Mario Minichiello: Innovative by design

Mario Minichiello: “We’ve now got the best curriculum in Australia and the best team I’ve ever worked with.”  Picture: Simone De Peak
Mario Minichiello: “We’ve now got the best curriculum in Australia and the best team I’ve ever worked with.” Picture: Simone De Peak

THREE years ago Head of Design Professor Mario Minichiello arrived at the University of Newcastle and quickly and not-so-quietly began embarking on a mission to bring changes to the visual communication design program.

Now, it's a program he's proud of.

"We've now got the best curriculum in Australia and the best team I've ever worked with," he says.

Before coming to Newcastle, Minichiello lived and worked in Britain where he was, at different times, employed as everything from a political illustrator at The Guardian newspaper to academic director at Loughborough and head of the school of visual communication at Birmingham City University.

His office walls in Newcastle are covered with his illustrations, many which are political. Minichiello says that he's becoming increasingly interested in design and its ability to change things, the ability to affect the habits of people and the direction of future economic activities. He sees visual culture as crucial to society and believes images have a special place in developing human experiences.

‘‘Newcastle is a fantastic city and we should encourage people to move here and to bring their skills with them.’’

Mario Minichiello

"I was head-hunted and the challenge really was to create a visual communication design program that would be world class," Minichiello says of his arrival. "So the uni allowed us to do a Newcastle and worldwide search for the best people we wanted to staff this degree; it allowed us to completely rewrite the degree and develop the PhD in the way we wanted."

Under Minichiello's guidance, the university brought in new local and international faculty to his team.

The entire design degree is now different from the offer in other universities, with broader coverage of design practices, theory, history and career context. Each project encourages the students to work with industry or the end-user in mind by asking essential questions - who, what, when, where and why.

Minichiello says current projects including a health app involving the Hunter Medical Research Institute. Students from schools of design, IT and communications collaborated to create the application. He believes the medical industry will benefit from design, as does every industry.

"Students were developing the first stages of the app [which would] enable people to recover from their incidence of stroke," Minichiello says. "It was design, IT and communication students working together. It's just the beginning of things we want to do with health and IT and design as a team."

Pro Vice-Chancellor of faculty of health and medicine John Aitken worked with Minichiello on the rehabilitation app.

"Our university in particular has a lot of technical firepower, but if you're going to convert that technical know-how into products, you do need that design element," he says. "The university is very keen to develop creative design and link it with industry."

Minichiello wants the broader community more involved with the university and vice versa. He wants their work to have a global profile, and he wants major creative industries and businesses to relocate to the Hunter region.

"The region needs to be known for all its many positive things," he says. "Newcastle is a fantastic city and we should encourage people to move here and to bring their skills with them."

Jane Shadbolt is a lecturer in visual communication at the university. She's organising an animation festival in Newcastle as part of a much larger international festival in Melbourne. The dynamic festival will show at Tower Cinemas on King Street, Newcastle, July 31-August 1 (details in story below). Shadbolt says it will showcase animation culture that you don't get from movies and film.

"We worked with a new agency, GUTS design, who combined with the university's marketing team and Event Cinemas. It's a great example of industry and uni collaboration," Minichiello says of the animation festival.

"Mario has helped push this out to a wider audience. He's been a motivating factor for getting it to be as big as it is. His contribution is really important," Shadbolt says. "It's completely new in its formula at the cinema, with loads more support from the university."

Minichiello is excited to see the festival showing in the city rather than at the university as it has in the past.

He notes that along with the festival, design and illustration students are taking on new creative tasks which are bringing positive international publicity to the uni. For example, students have animated a version of pop star Taylor Swift's Shake It Off video, notching more than a million YouTube views as well as press coverage.

Recent graduates also have been influenced by Minichiello.

Finbah Neill, 21, is a designer working locally for branding and design company, Mezzanine Media. Neill has a degree in visual communication design and he completed a course called illustration and ideas with Professor Minichiello.

"He was set to make Newcastle's design degree on par with London and New York; he was always encouraging us to look at the global perspective towards design," Neill says. "He really considered the students, he cares a lot and almost to the point he considers them his children. He considers all of his students his army. We all studied together and learned together, but when we finish the degree and leave it's still important for us to work together and give each other opportunities," Neill says.

He says Minichiello is always striving to do things better. "This is how Mario looks at things. It's not that it's bad, it's just there's room for improvement." Neill says.

"Our student graduates will help us take the next steps in developing the city," Minichiello says. "We need our students starting new creative businesses ventures, and developing their ideas here. By doing so they will help build a strong future. You have to believe that you can change things for the better and be a force for good in the world, that's our cause."

A still from the Taylor Swift Shake It Off animation by Newcastle students.

A still from the Taylor Swift Shake It Off animation by Newcastle students.

THE Newcastle International Animation Festival is bound to get people far and wide talking as it turns up the volume with exciting original local content to go with a full schedule of international content.

The festival will kick off with a big boom on Friday night, July 31, at Tower Cinemas on King Street, Newcastle, featuring a red carpet launch to celebrate the world premiere of Going on 16 –  a new Daniel Johns music video animated by the Hunter’s top animators, artists and design students.

The new video follows on the success of an animated version of Taylor Swift’s hit song Shake It Off done by University of Newcastle students earlier this year.

The Shake It Off project involved 49 first-year animation students each given 52frames of Taylor Swift’s Shake it Off music video, and producing 2767 frames of hand-drawn rotoscoped animation footage. Rotoscoping is a technique in which animators traced over footage, frame by frame, to use in live-action films. 

The Newcastle animation festival will bring together 60 of the world’s best short films at Tower Cinemas. 

The program on Friday, July 31, starts at 6pm and, other than the Going on 16 video premiere, includes a selection of world-class short films.

On Saturday, August 1, there is a kids’ program at 2pm, an international program at 7pm and a late-night adults-only session of  psychedelic and bizarre short films at 9.30pm.

Tickets are $10 per session, available at the cinema and

 As part of the Animate Daniel Johns contest, Hunter animators have pitched a single frame of their own animation treatment. The best were then be chosen to work on their own 50 frames of footage to create an amazing rotoscoped and free-styled masterpiece. 

The winning animation will receive an animation masterclass as well as $1000 cash and a VIP movie pass.


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