In conversation with: MA Design alumnus Johan Groenewald on design that questions and provokes


Not unlike many white collar workers, LASALLE MA Design alumnus Johan Groenewald found himself in search of meaning and purpose after seven years of working in banking and financial services consulting. Jaded in his career and in dire need of a creative outlet, Johan started weekly art classes with close friends which were a source of respite that also awakened a long dormant creative spirit.

“A creative career had been completely outside my frame of reference growing up in South Africa,” Johan explains. He had initially pursued a career in actuarial science and mathematical statistics out of pragmatism, but he was now resolute in his desire for change. Johan resigned from his job, sold his house and car and moved to design capital Milan for a one-year course in product and interior design where he had, in his own words, “the best year of my life.”

When a job opportunity with PwC in Singapore opened up in 2018, Johan took the chance to move to Asia, with the intention of continuing his design studies. “I considered a few schools in Singapore, but was particularly attracted to LASALLE because of its reputation in the creative industries and focus on research-led practice,” says Johan of his decision to enrol in the MA Design programme at LASALLE. What further clinched the deal was that the College offered the option of taking the MA on a part-time basis, which would allow Johan to explore his creative voice while juggling his demanding day job.

We spoke to Johan fresh off his public exhibition, presented as his MA capstone project, as he shared more about his mid-career pivot into the design industry, how the programme helped him develop a framework for his own design practice and refined his research interests, and his hopes to continue creating works that provoke deeper questions about society.

What about design moves or inspires you?

If I think about encounters with art or design that I found most moving, it would be those which evoked existential questions within me.

On my first overseas trip to London, I was struck by the vastness of the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern and the mysterious, abstract paintings in the Rothko Room. I vividly remember being in awe of the interior of St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican and marvelling at the optimism and humanism on display in the Renaissance palazzos and piazzas in Florence. And, whenever I’m in Milan, I always make sure to visit the Design Supermarket at La Rinascente for inspiration.

To me, good design is not only about function and aesthetics – instead design can find its ‘use’ in the questions it evokes and the meaning it carries.

As someone seeking to switch to a career in design, what were you hoping to gain from the MA Design programme?

I enrolled in this master’s programme to equip myself with the knowledge and skills necessary to pursue a career in the design industry. I wanted to form a deep understanding of design concepts and develop a framework for my own practice. I knew that the programme leaders would be seasoned industry practitioners and inspirational educators, who could inspire me and guide me along the way, and that the programme would allow me the freedom to define my own research topic and learning journey. Ultimately, I hoped to produce meaningful and impactful work that I could share with the public.

My three years at LASALLE definitely met my expectations. I was exposed to ideas and methodologies that influenced my work greatly. I was inspired by the ideas, interests, unique perspectives and creativity of each of my classmates and how they drew from their own life experiences from all corners of the globe to design for social good. My lecturers challenged and inspired me, and I had the opportunity to host a public exhibition of my work as the final product of my research.

Johan (first from left), with Nur Hidayah, Dean, Faculty of Design, and classmates from the MA Design programme.

Can you tell us more about your research – how did your time on the programme shape it?

I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to study when I enrolled. I knew that I was interested in speculative design – concepts and objects that confront us with important personal and societal questions.

I began with wanting to examine the concept of identity, and the manifestations of the ‘self’ through culture, more specifically architecture, art, objects and fashion. My research in the first year explored the topic of the ‘self’ in philosophy, sociology and psychology and led me to the impact of social media on identity. But since so much has already been said about this topic, I redirected my attention to the next frontier of social interaction – virtual reality.

Displays at Johan’s exhibition Being There With Them: Designing for 'homing' in social virtual worlds.

I was intrigued by the role that virtual reality could soon play in identity construction and communication, human connection and placemaking. To test my ideas, I decided to develop hyperreal avatars of myself, friends and family, and have them interact via virtual reality, in an aspirational version of ‘home’. My aim was to test whether the participants feel embodied and socially co-present, whether they were able to connect intimately and whether they felt at home in this virtual setting.

What was the reaction to this research during your exhibition?

It was rewarding to be able to share the physical manifestation of my ideas, research and practice with the public, and to hear from visitors how they perceive my work. Many visitors interpreted my work in ways that I had not thought of myself, and inspired me to develop my research project further and hopefully share it with a wider audience.      


What are your plans for the future when you graduate?

As my research progressed over the last three years, my confidence in my design capabilities grew and my passion deepened. I found that my interests are broad, but that I particularly enjoy testing ideas and theories through the conceptualisation and execution of speculative design interventions.

I hope that I can develop my research further and share it with a broader audience, through further practice-led research and even commercial applications of my work.

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