Students working together looking over a computer

What happens when a digital agency and a university partner up?

Over the past year, Luminary’s Directors of Design, UX and Strategy – Thom Bransom, Josh Smith and Emma Andrews – have been working to establish a university partnership to give the next generation of specialists a window into their future careers.

Josh Smith

By Josh Smith & Emma Andrews, 18 January 20229 minute read

How, as a practitioner of a particular discipline, do you keep yourself accountable and ensure your skills are up to date enough to support the next cohort of specialists entering the industry? How do you find organisations with similar values and give something back? One way we discovered is to partner with universities to support their students learning subjects we practise every day.

Why do it?

Luminary’s vision is to be the agency of choice for the brightest minds in digital. With a rich history in technology, spanning 22 years of delivering digital products, Luminary has a new focus – to build a design, UX and strategy offering to match. 

So in March 2021, we set about defining the 2-3 year goals for our design, UX and strategy teams and how we could best contribute to the broader Luminary mission. By turning our process on ourselves we sought to answer the question: ‘How might we contribute to the Luminary mission, so that our clients, work and brand are viewed as the brightest?’  

Over several ideation sessions, our teams generated concepts and together we shaped them into four key initiatives – thought leadership, transparency, events and partnerships. The partnerships we decided to focus on included tools (e.g. Figma), industry, and the topic of this blog, education. 

While Covid-19 has delayed some progress, our partnerships have begun to take root, including membership with the AGDA (Australian Graphic Design Association), for which Thom Bransom is now the Design in Business Council member and an AGDA awards judge, and, Josh having joined the Melbourne chapter of SIGCHI (Computer Human Interaction). Emma’s team has also completed the IDEO’s Creative Strategy Certification which brings together the Human Centred approach across our entire offering. 

The update we most wanted to share, however, is the progress made with education partners. Our ultimate goal was to give back and create a conversation with students and educators around the realities of the industry and the skills we see as being necessary for people entering the job market. We also had two selfish goals – our own personal growth, and brand awareness for Luminary. So, we started looking for a partner with a clear intent that this wasn't a recruitment drive. 

Who to partner with?

With our design and strategy-led approach, we felt we had a unique opportunity to help students in what can be a confusing and complex industry with many choices of where to work and what to do with your skills. Having contacted several Australian universities and education providers, two clearly stood out: Swinburne University of Technology and Torrens University. Both were passionate, student-focused and proactive. And, each had their own distinct focus.

Swinburne’s breadth of students meant they were highly aligned with our view that industry talent should be cross-skilled and unearthed from a breadth of education disciplines, much like the foundational principles of the D-School at Stanford. Secondly, the depth of opportunity meant Swinburne was highly aligned with our goals of mentoring and teaching in a variety of ways.

Torrens stood out as being quite different from other educators. A modern, agile institution with a clear focus on industry and unique electives bringing their students close to the latest in industry thinking. Secondly, Torrens, like Luminary, is a Certified B Corp, meaning they too are a highly transparent organisation with a clear focus on social impact.

Our early collaborations

In October, Josh, our UX Director, participated in Swinburne's guest lecture series, where he addressed soon-to-be graduates on what it’s like working for a digital agency, what they should expect of a modern workplace and how ways of working are changing, including the positive permanent changes resulting from Covid–19. 

It is clear that confusion in the industry is rife. Students were particularly concerned with how to present themselves to employers, what to call themselves, finding the right balance of skills and how being socially responsible affects the work we do. The confusion around UX isn’t new or surprising, in fact it’s a growing trend that Luminary is particularly passionate about solving and we see a clear opportunity to be a voice of clarity in the market. The first steps to take will be looking to expand our efforts beyond UX by facilitating practical, face-to-face sessions with broader Swinburne student groups.

For our first engagement with Torrens, Luminary took up the challenge of setting the brief for their XLabs offering. XLabs is an experimental lab which offers a space for innovative and creative approaches to non-structured activity which doesn’t ‘fit in the box’. It’s a voluntary program that students can take part in which nurtures pure play as the mindset for developing solutions for projects provided by industry partners. A brief is set by an external partner and in groups, with teacher and external partner guidance, students are asked to solve a unique design challenge. 

In September, Emma, our Strategy Director, gave Torrens students a brief, in the format they could expect to receive from a client, asking them to answer the question: ’Why and how could an Australian based charity directly engage with young people through a digital experience, so that they may learn and be inspired about a charitable cause?’ Our only stipulation was that they needed to first understand what problems exist for a self-selected audience group and use research to find potential solutions. Only then were they to produce concepts for this experience, detailing the opportunity identified. The format of the concept was entirely up to them. But it had to be suitable for a .org or .gov website. 

Josh Smith and Emma Andrews

UX Director Josh Smith, and Strategy Director Emma Andrews

During a mid-point check in, ahead of the final outcomes in December, the students presented their initial thinking to us (Josh and Emma). We were able to see and assist the students as they dealt with the nuances of a real project, set their own constraints around the brief to really focus the efforts of their work and encouraged them to develop the confidence to ask challenging questions. 

A key takeaway for the students was that ambiguity is something they need to become comfortable with. In the early stages, the group struggled to take their first steps, worried they would take the wrong path. Often, you just need to start and accept that you won't know the questions to ask or the decision to make until some mistakes are made. It’s here that the learning begins. It's about accepting that this is part of the process.

For their final presentation, students delivered a well thought-through solution, and demonstrated great teamwork and collaboration. They asked lots of questions and were very curious to compare their approach with what would happen in real life with a real client. The final solution, a certified ambassador program, involved partnering with a charity for training and endorsement. The ambassador program was reinforced and promoted through word of mouth between participants, further raising the profile of the program. Ultimately, the solution resulted in a strong community and social connection to the problem. 

Student ambassador program presentation slide

Students in the ambassador program presented their ideas in a simulated creative pitch scenario.

For us, it was nice to see that, as the target audience, students utilised their unique perspective that we as an agency don't have. They also looked beyond a purely digital solution, considering the services and systems that support great design. Part of our goal was to learn from the students, and their unique perspectives and mindset took the ideas in a really interesting direction. It would be good to see how we could involve students in co-design during future projects. We thoroughly enjoyed supporting the students throughout the project and have been impressed with their ability to work remotely throughout.

What they’ve said about it

“The collaboration between Billy Blue College of Design [part of Torrens University] and Luminary provides immense value to design students in a very fluid and exploratory way. The partnership has enabled us to insert real-world industry briefs and practices into the learning environment, ensuring our students are industry ready. By working more closely together, there's greater focus on sharing insights from digital strategy experts and it highlights for students the intersection between our UX & Web and Communication Design courses. We take pride in being an industry-led university and partnerships such as this with Luminary enables us to provide the space and knowledge for students to push boundaries under the mentorship of leading professionals.”

– Saskia Fairfull, Industry Engagement, Torrens University

“Working with Luminary has been an exceptional experience for the students at Torrens. The team created a challenging design brief for the students that would replicate a real-world experience of working with a client. The students also followed the same workflows and design stages that the team at Luminary would have engaged with. The students were excited, nervous and appreciative of the opportunity to be led by industry standards. After being provided with detailed feedback on their pitches, the students have now developed more robust and engaging solutions." 

– Liam Key, National Academic Coordinator, Torrens University

“Josh from Luminary joined the final year User Experience/Interaction Design Capstone Project class, in the School of Design and Architecture at Swinburne University of Technology, to talk about Luminary, to share important insights into working in user experience (UX), and give advice on how best to equip themselves to become work-ready. The students were really pleased to hear about Luminary as a progressive and creative company, and its outreach to young designers – but also, to hear from a design practitioner about the UX employment landscape in Australia. With new ways of working, it seems that they can connect with employers both nationally and internationally in their search for work opportunities in UX. It is really exciting from Swinburne’s point of view to start up this collaboration with Luminary, and we really look forward to broadening our interactions and deepening the shared value of the relationship in the future.”

– Jeni Paay,  Professor of Interaction Design & Director of Centre for Design Innovation, Swinburne University of Technology

Moving forward

We have an active dialogue with several department heads and we’re building out several ways in which we can best engage students. From early 2022, Swinburne and Torrens students can expect to see Luminary in their design portfolio reviews, at guest lectures and something we’re really excited about – elective units, designed by Luminary.

We’ll be writing a follow-up soon. Look out for posts to see what we’ve been up to. In the meantime, if you want to know more about design, UX and strategy at Luminary and the work that we do, please reach out for a chat.

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