Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Students crossing cultural boundaries within a transnational design course in China: An activity theory analysis

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posted on 2021-12-08, 22:33 authored by Brenda Saris-Brandon

The focus of this thesis is on visual communication design (VCD) students’ engagement with creative design process learning within a transnational context. The context is an international partnership between a higher education institution in New Zealand and Hunan City University (HNCU) in China. The Chinese government is currently positioned in a third wave of an internationalisation strategy which encourages cooperative agreements with foreign or overseas institutional partners situated within Chinese universities. For design institutions in particular, the Made in China government initiative has led universities to actively engage with design education approaches imported from the west. The aim for Chinese institutions is to encourage student creativity in order to build on government aspirations to move China from a manufacturing, to an innovation and design led economy.   Cultural historic activity theory (CHAT) was used to analyse data from a VCD studio classroom at HNCU in China. A three-level hierarchy of artefacts model was developed for the analysis, which by extention offers a CHAT approach for creative design scenarios. The study had two phases. The first comprised two project-based case studies exploring how creative design process learning occurred when the students were exposed to design thinking. Students were organised into dyads to foster collaborative work for the projects, a branding project, and a cultural project involving illustration design. Data gathered through video stimulated recall interviews with eight dyad participants (sixteen VCD students) and 200 written reflections were analysed. The second phase of the research focused on understanding the cultural and historic pedagogical context. Eight semi-structured interviews were conducted with local teachers at HNCU, and observations were undertaken in Chinese language medium classrooms.  Underpinning the findings, are the ways in which Chinese design education practices at HNCU are shaped by an interweaving of Confucian thought within contemporary social and political tenets (e.g., striving for perfection). The analysis revealed that familiar and unfamiliar learning practices, including previous models encountered by students in the classroom, together with an adjustment to new practices, directly impacted student actions. Imported educational practices resulted in tensions and contradictions between step-by-step and iterative design thinking processes, and collaboration within the division of labour. Non-creative and creative activity outcome conclusions were drawn, and it is argued that a fresh perspective emerged.   A creative craft practice situated within its historic and cultural context exists at HNCU. Key to the idea of creative craft practice is that historic and current sociocultural contexts participate in the creative process and contextual elements such as materiality, and teaching practices which use imitation, repetition and precedents, are assembled. The practice contained deeply intertwined student object-oriented motives of product over process, and productions of excellence or perfection. Over time, the efficacy of these motives, alongside drawing from examples for conceptual development, led to enhanced student agency and engagement. This overall finding challenges the creativity deficit belief about students from China, and the originality syndrome imposed on VCD students. The contribution is timely owing to a dearth of studies about graphic or VCD education in general and the potential influence of transnational teaching on creative design process learning in China.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Culture and Context

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Unit

Asian Studies Institute

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Education


Doyle, Stephanie; Loveridge, Judith