Academic acknowledgement: thoughts

I’ve already shared the news via my other social media channels, but I’m delighted to announce here too I have been confirmed Associate Professor in Design at Norwich University of the Arts. This makes me extremely proud and at the same time reflective about the career I’ve had so far.

At eighteen years old I had very little idea what I wanted to do as a job or career, and considered widely contrasting options of occupational therapy, sports psychology, the army, teaching … something creative …. having grown out of the idea of being a bagpipe player, aged 4, and archeologist, aged 8. There are skills involved in roles across some of these that are required in my current post in academia but equally some a disastrous fit, at least to the me I am now.

Going through art school and university, even the post grad. masters course, I was petrified of the ‘real world’ of work, despite having Saturday and holiday jobs from a young age. I can clearly remember the months I earned nothing as a freelance designer, the humiliation of the job centre line and housing benefit application process, the years of no holidays unless they were working holidays to get free board, and watching peers become adults in an adult world, as I tried to work out what I wanted to do while keeping expenses low and resourcefulness high. The turning point was my first role as Print and Photomedia technician at Central Saint Martins, London, where I met people like me, dividing their weeks with practice and educational roles – this could be my real world too!

Today I can look back over a twenty-plus year academic career and so much makes sense; the joy of hindsight. Since school I have taught at play schemes, Sure Start projects, NHS trust projects, community projects, adult education workshops, school outreach, FE & HE courses. Every project taught me something that informs the educator I am today, and clarified my preferred environment for teaching and learning. For over twenty five years I’ve led a creative practice that has evolved substantially from the one I led in my studio / bedroom in south London, making books at a tiny desk, using the bathroom as a darkroom in the middle of the night, and the print room at CSM when the students had left. Artwork on the London underground network, designs on a huge hospital roof, in an airport, selling products to Japan and America … Projects happen but it’s easy to forget they were all unimaginable to the eighteen year old self. At art school I learned the value of drawing, of playing with the design process, of dedication to make something the best it could be and commitment to colour mixing. Those tutors shaped my rigorous approach to my practice today. Incidentally, my minimalist aesthetic was defined lazy by one visiting tutor I had the displeasure to be taught by – he missed the point I remember thinking, I knew he had got me wrong.

As an academic I’ve learned to continue to learn, continually … One instance: I was thrown in to the deep end to deliver design history lectures to undergraduates many years ago, with no GCSE in basic history, and only faint memories of my own design history education for support – that was a particularly low point. Hundreds of hours investment, much reading and learning, and a fair amount adrenaline got me through those early years. Some students have told me since then, that those lectures were among their highlights, and I feel pleased – retrospectively I can’t help feel grateful to my then boss for not giving me the get-out option. This skill and knowledge is now something I hugely enjoy and benefit from. I love to share my passion for design history – who would have thought? Not the eighteen year old me!

In running my design practice in parallel with my academic career I am busy. It would be easier if I was content to focus on one rather than juggling my headspace and waking hours. I’m not alone in wondering why I maintain both, but it is simple – they need each other, and I need each of them. My teaching is filled with current industry experience, my design practice feeds the lectures, workshops and tutorials I deliver. The design experience feeds my research and my practice validates my teaching. My own creative struggles and insecurities support my understanding and empathy for the students I teach and nurture to be brave soles, out in the real world, like I had to be and continue to be. I love to learn, and if I can share what I learn and understand, I can help others to enjoy the design industry too.

I’ve stood at trade shows, on my stand for 12-hour days, promoting my new collections while checking my uni emails on my phone, to make sure things are running okay in my absence. I’ve spoken to industry partners interested in my work, while at the same time my head is working out how I can link the students to the opportunities they may hold too. I’ve formed relationships with wonderful industry friends who now form a network of support for the graduates I’ve taught. The important thing to learn is that we are all in this, learning together, helping others and together making the world a better place to be. The response to me achieving this recognition has been overwhelming. Colleagues past and present, students and graduates, manufacturers and past collaborators, and so many more people have got in touch – reminding me of many precious moments along the way.

I’m grateful to have this recognition from the university. The contribution I’ve made to both the design industry and academia is acknowledged as valuable to others, and united in potential – and that’s a good starting point for the next twenty years!

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