Lunch with Mark Armstrong

It was while he was working on an automotive production line making car brakes that Mark Armstrong realised there was somewhere else he ought to be, other things he could be making. He was a young man – it was the 1970s – and he’d taken the factory job after withdrawing from a surveying degree at RMIT. ”I didn’t have the aptitude,” he says of that degree. ”I couldn’t ‘see’ it.”
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He is grateful for his six months in the auto factory. ”That was a fantastic time. I saw how things got put together and started to question my whole agenda. Was this all there is? I couldn’t see any way out.” He returned to RMIT to look through various departments and, in the design faculty, he had an epiphany when he met a senior lecturer by chance.

”I had a chat to him and as soon as I looked around the studios and the sketches and models, I was gobsmacked. I was like a kid in a toy shop. Everything he said made perfect sense to me.” The lecturer invited him to join an evening drawing class without having to enrol, and the next year he started a degree in industrial design.

Here he is today talking about his latest project, the bionic eye. In concert with scientists, technicians, engineers and medicos, Armstrong’s part in the ambitious project is to oversee the design of the eyewear component, via his role as Practice Professor at Monash Art, Design and Architecture (MADA). There, with a small team, he is focusing on the end-user of a technology that incorporates the eyewear with a small camera, which connects to a coil under a skin flap at the back of the head. That coil transfers the camera imagery to a set of tiny ceramic tiles implanted in the visual cortex of the brain, the processor distilling what was live, full-colour imagery into a matrix of dots the blind recipient’s brain will ”see”. The initial test subjects will be people who have lost their sight; it is expected to later extend to those who are congenitally blind.

As he describes this inspirational design project and all the careful work that goes into it, it is fitting that Armstrong sits in one of Melbourne’s most beautifully designed restaurant makeovers: David’s, long known as a plush, dimly lit Hangzhounese parlour tucked away in Cecil Place off Chapel Street, has been redesigned with spiffy whitewashed walls, cute school chairs and soft greenery. As we talk about design, I can’t help but admire the perfectly pitched interiors – and the amusing ”Chop!! Chop!!” cards we are presented with, in which we can tick off selections with wooden pencils.

Dumplings are a given – the place is renowned for them – so Armstrong chooses the chilli pork ones, along with a selection of bao offerings (shredded Peking duck, spicy lamb and chicken). All are small dishes, perfect introductions to something more substantial – Gong Bo chicken stir-fry with radishes, peanuts, cucumber, chilli and garlic. It is all meant to be reminiscent of old-country Hangzhou – if anyone can truly recall such a place.

Armstrong has spent much time visiting China throughout the years, his industrial design work taking him to many places and exposing him to many gifted, interesting people. His view of globalism, technology and the internet is one that is enthusiastic about the opportunities for Australian design graduates with the nous to grasp a cultural shift that will celebrate designers and their ability to customise for the client.

In 1984 he was a founder of design consultancy Blue Sky – still his mainstay – and the range of design work he has done through it is extraordinary, from the Sydney Olympic torch and the Cochlear Nucleus 5 hearing implant, to the new trains on Sydney’s commuter rail network, and from incarnations of Ryobi drills to Qantas’ ”Next Generation Check-In”.

Now, with his ”other” job at Monash – he flies down from his Sydney home every fortnight – Armstrong is hoping to do even more to embed Australia, and particularly Monash University, as a global design leader. ”My aspirations are high,” he says. ”One of the things about design is that it synergises everything. The synthesis of great medical thinking, clever IT and engineering – and industrial design is the glue that pulls it all together into something that can be commercialised. That is why we [designers] are often at the focus point of community attention, because we bring new technology together and humanise it.”

These days, he says, community awareness of the importance of design is greater than ever, which is why work on the bionic eye – expected to be ready for human test subjects next year – is so satisfying.

”Most of the time I just get caught up in what I am doing; you stay focused on what your role is,” he says. ”But now and again I pinch myself and think what a privilege it is to work on a project like this. There are many other projects I have worked on in my career that are much less rewarding and take just as much time and equal amounts of energy. This has a great deal of potential to change people’s lives. That said, I do recognise that my role is small compared to the scientists who have developed the technology and pushed these boundaries as far as they have.”

Apart from the bionic eye project, Armstrong’s role at Monash means engaging the university with international research projects and companies. ”It is a very big challenge; it is not easy to draw US and European companies to Australia in the big league for design. They don’t think of Australia as the epicentre. But we have the view: why shouldn’t Monash be a design hot spot like MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] in the northern hemisphere?”

So Armstrong is launching three PhD-based projects in which the graduates engage with Electrolux, Cochlear and a big US organisation (yet to be announced) on research that aims to have significant repercussions for the industries involved. ”It is about a designed outcome, not a massive book that is going to collect dust on a professor’s shelf. Impactful design… that is about new knowledge. The costs are relatively low, but the gains are great.”

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.