Take 10 with… Tonya Sweet

1 year ago by

The DA team want to support our community through these unprecedented times – something we kept coming back to is a focus on connection and community. So we want to do what we think DA does best, sharing ideas, inspiration and information and profiling our community.

With that in mind, we launched a new series Take 10 with… to do a pulse check on how you’re feeling, how you’re working, what you are missing, and what your hopes are for the future. We invited some of our friends, peers and the DA team to participate and we hope you enjoy these honest and candid profiles of Aotearoa designers today.



Introduce yourself:

My name is Tonya Sweet and I am a Senior Lecturer in the Design for Social Innovation programme at the Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Design where I teach cross-disciplinary sustainable design. In my research I investigate how design may be applied in fostering psychological resilience around crisis, both natural and human-made.

How did you get into design? 

Unlike kids who were playing with miniaturised versions of tools made of wood or plastic, growing up I was playing with real tools (the sort made of steel with sharp teeth) from a young age. I have a distinct memory of being about 9 years-old and nonchalantly cutting some timber down on my dad’s table saw, grabbing a framing hammer and a bunch of nails, and constructing a fortification into a corner of my bedroom. In saying this, I can see that this is probably a reflection of both my inclination for isolation as well as negligent parenting… But the reason I mention it is that the freedom given to me at a young age, in which I was constantly using my hands to make things, has been pivotal in shaping what drives me today. My love for the creative process was formalised through my studies: I have a BFA in Furniture Design from the Rhode Island School of Design and an MFA in Sculpture from Cranbrook Academy of Art, both in the United States. Ultimately, I would say that I am equal parts artist and designer and that the division between these two disciplines is very fuzzy at best.

What do you love about design? 

That’s a bit of a trick question… I have to admit that I have a strained relationship with design. As someone with an invested interest in the welfare of our planet and the lives sustained within this fragile biosphere we call home, it is increasingly difficult to be excited about all the “stuff” we put out in the world in the name of design. It’s an existential crisis that often paralyzes my own work and, frankly, I find myself spending a lot of time weighing whether I can genuinely justify making things in the context of my personal awareness about the state of our eco-sociological wellbeing.

What or who inspires you?

My students, colleagues, friends, and all the creative voices that are instigating positive change here in Wellington and globally. It will sound cliché, but I am also endlessly inspired by nature. This forced lockdown has had the effect of renewing my passion for intimately observing the natural world. I mean, when was the last time you were able to luxuriate in exploring the intricate crevices of a rock that has been pitted, carved, and smoothed by natural forces? I can lose myself in this level of investigation for hours.

How are you feeling right now?

Despite the fact that my research focuses on psychological resilience, I have to say that this global pandemic and resulting lockdown has really thrown me for a loop! I am doing my best to see the bright spots gifted as a result of our uncanny new normal, but it’s quite a contradictory experience. While on one hand I am stuck inside a tiny flat with definite limitations on space, tools, and capacity to manoeuvre and literally only a remote resemblance a social life, I am seriously enjoying the freedom afforded by having ample time to deep-dive into various fun and otherwise non-academic projects. So I guess there is liberation to be had within these confines.

Are you working right now, if so what does your work from home day look like?

Yes, I am working from home. I have a great view over Lyall Bay and the Wellington airport. Zoom meetings have become a standard occurrence in my daily life, so I am particularly grateful to be able to gaze out over the breaking waves and watch the planes sitting dormant on the tarmac.

What’s your one tip right now?

My one tip would be to assign yourself a project. Since the lockdown has started I have initiated a DIY community resiliency poster campaign (anyone can join is and post their handiwork with hashtag #kiakahaposter), and I am currently working on a stop-motion project that also addresses resiliency in the context of COVID-19. I don’t want to give the storyline away, but suffice to say that it will entail some sheep who are in lockdown practicing kindness contagion. Stop-motion is lots of fun but it takes a loooooong time. Luckily I have lots of that available right now. Plus, playing god to a miniature world of my creation gives me a sense of control that is otherwise lacking in my life.

Tell us about your current workspace.

My flat is the size of a small shoebox so I have gotten clever about assigning zones for different types of work. I have my desk and computer for legitimate University-related work, my coffee table is currently a minefield of tiny sheep parts, glue, wire, paint and other random project-related production materials, and about half of my bedroom is shaping up to become the site for my stop-motion film set. I have also designated a small human-sized swath of floor to accommodate my yoga and exercise routine. It’s a good thing that I don’t have any visitors stopping by because I have appropriated all socio-domestic surfaces.

Which local business are you going to miss most during our isolation period? 

I miss my regular Cuba Street lunch spots including Floriditas and Origami, as well as the best spot to enjoy breaky in Lyall Bay: Maranui Café.

What do you hope for the Aotearoa design community going forward?

I am hopeful that this crisis will spur the growth of more social design communities here in Aotearoa and that, as a result of this, we will see increasing expressions of support and unification between the various sectors of design. I’d like to give a shout out to We Create Futures (https://www.wecreatefutures.com/) for organising a recent Community Coffee chat where we discussed how design and designers are mitigating the current situation. Also, of course, a big thanks to the folks of Design Assembly who are propagating and consolidating the voices of designers during this unprecedented time.



Up Next...

5 minutes with... Tamsin Ewing Content designer & Web accessibility advisor

Tamsin Ewing is a content designer and web accessibility advisor at the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) in Wellington, where she works on content design projects for Govt.nz and Digital.govt.nz. She’s currently leading an initiative to improve guidance on meeting the New Zealand Web Accessibility Standard so that digital information and services are accessible to…

More from 'Interview'...

Take 10 with...Clem Devine

The DA team want to support our community through these unprecedented times – something we kept coming back to is a focus on connection and community. So we want to do what we think DA does best, sharing ideas, inspiration and information and profiling our community. With that in mind, we launched a new series…