Designing for good

Dr Simone O’Callaghan is passionate about using design to make people’s lives better, through human centred design practices.

Dr Simone O'Callaghan

Dr Simone O’Callaghan’s research in design is focused on people and their experiences. With an eye for aesthetics and a highly structural mind, Simone puts her creative skills to use to examine ‘wicked problems’ related to culture, society, sustainability and the environment through understanding people’s experiences.

“It’s all about making people’s lives better and changing the world through good design,” she said

Simone came into design research with an industry background in interaction design and user experience. She’s currently working collaboratively with Dr Bernadette Drabsch on a project lead by conservation scientist Dr Alex Callen and involving psychologist Dr Michelle Kelly, which culminates in the Biomes 2020 exhibition in September 2020.

Biomes will form part of the international Ars Electronica arts festival which is traditionally held in Linz Austria, however due to the corona virus pandemic is being held online in 120 countries with the School of Creative Industries’ FASTLab a partner for 2020.

Simone is the Exhibition Designer for Biomes which will use artistic and participatory design approaches to inspire dialogue and leadership in innovation around biodiversity conservation.

“The objective of Biomes is to provide an engaging and immersive experience to empower the local community to take their own action and to see their region as a living, sustainable and diverse community. We’re encouraging people to think about their own impact on the local environment. The exhibition be online so that people can join in via various technologies,” Simone said.

“People can participate in eco-anxiety workshops run by psychology researchers. I’m supporting them with this activity which will involve participants creating a collaborative artwork which visitors can contribute to over the period of the exhibition. This ties in with my own ethos of listening to others with the goal of understanding many different people’s approaches, thoughts and perspectives in the round.”

Biomes is unique in that it addresses the human issues causing today’s climate emergency and biodiversity crisis by celebrating stories that bring biodiversity back from the brink of extinction.

“Mental and physical human health is inextricably linked to our connection with the natural world and we’ve seen how during the pandemic crisis people have relied upon their connection with nature as well as art, film and culture and to get them through such challenging times. We hope that by highlighting our own unique coastal community at this exhibition during the Australian National Biodiversity month we will inspire a new discourse for the future.”

Studio Zed – creating valuable work experiences for students

Simone runs Studio Zed, a design studio that provides students the opportunity to work in a creative studio environment, getting first-hand experience with real live clients on a wide variety of professional design jobs. It is run each summer as a pop-up studio and takes on 4 - 5 clients, turning around industry level jobs in 4 - 6 weeks.

“With Newcastle being a regional area there are limited design studios locally for our students to undertake work placement. By setting up Studio Zed we allow students to do their placement in a local, supportive environment. Carl Morgan, our Industry Associate Lecturer, co-directs Studio Zed with me so between us we have a lot of industry experience for the students to draw on.”

Over the three years that Studio Zed has been running, student designers have worked on and run many exciting projects, including web design, exhibition design, illustration, wayfinding, branding and visual identity, print design and the creation of a number of printed books.

In summer 2019-20 one of the studio’s clients was a collaboration between Hunter Water and the University of Newcastle’s School of Education who asked the students to design, illustrate and produce a children’s story that focused on water conservation.

“Working with Aboriginal students from Newcastle High and with educators from The Wollotuka Institute our colleagues in the School of Education facilitated the creation of a story ‘Where’s Our Water’ that was based on aboriginal cultural values,” Simone said. “We worked very closely with the Awabakal and Worimi people to produce two versions of the book, where each is written in English but also has word substitutions in language. Depending on what land a school sits, either an Awabakal or Worimi version of the book will be distributed to all primary schools in the Hunter.

“The project came about through research done by Hunter Water which produced evidence suggesting that people would respond more to cultural messages than STEM based messages, and so this book is an embodiment of that,” Simone said.

Unravelling dark patterns

Over her 24-year career she has tapered her research focus to groups of people who she has observed to be passed over and not designed for. One of her current research projects focuses on user experience dark patterns. These are deliberate attempts by web designers to make the online experience difficult.

“Dark patterns are online designs that deliberately take advantage of the web user or make steps harder. For example, Amazon’s website design deliberately makes it very difficult to delete your account. And the Hello Fresh website won’t let you see a week’s menu to work out if what they have on offer is what you would like, without first subscribing to their service,” Simone said.

“People who are time poor with competing demands, such as parents with young children, are being taken advantage of by these dark patterns. They have become such standards in design that whilst some dark patterns are used knowingly, there are also many that are implemented because naïve, inexperienced designers don’t know any better. Therefore, we have the added problem now of dark patterns being perpetuated by designers who don’t realise they are doing it.”

The high-level goal of Simone’s work is to make people aware of such issues and get them thinking. She is passionate about promoting ethical design practices that are mindful of the many ways in which design has the power to enhance or hinder people’s lives. Her research is amplified through her teaching by taking what she has discovered through her research and passing that onto her students, multiplying the effects of developing and maintaining ethical design practices, particularly in digital environments.

“A lot of my teaching is informed by my research. I encourage students to think about how to create good design for others and where we need to improve our practices as human beings. As creative academics we have the ability to gain critical mass and through the power of art and design we can achieve higher impact and engagement by reaching wider audiences, more so than if we were to solely rely on publications to share our research.”

The University of Newcastle acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands within our footprint areas: Awabakal, Darkinjung, Biripai, Worimi, Wonnarua, and Eora Nations. We also pay respect to the wisdom of our Elders past and present.