Associate Professor Anita Kocsis

Director, Design Factory Melbourne

Words by Lucinda Schmidt. Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 25 seconds

On a wet Tuesday morning, 50 people are milling around a large kitchen at Swinburne’s Hawthorn campus, munching on homemade Portuguese tarts and baked eggs. Students from several overseas universities chat with Swinburne students and academics, as well as senior executives from banks, IT companies, hospitals and manufacturers.

These monthly ‘innovation breakfasts’, as they’re called, are organised by Design Factory Melbourne, a key part of Swinburne’s Innovation Precinct. The breakfasts are an opportunity to exchange ideas with inspiring people from different cultures and disciplines.

‘My job as director is to make sure we create the right conditions to enable an innovation mindset.’

The Design Factory Melbourne’s director, Associate Professor Anita Kocsis, hands around a platter of freshly baked korvapuusti (Finnish cinnamon rolls). Anita is passionate about the importance of bringing together people from different backgrounds, to allow innovation to flourish. ‘My job as director is to make sure we create the right conditions to enable an innovation mindset,’ she says. ‘I find people from different backgrounds – and the process of how they work together and collaborate – fascinating.’ 

Communicating through art and design

That fascination is rooted in Anita’s childhood. She grew up in a neighbourhood of European immigrants on the Mornington Peninsula, southeast of Melbourne. Her parents had escaped Soviet controlled Hungary and Anita – fluent in English and Hungarian – was often the translator and helper. ‘I grew up having to communicate across languages and diverse cultures, including German and Hungarian,’ she says. ‘I was always required to translate, or help someone pay their bills.’

When she told her parents she wanted to study fine arts, they insisted she do it as part of a Bachelor of Education, fearful that there was little support for the arts at the time. Anita says her interest in fine art stemmed from a desire to communicate. ‘I wanted fundamental skills to communicate on a mass scale through art and design,’ Anita says.

‘We were messing around with the potential of the internet and pushing boundaries.’

Although she spent two years painting and drawing on a Hungarian government scholarship to Budapest in the mid-1990s, it was during her Master of Fine Art, at RMIT, that she realised that technology – and particularly the emerging opportunities of the internet – would allow her to engage with a much wider audience. ‘I became interested in designing virtual environments on the internet, which was slow and clunky at the time – the technology didn’t match my ideas.’

Gradually, through collaborating with other young artists and designers, Anita learned to apply digital technologies to the environment. One project, for example, projected film of a sunset onto a huge rock, which was streamed live to friends overseas. ‘We were messing around with the potential of the internet and pushing boundaries,’ she says. ‘We did a lot of experimental installation art and I learnt a lot more than I would have working on my own.’

Joining Swinburne

After a short stint working in the marketing division of a large company, a friend urged Anita to contact Swinburne about helping to design its new Master of Multimedia course. She was ready to make the transition and got the job, joining the university at its Prahran campus in 2005 leading programs in design, anthropology, history and culture. Instantly, she felt at home. ‘I was surrounded by people of a like mind; we were speaking the same language and there was a tight cohort of great design people at my fingertips,’ she says.

Right from the start, Anita was determined to link academia with the real world, by bringing in design industry leaders — filmmakers, brand experts and others — to teach in the program. ‘That’s critical, the relationship must be symbiotic. Theories are important but they become more potent if they are evidence based and are able to be applied to the real world.’

‘We were seeking to push the boundaries of what technology could do. Finally I could crank it up and experiment.’

Anita was also thrilled by the emerging technology and working with the agile and driven design team around her. She recalls the team putting together an entire laboratory in a single day, with 20 computers making animations. ‘It was like being in a toy shop, with super-charged technology. We were seeking to push the boundaries of what technology could do. Finally I could crank it up and experiment.’

In 2013, Anita became director of Swinburne’s fledgling Design Factory Melbourne, and moved to the Hawthorn campus in 2014 after the Prahran campus closed. Design Factory Melbourne is part of a network of design factories in 14 countries that bring together students, researchers and industry to work on real-life projects.

Students, working in interdisciplinary teams of five or six people, learn key job skills such as teamwork, problem solving and project management. Researchers and industry partners have access to some of the network’s brightest young minds to build prototypes, prove a concept, user test or undertake further research to turn their ideas into reality.

A place for innovation and collaboration

Anita describes Design Factory Melbourne as a passion-based, low-hierarchy environment to facilitate and empower innovation and collaboration. Its six staff members guide about 60 high-achieving students completing master degrees across many disciplines, including health, science, engineering, business and design. Often the global program involves students from overseas design factories in Finland, China, Chile, Switzerland, Korea, the Netherlands, Portugal, Latvia and the United States working on projects with Design Factory Melbourne students.

‘It’s an opportunity for out-there innovative thinking – doing and learning skills for careers we don’t even have names for yet.’

The student-led projects are diverse, covering design of products, systems or services. One team, in partnership with packaging giant Visy, designed toy construction blocks made from pulp cardboard for children to build Lego-like structures. Another team redesigned Coles’ online store to encourage time-poor young professionals to make healthy food choices, while a third group designed a patient centric hospital room to reduce the risk of falls caused by patients becoming confused.

‘Our students, academics and industry partner teams are at the front end of the innovation pipeline, asking questions, doing research and helping define and refine ideas,’ Anita says. ‘It’s an opportunity for out-there innovative thinking – doing and learning skills for careers we don’t even have names for yet.’ Under her leadership, Design Factory Melbourne has strengthened its ties to industry and taken a leading innovation role across Swinburne.

‘University and industry mutually benefit through collaboration as future challenges require knowledge shared across both sectors. We build on those synergies,’ she says. ‘And I think we’ve gone from being a peripheral start-up to a core contributor to engagement and impact for the whole university. Design processes enable other disciplines to see things differently and act as a catalyst for innovation and experimentation.’ 

‘I’m part of a community that is passionate about what comes next – and bringing students along on that journey.’

Anita has also played an influential role in researching how technology can affect people’s experiences in spaces such as art galleries and museums. Nowadays, many offer interactive and immersive experiences; her work on assessing the impact can help organisations make curatorial, technological and financial decisions.

She says she has gained much from Swinburne through being part of an agile university that encourages her avant-garde approach. ‘I’m part of a community that is passionate about what comes next – and bringing students along on that journey,’ she says. ‘Swinburne has supported me in high-risk, experimental, cutting-edge activities that could not have been done in the corporate sector. I think the only way to do this effectively is from within a university environment – and we’re leading the way.’