“Ideas on Toast” team walking Cockatoo Island | Photo by Oliver Damian
“Ideas on Toast” team walking Cockatoo Island | Photo by Oliver Damian

No designer is an island

By Oliver Damian

Tracey Emin titled her 2014 commercial show at the White Cube: “The last great adventure is you”. She said that being in her 50s, she realised that her adventure as an artist is really alone. The analogy is like being a mountaineer, even if you're climbing a mountain with lots of other people, someone has to get to the summit first. Making art and living, you're always alone (MCA Australia 2015).

I agree with Emin just as I agree with Miwon Kwon that in this increasingly globalised world, the presence of the artist herself as progenitor of meaning (Kwon 1997) has become a pivotal point of site-specific work. Hence, the artist as a nomadic creator and curator of meaning. Case in point: Emin is in Sydney because she has been commissioned by the City of Sydney to create bronze bird sculptures to be installed along Bridge Street from Macquarie Place to Grosvenor Street to be called “The distance from your heart” (Damian 2015).

However, after my experience with Design Camp at Cockatoo Island, I have come to realise that I can only truly know myself as a designer after I've reflected on how I perform in a collaborative design group setting. This is particularly true of working with people from other disciplines. I can't just be a designer hermit in my design cave.

Our group “Ideas on Toast” lived up to its name. During the first day of mapping the island, we were already coming up with lots of ideas for the maps. Our group comprises two animation students (Erika and Eva), two visual communications students (Karla and Boaz) and product design (me).

“Ideas on Toast” team walking Cockatoo Island | Photo by Boaz Suen
“Ideas on Toast” team walking Cockatoo Island | Photo by Boaz Suen

From the first day of mapping we assigned particular aspects to focus on as we walked around the island. I have worked in many group settings before. One thing that stood as different about Ideas on Toast was that each one of us wanted to do something and had the chops to do it. There was no shortage of ideas and hands to make those ideas come to life. This rich landscape enabled the group to organically create the two final maps for the presentation.

Erika came up with connecting the different areas of the island based on materials and use (sandstone, industrial and green areas) using string and pins – after she saw nylon strings linking buildings around the island. Eva started recording sounds with her phone after we heard eerie sounds while walking around mapping the island. These two ideas merged to form the sound map we presented with 'network' as keyword.

Karla took a lot of notes about the history of the sites and buildings as we walked around. We had the idea of creating layers of how different parts of the island was used using sketches on tracing paper. We then wanted to write words of how we felt at each part of the island. Boaz made impressions of various textures around the island using clay. Towards the end we decided to hang these clay impressions using the pieces of fabric sewn into pockets and hung from the ceiling using coloured string. These ideas merged to form our second map with 'memory' as keyword.

“Ideas on Toast” map tracing | Photo by Boaz Suen
“Ideas on Toast” map tracing | Photo by Boaz Suen

I had the idea of mapping symbols around the island like crosses, aboriginal names, flags, graffiti. I also had the idea of mapping affordances around the island that were no longer being used like hooks, rings, hoses that connect to nothing, switches that don't switch anything and signs that no longer make sense given the change in use of the various sites in the island. We started doing these maps but in the end we ran out of time to make these ideas into reality. The network and memory maps were considered as more than enough by the group.

I was used to seeing myself as the ideas man. So this role of implementing the ideas of others was quite new to me. Although it took a bit of paradigm shift inside my head, I warmed up to the role of implementer and learned a lot during the process. Among other things, I ended up tracing the map that became the sound map. Karla and I had to make the map frame using the pieces of plastic, masking tape and double-sided tape. I even learned to sew the fabric into pockets. So prior to Design Camp I was more used to thinking inside my head. I learned to think more with my hands at Cockatoo Island.

Of course it was not all roses. The group did hit a crisis point. At one stage, we decided to divide work on the two maps. Karla and I worked on the network map while the rest worked on the memory map.

“Ideas on Toast” crunch time | Photo by Oliver Damian
“Ideas on Toast” crunch time | Photo by Oliver Damian

Karla and I thought all was hunky dory. I was to finish the network map. Karla went off to trace portraits of people in the museum for the memory map. When Karla came back from the tracing and I from a lunch, we found that the rest of the group were in panic mode because they were a bit stuck on the memory map. The group had to stop and discuss. It was at this stage that the group decided to drop the symbols and affordances map. We also decided to work together to finish the network map first. We would then work together to finish the memory map afterwards.

It was smooth sailing after that crisis talk. We even had time to plan and rehearse our presentations. The key learning for us is that communication is key to working well as a group. We should have checked in with each other more often and raised issues more quickly before it came to a crisis point.

I believe my experience at Cockatoo Island would prove valuable to my process as a product designer in the future. Not only would I be working with designers from other disciplines but with people from totally different disciplines.

I can have all these product concepts inside my head but until I try to make those products and get feedback from users, marketing, accounting, legal, engineering, and sales, I will not truly know if the product would be feasible, desirable or viable. I need to be able to convince and work with other people in order to take my product from concept to market.

Lastly, Karla and I discussed on the last night of camping on the island that despite all the time we spent mapping and researching the history of the different sites, we both felt we barely scratched the surface of the total that is available for mapping.

Because the structures of Cockatoo Island are very much steeped in the socio-cultural, political, historical and economic developments of Australia, it is not like De Bord's spectacle (2002) where the map is identical to the territory. For real historical sites like Cockatoo Island, the map can only give a glimpse and can never be the same as the territory.

Similarly, because my design practice will be shaped by the political, socio-cultural and economic developments (Kimbell 2011) of my time, it will be a process that will always keep unfolding over time. Never finished. All I can leave are traces of my designs on the world I live in. I can only hope they would be of value and that the world would be a better place after I've left it than before I came into it.


  1. Damian O. 2015, 'Tracey Emin live at the MCA', oliver-damian.space, weblog, Sydney, viewed 17 May 2015, <https://www.oliver-damian.space/tracey-emin-mca.html>.
  2. Debord G. 2002, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. K. Knabb, Rebel Press, London.
  3. Kimbell L. 2011, 'Rethinking Design Thinking: Part 1', Design and Culture, vol. 3 no. 3, pp. 285-306.
  4. Kwon M. 1997, 'One place after another: notes on site specificity', The MIT Pressvol. 80 (Spring, 1997), accessed 23 February 2015, <http://www.jstor.org/stable/778809?origin=JSTOR-pdf>.
  5. MCA Australia 2015, Tracey Emin Artist Talk at MCA, video recording, YouTube, viewed 17 May 2015, <https://youtu.be/UpW1bBcHn5c>.