Meet Associate Professor Leah Heiss: Chair, Victorian Premier’s Design Awards

21 March 2023

Leah Heiss is no stranger to the Victorian Premier’s Design Awards (VPDA). As both a long-time judge and dual VPDA award recipient, she certainly encapsulates what the awards represent and will undoubtedly be instrumental in elevating the status of Victorian design on a global stage for many years to come.

Image of woman smiling at camera

Having the opportunity to interview Leah is a front row seat to what can only be described as a whirlwind journey into the essence of what thoughtful human- and planet-centred design in capable of achieving. Known worldwide for the extraordinary contribution she has made in co-designing new systems of care with the World Health Organization and many Australian healthcare providers – including the ground-breaking Facett hearing aiddiabetes jewellery and CaT pin – Leah is passionate, committed, empathetic and formidable.

She brings these attributes to her new position as VPDA Chair, which she will be undertaking alongside her existing roles as the Eva & Marc Besen International Research Chair in Design at Monash University; Designer in Residence at the Australian National Fabrication Facility; Co-leader of the Future Healthcare initiative at Monash University; and an Australian Good Design Ambassador.

Q: What does becoming Chair of the VPDA mean to you and what sort of impact does winning an award have on designers?

Leah is excited about taking on the role as Chair. For her it is an opportunity to talk about the value of design in an expanded way and to influence how people see design as not only a thing of beauty, but an integral part of the way we live, for example how design is helping to mitigate climate disasters or address social inequities.

She is quick to acknowledge the significance of winning a VPDA award and the multitude of benefits it brings, not only to the recipient, but to the project itself and its collaborators. ‘The rewards are numerous but recognition by your peers and a greater sense of esteem amongst the design community are high on that list. To be seen as being at the cutting edge of your craft presents you with new opportunities within the business community and your client base.'

‘It is incredibly enriching and boosts designers’ confidence in their ability to push boundaries. Moreover, receiving a VPDA award is formal recognition of your contribution to society and a direct feedback mechanism, particularly for young designers, that they are part of something bigger.’

Q: Having been at the forefront of designing and commercialising technology, what are your thoughts about the collaborative process and when it should begin?

‘Design needs to be brought in earlier. Working with complex healthcare technology systems and services, the sooner the designer gets involved, the more human- and planet-centred the outcome can be.’

Leah is a strong believer in the essential need to bring design thinking to what she calls ‘the bench’ –alongside nano-technology engineers, scientists and doctors – shortening the distance between designers and sector experts to achieve exceptional levels of innovation with products that help people and change lives.

‘Including design at the first stages of product or service conceptualisation improves its commercialisation DNA. It ensures that micro-decisions that get made at the scientific, engineering or electronic bench are different and interdisciplinary conversations happen sooner.’

Collaboration, especially in the long-term is Leah’s preferred mode of working. Embedding design capability in scientific, health and technology organisations has been the foundation of much of her success.

Q: With the challenges the healthcare sector is currently facing, what opportunities do you see for designers in that space?

‘Even in Victoria, where we enjoy high standards of healthcare, our systems are breaking down and we’re confronted with challenges on a daily basis – from ambulance shortages to elective surgery wait times. There are so many opportunities for design to play a pivotal role in in healthcare, and enormous potential for local designers to operate in an integrated capacity to bring together multiple disciplines and address complex healthcare issues.’

Leah’s work with Monash University’s Future Healthcare initiative focuses on these challenges and is working on ways we can improve the lived experience to deliver accessible, affordable healthcare solutions that are better for consumers and the environment, drawing on designers’ capacity to develop human-centred innovation.

‘We can’t do business-as-usual anymore. We need a radical new approach to addressing critical challenges and the only way we can do that is together, using an interdisciplinary approach that benefits everyone,’ said Leah.

Designers can have a major impact on society in the future with point-of-care medical devices that fit into everybody’s lives, where and when they need them – in their homes, their cars or public spaces – not just in hospitals.

‘The ideal scenario combines the collective intelligence of our designers, doctors, behaviour-change experts and economists to come up with new solutions at a systems level, with effects that trickle down to the technology level,’ she added.

Q: Working on changes to the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines sounds incredibly rewarding. How are designers contributing to that process?

Leah leads a team that is working on a multi-year project with the WHO’s Design for Impact group in Geneva to improve the usability and uptake of WHO guidelines. The design team, from Monash Art, Design and Architecture is using co-design approaches to bring together people from across nine countries to understand the lived experience of using the guidelines.

Like so many of Leah’s design collaborations, the WHO project focuses on long-term relationship building and bringing about long-term change.

In her view, designers are uniquely placed to support those who compile and write these documents which inform healthcare practices worldwide. By developing an easy-to-use toolkit to implement the guidelines, the project team is breaking down barriers and reframing design principles, enhancing the way people interact with vital health-related information. It is a huge responsibility but one that will have an enormous global impact.

Q: You’re a huge advocate of Victorian design. Where do its strengths lie?

Victoria is already known as an innovative state and it has a reputation for thinking creatively to solve challenges. Leah is passionate when she talks about ‘Victoria’s extraordinary design capability.’

She believes that it stems from systems thinking and the fact that Victorian designers have a ‘give it a go’ mentality. This means that they are brave and willing to take risks – they don’t have a to live up to expectations of what has come before them.

‘Innovators come here to manufacture a product or to develop a pharmaceutical and they fulfil that need. Design becomes the reason they stay. Enhancing our sovereign design capability is the best way to attract and retain the talent right here in Victoria.’

‘From a contemporary design perspective, we don’t have to follow in anyone’s footsteps. We can change paradigms if we support our design industry. The possibilities are endless.’

Victorian designers can have a global impact if they frame what they are doing to align with what the planet and humanity need. She points out the high calibre of innovative work already underway here, including the innovations being designed in our backyard and exported to the world.

According to Leah, ‘the value of design is articulated and heightened in its truest form when we collaborate long term.’

As the new Chair of the Victorian Premier’s Design Awards, her finely tuned collaboration and relationship-building skills will be an excellent addition, especially during the rigorous peer-reviewed judging process.

Victorian Premier’s Design Awards

Established by the Victorian Government in 1996, the Victorian Premier’s Design Awards are an opportunity to highlight and celebrate local design capability.

The Awards provide an opportunity for businesses and the community to better understand the role of design in creating functional, safe and efficient products, services and spaces. The Awards also showcase the depth of design talent in Victoria and the capability and capacity of the Victorian design industry.