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New chair in the Division of Multi-Disciplinary Design

Nicole Porter, Ph.D., has been named chair of the University of Utah’s Division of Multi-Disciplinary Design (MDD) in the College of Architecture and Planning, effective Aug. 1, 2022. Porter will oversee education, curriculum development, research, programs and recruitment in the division. She was appointed after an extensive, international search that began last year and included virtual public presentations and student meetings.

MDD currently offers a Bachelor of Science and a minor in design. The holistic program explores physical, digital and platform design, encompassing a curriculum with four substantive areas applicable to design education: Studio, technical, history/theory and practice.

Porter is the author of over 40 publications and conference presentations delivered in 20 different countries. She is the world-leading authority on the relationship between landscape and place branding, exemplified by the book “Landscape and Branding: the promotion and production of place” (Routledge, 2016). Porter is also internationally recognized for her pioneering work at the forefront of mind-body-environment relationships and well-being, synthesizing built environment design theory with mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs).

Meet the new chair

With a background in landscape architecture (Ph.D.), architecture (master’s) and planning (bachelor’s in planning and design/architecture) domains, Porter worked in academia in Australia at the University of Melbourne and the University of Canberra before joining the University of Nottingham, England, in 2011. Her interdisciplinary work integrates theory, design studio teaching and public engagement, with teaching linked to research activities that respond to local landscape issues in various urban as well as non-urban contexts.

What attracted you to this position at the U?

I am excited by what has already been established within the Division Multi-Disciplinary Design in a relatively short time: an innovative curriculum, an enthusiastic and growing community of students and a dedicated and creative faculty. This environment is particularly appealing because it integrates design thinking, process, pedagogy and research in a truly multi-disciplinary context.

My own background is in different disciplines. I started in fine art, then architecture and planning, and then discovered landscape architecture, the broader spatial and built environment and natural and constructed environments. More recently, my work has branched out to incorporate mindfulness and well-being, investigating how the physical (and digital) spaces we design and inhabit affect our mental and physical health, and how we might engage with those and understand better through mindfulness and being aware of the present moment. I think that particularly if we are to address big global challenges, environmental issues, public health and social cohesion—we need to creatively bring together different disciplines, and this is the place to achieve it.

Finally, as a landscape architect, those majestic mountains are an attraction in and of themselves—an inspiring, stunning landscape to work and learn within!

What skills do you bring to this role?

Having conducted research, teaching and professional practice in Australia and Europe, I bring curiosity and a global perspective to the role; as well as continually learning new things and meeting new people and places. I value collaborating with others, and the MDD program is as much about learning skills of staying curious and collaborating to bring design and non-design stakeholders together to discover new insights, opportunities and solutions.

How do you feel about being in a college where all three chairs are women?

It is really positive and shows a great vision for the college. At the University of Nottingham, I served as a faculty lead within our institution-wide Researcher Academy (the equivalent of the U’s Graduate School) where I worked with inspiring colleagues from a range of backgrounds, learning an enormous amount from this experience. Extending leadership opportunities to a diverse group of people with different perspectives and skills is how we achieve great things, rather than relying on people with the same ideas and approaches. Having an authentic mix of voices is essential whenever you want to tackle complex problems, make balanced decisions, and make meaningful changes in the world.

What do you think about the program, and how do you envision the future of MDD?

I am impressed by the ethic of care that guides the College of Architecture and Planning, with its core tenets of ‘responsibility, resilience, respect, and response.’ I see these as being fundamental to the program and the division. My vision is to continue strengthening and embedding this ethic of care in all we do, so that the MDD division is the pre-eminent place for creative individuals, organizations and communities to collectively design places, products, and systems that support mutual flourishing of people and planet.

One of the first things I’ll be doing is having conversations with students, faculty, staff and stakeholders to collectively co-design that vision as we move forward.

What do you feel passion for?

Lots of things! My first intuitive response is to say I am passionate about valuing and creating great places and landscapes, but I am equally passionate about how those places support communities and individuals. If you don’t have welcoming, healthy, and inspiring places –parks, buildings, streets, you will struggle to cultivate a friendly, open and healthy community.

I’ve also become passionate about returning to some of the fundamentals of design and just being mindful of the simple things that we can all too often be too distracted or busy to notice. There’s always a new technology and new software to learn, but it is important to remember the fundamentals like observational drawing and listening with empathy. Mindfulness-based practice teaches us to have present moment awareness, which is a way of engaging with the world that is beneficial on a personal level; its application in research and teaching for designers is where I also see enormous potential, as it reinforces those fundamentals.

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