Nan O’Sullivan

Nan O'Sullivan profile picture

Programme Director - Design for Social Innovation School of Design Innovation

Research Interests

Transition design, indigenous knowledge, design pedagogy, design for social innovation, participatory design


2017 Recipient of Victoria University of Wellington Equity and Diversity Award

2016 Recipient Early Career Teaching Excellence Award


PGCert Higher Education Learning and Teaching, Victoria University of Wellington

Master’s of Architecture, Victoria University of Wellington

Dip. Interior Environmental Design (AUT)


Nans' students' work
Modern Tribes Collective and Inclusive Cultural Pattern Maps—First Year Design 2015.

Both design practice and design education are evolving dynamically with the re-emergence of an interdisciplinary and more comprehensive approach to the pedagogy and discourse surrounding culture within design thinking and making. A demand to widen the scope of design inquisition away from the predominantly euro-centric model currently practiced to a more culturally inclusive approach acts as the principle catalyst in my endeavours to develop pedagogical models to enable this paradigm shift.

My research parallels Transition Design in which the importance of indigenous wisdom to the conception of “solutions in the present with future generations in mind” is framed. (Terry Irwin, 2015). Throughout my work indigenous wisdom is presented as being both a foundation from which to build design pedagogy and a tool for enabling designing for the ‘long now’. My research aims to ratify the relevance of indigenous knowledge, specifically that of Maori and Pasifika nations, to design education, thinking and practice. Hoki whakamuri kia anga whakamua, look to the past to forge the future.

Full list of publications by Nan O’Sullivan

Nan student work

Second year design pedagogy, creation: sharing—one's ideas and perspectives. As a specific feature, and as an expansion on their understanding of the relevance Ta-Va has in contemporary society, second year students are introduced to the ideology teu la va—the recognition of sacred and unbreakable connections. These connections can be to people, ideals or nature but importantly they are emotional, binding and eternal. These ideals engender respect and reciprocity and encourage mutuality, symmetry and balanced socio-spatial relationships. Students use these ideologies as the focus, nexus or counterpoint to western ideals and practices to create a personal standpoint that they aim to pursue and allow to guide their own design thinking, learning and practice.

Research Interests

Nan’s design research interests cover the changing faces, languages, values and processes required to undertake design and participate as a designer in the complex social and cultural issues that challenge both individuals as a part of a larger communities and societies as a whole. Discussed as ‘wicked problems’ Nan engages with the emergent design provocation Transition Design to investigate, identify, create, facilitate and communicate pathways towards positive futures that are informed by more equitable, inclusive and place-based approaches.


St Andrew Matautia—If We Fail To Construct Our Own Realities Others Will Do It for Us

Guided by both his own journey as a Pasifika student and the ideology of Tongan academic Dr. Hūfanga Okustino Māhina, St Andrew’s research illustrated his journey within design education and sought to identify within this thesis, ways in which indigenous knowledge can become an integral component within education, specifically design education in New Zealand.

Dipa Biswas—Are We There Yet?

Portrait in layers of fluro colours.

Dipa’s masters engaged in a pursuit to define our feminine selves within our own limitations, strength and freedoms. She challenged current social constructs to be both outmoded and duplicit. Her research defined the commonalities and differences between western depictions of feminine power (Wonder Woman) and culturally specific examples of this. Alongside her thesis Dipa visually responded to the question—Are We There Yet?


As both a practitioner and a pedagogue Nan’s relationship with the Schools of Architecture and Design at Victoria University of Wellington has been an enduring one and one of which she is very proud. It is only in recent years that Nan has shifted her primary focus to academia and taken on the roles of First Year Programme Director, Deputy Head of the School, and now Programme Director of the newest programme Design for Social Innovation. Nan’s teaching asks students to study, debate and demonstrate through their process and practice the roles and responsibilities of both design and designers in society. A specific emphasis of both her  teaching and research is the incorporation of indigenous, place-based knowledge as a critical component within sustainable design practices and a facilitator towards positive social change through design. Nan believes in taking an inclusive approach to the teaching and learning environment, and embracing diversity in order to introduce students to the multiplicities and intricacies of the design world, its vocabulary and its possibilities. Nan encourages an environment in which our students are both well-equipped and confident enough to confront and challenge the complexities held within the environments they both inhabit and design within. Her approach has gained recognition across the wider university and she was awarded the  Early Career Teaching Excellence Award for 2016 for her leadership in this work.


Associate Dean (students) 2018–present

Programme Director Design for Social Innovation 2017–present

Deputy Head of School 2016–2107

Programme Director First Year Design 2013–2017


Established in 1991, nan-odesign has endeavoured to bring to each project a level personal and personalized design work. Each project is a portrayal of each client.

Work history

Athfield Architects, 1982–1987

Bossley/Cheshire Architects, 1987–1988

Craig Moller Architects, 1988–1991

Private practice

nan-odesign, 1991–2012

Curriculum Vitae

Nan O’Sullivan CV