Meet the Makers (& educators) behind Project Make: Nathan Walker

2 years ago by

Project Make champions the role of design and design education in New Zealand and encourages folk to make things together.

We spoke with the educators about their individual journeys, collective approach to design education, what sparked the initiative and the positive impacts their teaching is having.

Today we hear from Nathan Walker:

Nathan is a graphic/UI designer and web developer. His interest in the activity and impact of design started in high school with the presentation of his International Baccalaureate research at a national conference on the future of New Zealand design. The initial branding, web development and project resource development of Project Make was done as part of his undergraduate research at AUT before graduating in 2018.
Nathan is currently at Cactuslab, taking on occasional freelance work as Align Left. Prior to this, he freelanced as a designer and front-end developer throughout high school and university for organisations across a range of industries including technology and education.
Nathan prides himself on understanding the sum total of micro details and how the outcome will be viewed and experienced by the end user. To this end he has become renowned for eye for detail and ability to produce sophisticated outcomes that are deceptively complex.

Can you tell us a little about your background as an Art and Technology Teacher/student?
My interest in design specifically can probably be traced back to early childhood but tangibly it really began at age 12 when my home-room teacher (shoutout Jerry Leaupepe) hooked my class up with Photoshop and I could bring my ideas to life. I was basically addicted, and spent most of my free time watching tutorials and reading design blogs like SpoonGraphics and Abduzeedo, learning to make my own terrible posters and website designs.

There were a couple particularly formative classes that I took in the next few years. In my IB Visual Art class of 4 students, our briefs were super open and our teacher, Victoria Sword, encouraged us to experiment. This meant that while I could do work that was conceptual and asked questions in the way that art does, I could also approach the execution from a graphic design perspective. A satirical brand identity for a crude oil-based beverage and a zine full of artwork made using the teaching staff’s collection of discarded single-use coffee cups are examples. Demelza ended up being my supervisor for my IB Extended Essay in Visual Art in year 12 and since then we’ve worked on all kinds of design projects, sometimes for ourselves, but often as part of her work at school, wherever that happens to be.

Equally important was Digital Technology with Dominic Mooney, which is where I learnt the basics of web development. It was similar to the experience with Photoshop a few years earlier, where I realised that this thing I’d always thought of as impossibly difficult was actually pretty doable. Fast forward to my time at uni doing a Bachelor of Design in Communication Design (UX/UI) at AUT, and I was constantly thinking of ways to use coding as part of my projects – that work eventually led to my current role as a designer/front-end developer at Cactuslab.

Apple’s Jony Ive said ”What we make completely testifies to who we are” what do you make and what does it say about who you are?
Jony’s probably right but I’d be lying if I said that I’ve figured out who I am at this point in my life. Generally speaking, I design and build websites, apps, brand identities, publications, etc. and I try to work on projects that are purposeful and can have a positive impact because as worn-out a sentiment as it can feel, I do genuinely believe that design can be a driver of meaningful change.

What I’ve found though is that if you put too much pressure on yourself to save the world at every turn, things get real existential real quick and you end up with a mental burden that can rapidly turn into burnout and jadedness. As Demelza often likes to remind me, I was quoted at Helix Symposium in 2015 as commenting, “I was 17 at that point and I felt that my work was starting to stagnate”.

These days I’m making a more conscious effort to a) do less work and chill the fuck out a bit, and b) create a healthier balance between doing work that’s socially valuable and making shit for no other reason than that it’s fun. What does that say about me? Who knows.

What was the catalyst for Project Make?
The kernel of the idea began as Demelza’s lamentation that design education in New Zealand left a lot to be desired, and that she wanted to do something about it. I think the presentations and conversations we were a part of at Helix Symposium 2015 at Massey in Wellington sparked some of that, and it was also one of my first real introductions to the design industry in this country. The idea rattled around for about a year after that, and we then started pulling together a loose collective of friends that made cool stuff and the Project Make brand evolved slowly to represent that. We knew that we wanted some form of “online repository” where we could share the decade’s worth of teaching knowledge that Demelza had, and so I set about designing and building a website. That project then evolved into my graduation project at uni, and while that initial work formed the basis of the site as it is today, it eventually outgrew my capabilities. At that point we brought the development in-house at Cactuslab, where we’re continuing to refine and build on the site today.

Can you share an example of design/making having a profoundly positive impact on a student (or you as a student?)
It’s hard to pinpoint any one moment because design has been around me for nearly half my life now, but I think the stage at which I started to move from simply making cool things in Photoshop to actually understanding the context and purpose of creating design work was really important. Begrudgingly I suppose I have to give it to her that the beginnings of that can be credited to Demelza’s influence while I was writing the Extended Essay. My research question was focused on the influence of digital tools and processes on modern design practice. It was essentially an exercise in design history, but in the process of writing it, Demelza asked a lot of hard questions and pushed me to go further than I would have otherwise, to interrogate what I was really trying to say. At her suggestion I found myself reaching out to university professors and sitting in on lectures to get a better understanding of my subject. It was one of the foundational pieces of the puzzle that was my understanding of design as a concept and as an industry at the time.

What do you see as the benefit of incorporating tactile or analogue practices into digital learning opportunities?
It’s a (hopefully) pretty well established notion these days that while digital learning is here to stay, on its own it’s not a silver bullet. For much of my early life I had a Montessori education, a key tenet of which is the importance of play and physical interaction with learning materials. Application of theoretical skills and developing muscle memory are a couple benefits that come to mind. Most importantly though, when it comes to making, experiencing the success of having a physical product that you’ve made with your own hands can be incredibly rewarding, especially for those who struggle in an education system that sometimes places too much value on theoretical knowledge.

Which factors do you think will be most significant in shaping Design education in Aotearoa in the next 5 years?
There’s a lot of talk about the “future of work”, and as new industries in areas like the environmental sector and the roles that come with them are born, hopefully the design education system will be able to adapt fast enough to produce designers who can contribute meaningfully to that change.

I didn’t want to mention it but perhaps a lengthy pandemic will be instrumental in forcing that kind of change and exposing extraneous (and costly) distractions.

What are your hopes for the future of Project Make?
I hope that the site and the community around it can become a place for those who don’t have access to the resources and support that a lot of us in the design industry take for granted. That’s something that’s been on our minds a lot throughout this process, and while we’re not there yet, I think it’s really the ultimate goal. If we can give others the opportunity to experience and pursue the same love of design that we all share then it’s a win.


This is the third instalment in this series (read our previous Project Make features with Demelza Round and Anjuli Selvadurai)


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