Dr. Ana Rita Morais, Chair of the School of Design at George Brown College and a recipient of the 2021 RGD Educator Award (Eastern Canada) provides insights on life as an educator, adapting to the changing landscape of design education and more.
Interviewed by Chelsey Stuart-Duval RGD
Advice for Pursuing a Career in Design Education:
What made you want to get into education?
I have always been interested in the process and approaches to learning. I consider myself motivated by curiosity, which compelled me to pursue a Master’s degree and then a PhD to fully satisfy my curiosity and my love for research and learning.
How has working in education changed or solidified your approach to design?
It has really engrained the lesson of having trust in the process. Within a classroom, you have the ability to be an instructor who leads or one who collaborates with students in meaningful ways. Both of these approaches require trusting the process. My hope is that when a student enters our campus — be it virtually or in-person — they recognize that they are entering into the world of design, where they will build their own techniques, approaches, frameworks and ideologies — all of which will factor into their process. This is no different than preparing to teach a course, developing curriculum or launching a new program. There is so much to discover about the field and ultimately about our approaches to the field. Akin to education, for design to be meaningful, it must be engaging, active and fuelled by passion.
For designers wanting to pursue a career in education, what would you say is the most important skill to develop?
Playing an active role in design education requires the ability to respond quickly to feedback on course structures, a persistent flexibility and the ability to iterate on all that went well and not so well on a semester to semester basis. For me, the most critical skill for a prospective faculty member is an open mind and a willingness to accept feedback. It’s perfectly normal to check in with students regularly—just as you would with clients—to understand what is working and what needs more attention. This approach is underpinned by having solid interpersonal communication skills.
Advice for Maintaining Balance as a Design Educator:
Do you still take on outside design projects?
Over the last two years I have worked on a limited run, large-scale calendar with all proceeds funding scholarships and emergency aid for BIPOC students at the School of Design. This project has allowed us to support students in need with more than $15,000 in funding. Further, my role on the Board of Directors for The ArQuives allows me to work on design-focused deliverables to best support the organizations’ strategic directions. I am also fortunate to work on applied research projects at the intersection of design—including the three-year NSERC CCSIF project in partnership with Sunnybrook Health Sciences to design and develop a new e-health platform for pre-surgical care that can be used by patients, caregivers and healthcare providers, alike.
It can be challenging to juggle several outside projects at once, but staying organized, creating milestones and learning to say no when the timing, fit or project isn’t right are also very critical.
Has working in education affected your work/life balance?
It can be challenging to find balance with an administrative role that requires working closely with faculty and students — about 1,500 in total across the academic year. Leading with empathy requires a very worthy investment in people and it can feel impossible to clock out before the sun goes down with so many critical projects, deadlines, course supports, partnerships and student concerns (especially as it pertains to mental health and well-being). To best support those I work with and for, I need to maintain healthy boundaries and be intentional in what I take on and how I manage my time. It’s important to make time for self-care—for me that includes seeing people I love, maintaining a regular therapy practice, reading and spending as much time as I can in the kitchen.
How Design Educators are Adapting to Changing Landscape (Remote Learning)
How have you seen remote learning impact students and colleagues?
Our sense of community has been tremendously impacted over the last two years. Our studio-style classroom setting allows for multiple interaction points, including instructor to student interactions, student to student interactions and ultimately student to content interactions. Beyond teaching and learning, the built design culture on campus provided serendipitous interactions and collaborations that are facilitated by sharing space. It’s crucial to recognize the efforts of both faculty and students in remaining engaged and committed to student success, despite the many challenges that have arisen over the last two years. We are seeing this time as an active case study of how to best support students and faculty through flexible delivery options that best align with the respective curriculum.
How do you help prepare students for what comes next / emerging or changing areas of focus within the creative industry?
The bulk of our faculty maintain an active design practice—working across all of the program areas we offer. This allows them to transition these skills from their respective studios and firms into the curriculum, offering students first-hand experiences working across trends in the design landscape.
In addition, we actively work on industry-focused applied research projects with start-ups. This often allows students to work on cutting-edge projects in the tech and design space. These have included gamification projects, metaverse-focused education spaces, the creation of NFTs, AR and VR experiences and immersive environments.
Advice for Design Students:
What is the one piece advice you wish you could give to graduating design students as they start their job search?
It’s okay to say no. Most folks, and more so junior designers, have a difficult time saying no for fear that they won’t be given further opportunities—this is rarely the case. Sometimes you say no to some things so you can say yes to others!
Ana Rita Morais is a Portuguese-born, Toronto-based academic, educator and administrator. She holds a doctorate from the Communication and Culture Program at Toronto Metropolitan University. She has devoted much of her academic career to investigating mobile media, including her SSHRC-funded research-creation doctoral project, me-dérive: toronto — an augmented reality counter-archive of Toronto's historical urban environments. She is the Principal Investigator on a multi-year NSERC-funded project in partnership with Sunnybrook Health Sciences, a former member of the HXOUSE programming team, a Co-President of The ArQuives and the recipient of 2021 RGD Educat or Award (Eastern Canada).