Anna Brown on design between spaces

In Massey University’s funky new staff space, I sat down with Anna Brown; designer, teacher, mum and Director of Toi Āria: Design for Public Good. She told me about the evolution of her design practice in the ‘third space’ between university and business, and the challenging but rewarding work of designing for public good.

What is Toi Āria?

Toi Āria is a collective of researchers, designers and policy makers who work together to reform the design and delivery of public services. We operate from within Massey University, the ‘third space’ between public and private sectors, and our mission is to enable the voice of New Zealanders in decisions that affect them.

If Toi Āria isn’t quite a business, and isn’t quite a university project, how does it actually work?

Although Toi Āria exists within the College of Creative Arts, it can expand. We have external Toi Āria associates; professionals and graduates who come in and work on projects as needed. During our recent project, Our Data, Our Way, we ran 27 workshops across New Zealand over five weeks. There were 5–7 of us working on it but there were only two core Massey staff members. We also use collaborative partnerships to try and link the design community, which is normally a competitive environment. That’s what we’re aiming for but I know that we don’t always manage it — things like Requests for Proposals (RFPs) don’t help because they automatically put you in competition with other people. In a recent RFP, we said from the outset that we would pull in expertise as we needed it, and that we didn’t have all of that expertise ourselves. It’s important to be able to say “We’re really good at this, but we can’t do that, so we’ll do it with others”. I’m interested in models like that, which push against a status quo view of how things ought to be. We need to work collectively because we have so many issues in New Zealand to deal with, but it’s difficult when the commercial environment makes you think ‘this is ours, this space here, and you’re encroaching on it.’

How was Toi Āria born out of a university environment?

It’s a very interesting time to be in any organisation in the world, but it’s been especially challenging for universities to adapt. For universities there are less students enrolling and no foreseeable increases in funding from government, so how does a university continue to deliver great things and evolve into a university of the 21st century?

Our view of what a university is, is changing and it’s something that all universities are grappling with.

When I arrived at Massey, Steve Maharey started as our Vice Chancellor, and he was really interested in entrepreneurship and looking at the space in between the university and the world. He enabled staff and the organisation to test out and try things; there was a real sense of ‘let’s give it a go.’

At the time we were doing a lot of work through Open Lab with government agencies and my understanding of what design could do in an environment changed. My interests evolved and grew into more complex projects, which weren’t appropriate for the Open Lab model of experiential learning for design students. After nearly five years heading up Open Lab, the Pro-Vice Chancellor of our College — Claire Robinson — asked me “What are you going to do next?”

I spent a good part of a year thinking about what I wanted to do, what is needed in the sector, what is needed in our world and what role I could play in all that with others. What I was most interested in was how we can change systems that aren’t working for people, and what value design can bring to that process. For a while, the biggest problem was that I didn’t know what to call it! Before something has a name, or a place, it’s like a porous membrane of ideas that doesn’t have any coherence.

Over a work dinner one night I was talking to my colleague Ngataiharuru Taepa, Director of Maori Arts, about what we were interested in. He asked, “Is it like baking a cake where you take a set of ingredients and measure them out to get a chemical reaction?” I said no, because it’s different every time. He said “OK, is it like the rocky seashore where there’s tidal currents coming in and out?” Yes — it’s much more like that.

So Toi Āria literally means ‘creative rock pool’. I think of all the creatures in the tidal rock pool as the people of New Zealand.

What happens to them is dependant on what’s happening in the wider environment; a sea coming in could be political parties or economic factors — the variances of the environment affects them, but what is their role in it, and how can we enable them?

We were quite deliberate about not calling it a ‘Lab’, because we’ve done all sorts of labs around the university, so what’s next? In our college we’ve gone through a process of putting a pōwhiri framework around our curriculum, and through that process growing our understanding of Te Ao Māori so it felt really appropriate to be gifted a Māori name. As is often true, a Māori name seems to be able to encompass a much more complex set of ideas and concepts than English can.

Why is policy becoming a focus for designers?

When we’re trying to get things in a system to change, we often get to a certain point where we hit policy, and so that is the thing that we’re trying to bring a design lens to. The appetite for it in government is varied, depending on the teams you’re working with. I recently talked to someone who does policy in government and they were saying how quick the process is, and I was like, is it really that quick? Because from my point of view it doesn’t seem quick. She said that although the entire process for writing, developing and evolving a policy might take three years, the time that they have to do it is really contracted and they are pushed up against time frames. The idea of putting a design process into that and iterating it is really at odds with what is essentially a linear process. So we’re looking at how to bring some design ideas into that space; how do you enable policy makers to not think that they have to know all the answers? Design isn’t a silver bullet, but designers are used to dealing with complexity and not knowing. Often we’ll start something without knowing exactly how it will end up, and they’re good skills to have in that environment.

What are the realities of co-designing with communities?

Co-design processes are quite time consuming, but I think good things take time. There’s a wider zeitgeist of communities coming together and working together, but we can have a slightly rose-tinted view of what a community is. The reality is that communities are places where real people live and that’s quite complicated.

It can be really long, hard work, but the great thing about communities is that they are complex. It makes us remember that humans aren’t perfect and so nor will a system ever be.

With the Our Data, Our Way project, we went to 27 diverse communities across New Zealand — it was intense. We did workshops with a homeless community in Auckland, a tech community in Invercargill, a Surf Club in Gisborne, with rural education in Hokitika…what fascinated us through those engagements is how generous those communities were with their time and their lived experience. In saying that, you have to give a lot of yourself to get it back. People have to trust that you are genuine about your desire to understand their experience, and then share it in a way that changes something. They were really pleased to be asked their opinion, and you build this trust, but you have to complete the cycle and deliver on that. How do they see that they’re being heard and what they’ve said has made a difference? There’s lots of designerly ways of thinking in government at the moment, but it often happens in the early ‘ideation’ stages and when it comes to implementation we go back to what we know and what the existing system allows you to do.

How has your design practice evolved over time?

I’ve spent a lot of time doing design in it’s traditional concept and I love that, but there are a lot of things happening in our world and maybe you get to a certain point where you want to be doing something more. I’m in a different stage in my life and I want to be engaging in projects that make me want to wake up in the morning.

We all understand that you can design a thing, and we’re starting to understand that you can design a service, or an experience, but if you’re designing an approach or a conversation, a system or a way of being, is it still design? Does it matter?

I don’t really care what we call it, but I want the work that I’m doing to have value. Design in a strategic sense has a much bigger role to play; it’s much harder than what I used to do because it shifts quickly and it’s complicated, with excellent, complex and ‘inconvenient real people’ (a favourite line from a friend). It’s longer, harder, but maybe truer to humanity. It can be exhausting, but it’s exhilarating at the same time.

As I’ve evolved as a practitioner my horizons have evolved, and being in this university environment has enabled me to grow. I’m a book designer doing this other complex system stuff at the same time, and for almost five years now I’ve had a role at the university which is half one thing and half of another; I change my hats a lot. It allows me to be all of the things that I am, and all parts of me to grow. It means I’m used to living across the unknown. I’m happy to not necessarily be expert at it all; I’m doing it, learning and growing and I don’t have to have it all right.

What’s the future for Toi Āria?

The general sense is always to make something bigger, but I don’t necessarily think we need to scale it too much or too soon. I want it to be values-led; for us to be doing projects for the right reasons. It’s about finding a balance between being sustainable but doing it because we think it’s the right work. We’ve already said no to projects that didn’t align to our values (of putting people at the centre) which would have provided some financial stability. I think the idea of ‘public good’ is gaining momentum and if we’re doing research and creating new stuff that can be shared, I think it’s our role to be doing that. As part of a university we need to fulfil that role of ‘critic and conscience of society’.

How can someone get in touch if they’d like to get involved?

Email me at, or tweet me @AnnaEBrown