces that look beyond traditional models and practices. Spaces that are flexible, creative and yes, gasp, student-centred."

And ... I am going to apply some design thinking courage to myself. It is time to review and reflect and reinvent and get out those pencils and brushes.

There is a scene in the movie The Holiday when the character Miles says:

Legend has it, when Santa Anas blow, all bets are off, anything can happen.

I am hoping that some warm, balmy wind will blow my way... I am ready for something 'wonderful' to happen.


Bennett, S. (2006). First questions for designing higher education learning spaces. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 33(1), 14-26.

Brown, T. (2009). Change by design. New York, NY: Harper.

Buchanan, R. (1992). Wicked problems in design thinking. Design Issues, 8(2), 5-21.

Catmull, E. (2008). How Pixar fosters collective creativity. Harvard Business review. Retrieved from

McIntosh, E. (2015). How to come up with great ideas and actually make them happen: A pragmatic strategy handbook for education leaders, innovators and troublemakers. Edinburgh: NoTosh Publishing.

Thornburg, D.D. (2004). Campfires in cyberspace: Primordial metaphors for learning in the 21st century. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 1(1), 3-10.Retrieved from

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