By Day/By Night: Caroline Powley, Whitecliffe

4 years ago by

Welcome again to our 2017 By Day/By Night series. Here we profile a range of design teachers from our tertiary institutions to find out what projects they’re involved in outside of work hours, and how their personal creative endeavours feed back into their teaching roles. Sixth up we speak with Senior Lecturer Caroline Powley from Whitecliffe in Auckland.

Whitecliffe graduates are thinking practitioners with an understanding of both contemporary practice and the traditional mythologies of the sphere of Graphic Design. Their broad technical skills mean they are well equipped to explore and articulate a diverse range of visual outcomes for design projects, making them highly sought after by the industry. As active members of an ever-changing design community our students embrace the opportunity to communicate with the world – to use their conceptual and visual skills to inform, persuade, entertain and educate.

Hello Caroline, can you tell us a little bit about your background, your career path, and how you got into teaching.
I remember when Ashton Scholastic delivered The Lettering Book to my primary school – seeing that many typefaces in one book was very exciting for eight-year-old me. I spent a lot of time perfecting my bubble writing (Frankfurter Highlight) and my first commissions were title pages for friends’ projects (paid for with Marmite+chip sandwiches!).

Much later, after studying Visual Communication, I landed my first job at Paradigm, a small design studio that focuses on design for social, creative and environmental projects. I learnt so much working in a small studio where everyone was passionate about both the client’s work (Greenpeace, Oxfam, art galleries, etc.) and the design we created. After Paradigm I moved to London where I worked in a wide range of studios… everything from one of the first TV-on-demand start-ups to big ad agencies like Leo Burnett… through to a great session as a freelancer at The Southbank Centre. In all honesty, returning to Auckland becoming a lecturer wasn’t the plan, but after working crazy hours for seven years I got RSI and my doctor said I shouldn’t touch a computer for six months, so I headed home.

I continued to do some freelance design from Auckland, but also agreed to teach a class or two at Whitecliffe. Once I started teaching I was completely drawn in. To me it was an amazing opportunity to spend all day talking about ideas and design with creative people. I found it refreshing to be able to engage with design in a thoughtful, academic way after years of intense commercial work. I also really enjoyed facilitating the students to achieve their creative goals. It’s satisfying to see them head out into the design industry and be successful – from working in top design studios in Auckland to designing in New York, London, Seoul or setting up their own design practice.

Outside of work hours, what creative projects and/or research are you involved with?
Outside of my teaching I work on a range of different projects. I engage in more traditional forms of academic research – writing papers about design for journals or conferences. I also create experimental design work where the research is embodied in the design objects themselves. These projects often explore the relationship between type and place, or aim to develop new generative strategies. I also fit in a little bit of commercial work, mostly identity and publication design. Plus there creative are projects with my daughter – I can whip up a mean batch of rainbow-coloured playdough at Playcentre!


Ruckus publication

Transitional fieldwork


Type linear

Type screen

What are you inspired by, and how do you keep the momentum for your personal work alive?
My work is driven by a wide-ranging curiosity about the world and a desire to explore and communicate ideas through design. This includes a particular interest in the representation of place – through both local and vernacular design, typography and interpretive design strategies.

The media and materials I work with also inspire me. I love getting lost in an elaborate process and allowing it to take me to unexpected outcomes. I like to work across several mediums within each project. For example I would take videos of ink dropping into water letterforms, change selected stills into half-toned images, then overlay these to create letterforms and screenprint them as posters. I enjoy developing generative systems that create variable elements and multiple outcomes.

How does your personal practice feed into your role as an educator?
On a very practical level my design research keeps me up to date with current technology and extends my media skills. While this is useful I think one of key ways my personal practice feeds into my role as an educator is through the kind of projects I set for my students. I prefer to teach projects where the final format is open – where the content and concept guide what the student might choose to create. For the senior students a brief will be based around a particular creative strategy – a structure to apply to a situation, or to process ideas or content. I try to create situations that are open enough to be generative but structured enough to provide focus and hopefully push students to explore working creatively in different ways.

How do you balance these two very different roles? Are there any particular benefits and/or challenges?
Ideally they aren’t separate concerns, they blend together and what I’m reading and thinking about in my own practice quite naturally flows into what I’m teaching and how I might teach it.

By engaging with my own creative process I am actively testing different ways of working… and experiencing the highs and lows of creative projects! I think this is useful for remaining empathetic with students as they go through the learning process with their own creative practice. As my work is quite focused on process and media experimentation, I also learn a lot from all the amazing creative work our students do. I benefit from seeing their creativity, while also sharing what I’ve figured out through actively reflecting and writing about my own practice.

The challenge is always time – balancing teaching, research and administration requirements is always tricky. Add in being a parent of a pre-schooler and it means I don’t always get the amount of sleep I should!

Type woodcut


What are the best bits about working at a place like Whitecliffe?
One of Whitecliffe’s key strengths is its scale… the smaller class sizes allow the students to support each other’s learning and to have a lot of lecturer engagement. I really enjoy being able to develop an understanding of each students learning preferences and creative practice and to watch their design knowledge and skills grow.

As a dedicated ‘art school’ rather than a large university, the focus at Whitecliffe is always on developing the student’s creative practice. The Graphic Design course includes a diverse range of projects rather than tying students down to a specific format. I really appreciate being able to run projects that have enough space for the students to develop their own interests and areas of investigation.

And, finally, where can we see more of your own work, Caroline? Caroline Powley
Twitter: @carolinepowley
Instagram: caroline.powley

Photograph of Caroline by Jinki Cambronero

Find out more about Whitecliffe by visiting:


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