Design and society
Okay, I’m going to try and squeeze this one out now, since I seem to skate around this relationship between design and society. It’s been tough only because its the central impetus to my research and design and I’m not satisfied with literal or simplistic interpretations.
Through this research, what has been illuminated are how my values are the main driver for what I do. What I do is led by what I value. So it is natural to say that my teaching, design perspective and research is aligned and it is driven by concerns I have of design’s role in society.
So what does this mean? This concern is on several levels. The top most one is my belief that designers, or equally, people can have agency for social/cultural change. One could argue this to be idealistic, naive and positive perspective, but I guess that’s the way I am hard-wired. Though what I resist is how designs (or people) of that kind have a tendency to believe that their case is worthier than others. This self-righteousness is something I dislike. I dislike it more so now because I used to be this way. I remember feeling self-righteous for working with human rights organisations, being surrounded by similar minded vocal activists and perhaps alienating the rest of the society in how we can all move forwards towards a positive, inclusive future.
Cameron has questioned my own harsh criticism towards other designers in the past. (http://raws.adc.rmit.edu.au/~e48618/blog/?p=60)He comments how I have condemned designers for not trying to better society in significant ways. His critique puzzled me at the time as him being the founder of Eco-graphic design Society, I thought he was on my side of the shouting match.
However, through this research, I have come to re-evaluate my black and white agenda. Through my research, I have also discovered that underneath the radical-social-reform-through-design-agenda, there was a deeper investigation of how design plays an active role in engaging meaningful interactions between people. This transition or illumination has had significant impact on who I am and my practice. Design’s role and connection to society is not only through creating public campaigns on global warming or how medicine labels should be legible by the elderly. It is not about what, but the how. I now value that it is to do with how designers can approach their designing by the way they can create meaningful interactions with and between people. From this perspective, it doesn’t matter whether the content (the what) is about social/cultural/environmental concerns. The context of what you design can be many things that aren’t obvious or a literal interpretation of ’social responsibility’.
My recent encounter with an global envrionmental organisation illustrates this point. (see blog post http://raws.adc.rmit.edu.au/~e48618/blog/?p=88). Will add more later.
Critique of reflective practice
Reading the PhD Design discussion list in May 2006, I came across an interesting and very feverish discussion that questions whether research into individual design process is relevant at doctoral level. I thought I’d use this as an opportunity to argue why I value practice-led research in my PhD.
The main criticism voiced by Terrence Love (from Curtin University, Perth – who is this guy, need to dig up more detail) is that ‘research that focuses on the experiences or reflective subjective process of the designer is subject to some strong criticism in epistemological terms.’ (3.5.06) His view seems to refute that subjectivity can be a way to understand, reveal and learn from specific contexts.
The core of the criticism stems from how ‘research’ is defined in the field of design. Issues with defining what constitutes ‘research’ is frequently discussed amongst design research literature (Biggs, 2002; Douglas, 2000 ;Downton, xx; Fallman, 2005 ;Frayling, 1993; Rosenberg, XX). It is also the underlying discourse at annual conferences such as the Research Into Practice held in the UK and the on-line PhD design discussion list hosted by the Design Research Society (www.designresearchsociety.org) where Love is a regular participant. Through such forums, conferences and literature, new conceptualisations of the relationship between design and research is evolving. The discourse is not to decide whether one is more legitimate than the other, as I doubt whether a consensus would ever be reached, but to foster a deeper and critical research culture within art and design disciplines.
The discourse I refer to above is fueled mostly by the dualism of perspectives on research. On one hand, research is defined as a way of producing knowledge in a systematic, scientific approach that produces findings that are generalisable. On the other, it is a way of producing knowledge that is situated in context and is generated from reflecting on personal experiences. However, as Tonkinwise and Lorber-Kasunic (xx) argues, ‘Disputes about what qualifies as research are by necessity both political and ontological.’ What I believe to be ‘research’ and ‘knowledge’ is not what the majority, tradition or academy says is ‘correct’. Rather, it is the criticality, rigour and connection to a wider body of knowledge that enables me to argue my personal and political belief in what ‘research’ and ‘knowledge’ may be.
Returning to Love’s perspective mentioned earlier in this discussion, I intend to argue my perspective on research, in particular, practice-led research. I felt his critique was a useful way to construct an argument as to why I believe that the work contained in this exegesis is relevant at a doctoral level. I also acknowledge that there is nothing new in my argument on practice-led research – many others, more academically proficient and prolific than me, had made compelling arguments than what I put humbly here. And, needless to say, I draw on their perspectives in formulating my own argument. However, what I argue as my own unique and individual contribution to this discourse, is another voice in creating and sharing knowledge of design brought through practice-led research.
Disseminating this knowledge through practice-led research is what I believe to be the core value of my contribution to knowledge. In the previous section, I have outlined the method of enquiry through action research and phenomenology. These methodologies have enabled me to enquire the nature of what design is through my practice. Design, being one of those terms that is intrinsically difficult to define, is the crux of my investigation. This view contrasts with Love’s point on design that, ‘Most activities are routine. We know how to do it already.’ Do we? I would argue that different process, context, application and people provide many ways in how design is explored. I would argue that design is contextual, so there is no ‘routine’ in designing unless one is designing the same item for the same people, with the same people, for the same purposes at the same time. This rather paints ‘design’ as a machine-production activity that describe a practice that I am unfamiliar with (and uninterested in).
Design is also interpreted, actioned and studied differently in different disciplines. Therefore, I explicitly situate my investigation within the practice of communication design, and this is the field where I believe I am contributing the most to. Using ‘people’ as the foci of the research, I have investigated the role and agency of ‘people’ in a design process. I explored both the process of design and artefact of design in a communication design context.
Furthermore, Love also makes the statement, ‘…some Art and Design fields are slow to accept that… it is very rare in research terms that any new knowledge comes from design activity. This is particularly true in terms of new knowledge at the level of doctoral level.’ In his comment, Love questions the value placed on knowledge, or more specifically, a different kind of knowledge. The kind of knowledge Love is pointing to is implied in another comment he makes, ‘This makes it difficult for me to see, in research terms, how researching design processes of individual designers offers solid generalisable research findings of the sort expected of a doctoral thesis.’ (4.5.06) His comment critiques two points. The first point is that Love values and privileges repeatable and provable knowledge. The other is the question of the knowledge contributed by an individual designer.
I will begin by addressing the first point he makes on generalisable knowledge. And again, I have a different opinion to Love on what constitutes knowledge. Building on what I have discussed earlier, I argue that ‘new knowledge’ is constantly created through design as an act of world-making. By its nature, design is future-oriented. On this point, Terry Rosenberg (ref his paper on designs on critical practice) further questions why there is a need to force design into an ‘epistemological mould’ that shackles design knowledge to theory that is retrospective. Instead, he argues that design practice creates knowledge that,
…is of what is yet to be rather than of the now – designing cannot hang an epistemology on the certainty of the given – something already there… Its object of attention (critical) is somehow deferred – lying in the future; and, possessed by the uncertainties of the future.
Rosenberg argues that design is a realm of the future and is ‘disposed to bring into being – not only as provocation or reflection on our world – but in order to make the world or a small measure of it differently’. It challenges different understandings and definitions of ‘knowledge’ that is favoured by Love. Indeed, it has provoked me to critically consider what form of ‘knowledge’ I am creating and investigating through my research. More importantly, this ‘new knowledge’ also has to be ‘a significant contribution’ for it to be worthy of a doctoral level. So what is this ’significant contribution of new knowledge’ of the kind that is situated in the future?
One of the contributions I believe that my research makes is the propositional framework for the practice of communication design. This proposition builds on current understandings and interactions that occur in practice. In this sense, it utilises knowledge that is a ‘reflection on our world.’ Building on this form of ‘knowledge’, the proposition I make extends this knowledge into ‘designing’ a practice that is people-centred. This does not imply that the current practice isn’t people-centred, on the contrary, I argue that it is. However, I believe the proposition that I put forward extends the current understanding of communication design. It does this by exploring methodologies that facilitate and illuminate a diversity of engagement and interaction between people. Thus, the contribution I make is intended to facilitate the activity of design of other design practitioners by framing the practice in a propositional context. By sharing my research with other design practitioners, I am hoping that this knowledge will ‘bring into being’ (Rosenberg) a different kind of practice that is people-centred by a ’small measure of it differently’.
Building on Rosenberg’s argument, Grocott (2005) furthers the discourse by proposing that the role of design research is to ‘evoke discussion of how the world could be’, rather than reflecting how the world is. I interpret Grocott’s comments as a way to illuminate the underlying concern and impetus of my research, which is design’s role in society. This concern is frequently raised in design discourse (Buckminster-Fuller, xx; Margolin, xx; Papenek, xx; to mention a few. I also discuss this more in chapter xx). I wish to contribute and further the existing discourse on this topic, not from a theoretical perspective but by exploring what it means in practice from a designer’s perspective. As design is a doing, thinking and making activity, I believe knowledge created through practice is a greater contribution to practice, as the knowledge I share is more ‘transferrable’ and ‘applicable’ to other designers. One of my motives in exploring this topic was to evolve my practice to be more socially based ie illuminating the role of people, and more importantly, how the values of others and oneself are negotiated and explored through a design process. In this sense, I believe that my research does ‘evoke discussion’ of how the practice could be in relation to its role in society.
The point I made earlier on what it means in practice from a designer’s perspective brings us back to the second point made by Love, where he heavily critiques knowledge that is contributed by an individual designer. At this point, we return to the earlier comment he made that had become the catalyst in starting this discussion. Love argues, ‘Designers, and design researchers who have been designers, should be very aware of the massive errors possible in interpreting their internal sense of correctness of their feeling and thinking.’ (4.5.06) Is this the right quote to bring in by Love, then, I’ll have to start arguing the idea of ‘correctness’ agian… Here, bring in Schon. Through reflective practice, we firstly illuminate and externalise individual / subjective inquiry to be shared, critiqued and discussed with others. In this sense, I argue that reflective practice only takes us part of the way – it is in the sharing of the insights gained through reflective practice that enables the contribution to knowledge within the design discipline.
Re-think of the title… again.
I know Laurene has said that she changed her title a week before submission, but I seem to be doing this forever. That TITLE that captures and provokes my research seems so close, yet so far!
So, now I’m thinking that ‘Designing a collaborative practice’ may not be appropriate for the title of my research. It was suitable for the time being in thinking my research through though. The hesitancy of using the word ‘collaborative’ now is because I hadn’t actively investigated this in my research. When I began reading other research papers on collaborative practice, I noticed the difference of intent. Indeed, projects I have done had involved collaboration, but this was not I was intently focusing on…
I now believe that it is to do with a ‘multiplicity of perspectives’. In the absence of the ‘audience’ in the design process, the project team do not simply forget about them. Instead, they utilise their knowledge of others and themselves to critique the work. So, how, hang on, the ‘multiplicity of perspectives’ sounds a lot like Stuarts… oh dear.
Maybe I could leave the title as ‘Designing with people in the practice of communication design.’
Is that too simple? I know at least that sounds right.
A biggy – thoughts on epistemology
I’ve just began reading Terrence Rosenberg’s “Designs on Critical Practice?” (which I need more info for endnote)
Terry’s stuff is pretty dense. Even his ‘Resevoir’ paper he presented last year at the Research into design conference. So, I hope to be able to get a handle on his concepts by ‘thinking aloud’ here.
The initial argument that unsettled me was, ‘We continue to try and force practice …into an epistemological mold.’ He argues that we are trying to give design ‘theoretical weight’ to ‘produce authority and imperium’. His argument is very provocative, as it questions the fundamental basis of design research. Aren’t we (me, him and others) critically enquiring about practice so it does generate and contribute to knowledge? Or, is he arguing that this knowledge creation is for creation sake, just so we appear more important (and therefore, it gets an ‘-ology’ status)?
Reading the paper further, I began to realise that he distinguishes the knowledge unique to epistemology to that of ‘a different kind altogether than the knowledge of the sciences and the humanities’. He quotes Dilnot ‘a different disposition towards Being than that reflected by other modes of knowledge’ and I get the sense that this is his real argument, that knowledge that pertains to design is a different kind of knowledge.
So, what is this different kind of knowledge?
One argument he makes is ‘Design is disposed to bring into being – not only as provocation or reflection on our world – but in order to make the world or a small measure of it differently.’ And here, I remembered Lisa’s paper, ‘Promotiong Potential: The dissemination and reception of practitioner-led design research’ (2005). Her paper puts forward a striking argument – that role of design research could be to ‘evoke discussion of how the world could be’, rather than reflecting how the world is.
Rosenberg further argues, ‘it is of what is yet to be rather than of the now – designing cannot hang an epistemology on the certainty of the given – something already there… Its object of attention (critical) is somehow deferred – lying in the future; and, possessed by the uncertainties of the future. Now, I see where he’s coming from, and his resistance to epistemology. If the knowledge exists in past actions and occurences, how does that relate to future happenings? He describes a different kind of knowledge, ‘a knowledge for becoming – knowledge catalyzing the potential to produce again and differently; making other than what is already there… creative practice is also about not knowing’.
I know I have to write a methodology for my PhD, and one for ACID. They have both informed one another, and the ‘Conversation Pieces’ has evolved considerably since I first began using them.
I’d like to reflect on the interviews I have undertaken for my PhD and write a page or two of the learnings that has emerged from there. I believe this will give a clearer basis for then writing the ACID methodology, as it was informed a great deal from my experience in my PhD.