The value of design research to others
What does design research contribute, that no other methods in research can offer? Laurene and I had a conversation, stemming from personal frustrations I am feeling with the bushfire project, on how the value of design research can be communicated more effectively to others, particularly our peers in the social sciences.
This is the age-old question, and I’m sure there are literature out there that might shed light on this already. I’m also looking forward to the conversation with a researcher from psychology who is also looking at effective communication, and see how our approaches might differ. There is something in here about the use of language, metaphors and symbolisms that we need to use, to articulate better what we do to others.
Design research is project-driven. Well, so is any research project.
Design research does visualisations. Well, other researchers also draw diagrams.
Design research is iterative and reflective. Well so is any research process.
So, what is its value that add to the traditional research methods?
One thing that sprung to mind is how design research (in the context of what we did in the bushfire project) actively create/generate ‘agents’ to explore what the network/system could do, as opposed to simply studying it as it is. This could be the case with the postcards that we distributed among the community, to see what conversations it could generate.The only shortfall with that, is that there was no follow-up investigation – it was released, and we never really found out what happened with them.
Using Playful Triggers is also an act of co-creation (co-design) – and through this process it generated knowledge far more than we have expected to know. This act of creation, I think, is quite designerly. That the agents for the investigation were ‘designed’, is also central to design research. We make together, and by doing so, we generate knowledge that we didn’t know was there before.
I also think there is something here about future propositions, but scenarios are more commonly used in other research streams that we think.
This is an on-going thinking project – more to follow.
Stop doing a Cameron Tonkinwise..!
I should learn to hold my tongue and consider what benefit my critique/comments have to those who I offer it to. I went to a talk by Sarah Schulman and Chris Vanstone today – they used to be a Participle and Red Studios, and now working with The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) – a fab new initiative, which Australia so desperately needs – and working on really interesting projects. They were presenting their work and critique of past projects and what they’ve learnt from them, to an audience largely made up of policy makers, to either educate/introduce them to a non-policy-maker way of doing this ie ‘doing things backwards’ (in their words). This ‘backwards’ thing could’ve been made stronger in the introduction by pointing out the ‘normative’ processes of how policy people attempt to solve problems – but anyway, I missed that point until Sarah clarified it through a question that I asked.
The first exercise we were asked to do was to sort through a deck of cards with questions, methodological terminologies, processes and contexts, and to determine whether we have used them or not, and having determined whether we had, to sort them in the order of beginning, middle and end.
It was an interesting ice-breaker that could’ve been better. There was far too many cards to sort from first of all, and many of them had terminologies that could’ve been interpreted in different ways, depending on your familiarity with them. Dianne and I were familiar with most, but the other lady on our group had little knowledge of ‘paper prototyping’, or ’service blue-printing’ etc… making me wonder what the purpose was, if the audience (largely, policy people) didn’t really understand what they were. Some terms, like ‘ethnography’ has a long history and have many contested perspectives – so what does it represent when its printed in DIN Medium on a card?
What could’ve been far more productive (the single-minded propositions!) was to focus on key few methods/processes and describe the value/benefit of them from the actual case studies. Of which they had – they drew on very strong testimonials, observations and learnings that made us believe the power of their story. Clearly, there were rich stories that these methods were used within. Though, it got too much ‘jumbled’ up in the terminologies – and then, far too much emphasis was placed on the linearity of the process on ‘beginning’, ‘middle’, and the ‘end’ of a project, when much of what made their work ’successful’, was the cyclical, iterative process that took place at each stage.
I also had a ‘go’ at this ‘beginning’, ‘middle’ and ‘end’ to indicate that projects can’t often be defined that way – how long is a piece of string and from whose perspective – though Sarah pushed back at this to say that there is often quite a strong sense of this embedded in a project. That’s true – if projects are defined by when the funding is released, and when the funding ends, that’s a really simple timeline of the start and the end. So, if that was how it was going to be framed, clarifying that at the beginning would’ve helped.
I’m not sure if my critique was put well – now that I’ve stepped back, my comments may have been put too strongly as a ‘negative’ critique of what they do, rather than framing it so it can draw out the real richness and insights they were generously trying to impart to the audience. The way they presented their knowledge just needed clarification. Tweaking. Highlighting. Stronger framing. Not to be shot down by me. Bugger.
Its my fault. Too many familiar buttons were pushed – particularly my pet hate with exportable methods, cards and all the rest…! Am I going to continue standing on the outside barracking at these people? Dianne laughed at me after we left, as I regretted that I did a ‘Cameron Tonkinwise’ just then – often ‘correct’ but sometimes not needed or productive.
I hope we get to talk more about this – our community needs to talk more about how to improve the way we promote, present and frame the value of design|research to others.
The AIGA conference
The AIGA is hosting a conference called New Contexts / New Practices based on a discussion and proposition model to discuss the future of design education. This model sounds strangely familiar (New Views 2..?) but what is quite different is the strategic role of people and activities they’ve put in place that will make this quite an exciting one to attend.
My contribution/provocation is on design research :
Design Research – the big ‘R’ and the little ‘r’ – and its integration in design education
Design research can often be perceived as ‘antithetical’ to the purpose and process of design practice. ‘To design’ is interpreted ‘to plan’ or ‘to provide a description’ (Cross 2006). Designing is a way to fulfill a plan and to provide a description to the client and the public of what is to be expected in the outcome. Professional practice places emphasis on delivering answers to problems brought by clients. The designers’ professional competency is judged on their ability to advise, guide, provide knowledge and be an expert in presenting communication solutions to such problems. Contrary to this positioning, there is an argument that states that design research approach requires the designer to explore a context with an open, inquiry-led mind, and to assume nothing. Such designer surrenders to the ‘unknown’, embrace uncertainty, and they are there to learn, understand and explore possibilities. It is a position that many design practitioners will feel ‘contradictory’ to their purpose and professionalism.
Instead of perpetuating the perceived distance between design research and design practice, the provocation of this paper raises issues and offer potentials of integrating design research as a core driver in assisting design students to understand and explore what design is, what it could be and what it can contribute to our engagement with and understanding of the world. In other words, design research can be a tool, a vehicle and an approach that can open up future possibilities for design practice.
One of the first hurdles in bridging the distance is to understand two different takes on research – the big ‘R’ and the little ‘r’. Much of design research taught in undergraduate design classes is the big ‘R’. Emphasis is placed on researching information in order to undertake and support designing and the creation of the designed outcome. Such parameters can also include collection of material and data, ethnography-based methods of interviews, surveys and focus groups, general reading of books and journals or first-hand observations and documentations. This approach to research has been termed ‘research-oriented design’ (Fallman 2005) or ‘research for design’ (Downton 2003) and translates well into how design practitioners research facts and contexts of the clients’ problem to offer solutions. Yet, there is another, lesser known, but growing in adoption of design research by industry that emphasises knowledge creation through the process of design. This is the little ‘r’. Research through design (Downton 2003) uses the method, language, material and practice of design to create knowledge that transforms understanding of the possibilities of the discipline (Haseman 2006). This approach has been discussed as ‘design-oriented research’ (Fallman 2005). Research through design integrates the process of designing and research as one.
Knowledge created through design has strengths to contribute back to practice again, due to familiar modes and language of enquiry – design is a doing, thinking and making activity. Design, by its nature, is future-oriented. The role of design research can ‘evoke discussion of how the world could be’ (Grocott 2005, p. 2) rather than reflecting on how the world is. Instead of privileging knowledge that is retrospective, design practice can create knowledge that is ‘lying in the future, possessed by the uncertainties of the future… 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’ (Rosenburg 2006, p. 4).
There is a robust academic discourse on different definitions of design knowledge (eg, PhD design discussion list hosted by the Design Research Society or Research Into Practice conference in the UK), however, this discourse fails to engage many designers or extend out towards industry. Challenges in nurturing a research-led culture in design education can be caused by a variety of issues. Several causes and propositions of how they can be addressed are proposed here to begin the discussion:
• Questioning a ‘defensive’ mindset by both design educators and design professionals. Nabeel Hamdi (2010) describes this defensiveness expressed as experts with a ‘territory’ that they ‘own’ excellence in, which is defended by rejecting knowledge that cannot be understood or explained. It can also be seen in ways that professionals oversimplify complex problems to a single objective that can be ’solved’, turning a process into a product to be designed in their field. A defensive approach makes it difficult to open up new ways of doing and thinking design. This critique and examination necessarily start with ourselves, to question and break down a mindset that we each may carry from our professional fields into education.
• Selection criterias for educators can no longer be based solely on professional practice or teaching experience. Additional skill-sets and knowledge is required, particularly for critical thinking and inquiry-led process, to equip graduates with strengths in research. This is beginning to happen in many Australian academic institutions where educators are required to have a postgraduate research qualification as mandatory. They are also supported and encouraged to have an active research practice, enabling them greater opportunities to foster design research projects as vehicles for understanding and learning about design.
• Education needs to work with the current practices and application of research in design industry, to contribute towards new and emerging conversations on design research. To foster better understanding by design professionals, greater attempt is needed and for design research to be presented, framed and promoted through the language of design. Design research must be packaged as tangible, practical and applicable ‘case studies’, with strengths in critical examination and exploration of opportunities to contribute to practice, business, communities and society as a whole.
Cross, N 2006, Designerly Ways of Knowing. Springer London, viewed 28 June 2007,<http://www.springerlink.com/content/h1w58u/>.
Downton, P 2003, Design Research, RMIT University Press, Melbourne.
Fallman, D 2005, ‘Why Research-oriented Design Isn’t Design-oriented Research’, Nordic design research conference ‘In The Making’, Copenhagen, Denmark, May 29-31, 2005.
Grocott, L 2005, ‘Promoting Potential: the dissemination and reception of practitioner-led design research’, Design Perspectives Conference, Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico, October 26-28, 2005.
Hamdi, N 2010, ‘Nabeel Hamdi on Small Change and Re-Thinking Education’, Nabeel Hamdi Interview with Andy Polaine on COTEN discussion forum, viewed 9 May 2010, <http://project.creativewaves-coten.com/modules/lectures/article.php?id_articles=1>
Haseman, B 2006, ‘A Manifesto for Performative Research’, Media International Australia Incorporating Culture and Policy, vol. 118, pp. 98-106.
Rosenberg, T 2006, ‘Designs on Critical Practice?’, Reflections on Creativity Conference, Dundee, Scotland, April 21-22, 2006, unpublished paper.
When talking to Jeremy about this provocation, we touched on how industry/business are starting to realise the value of design research for what they do. The interesting bit is that design research – by being labeled as ’service design’ or ‘interaction design’ or ‘user-experience’ – is becoming more valued. Its interesting that the product-ification (if there is such a word – ‘to make into a product’) is a characteristic of industry/business. By making it into a commodity, it can be ‘added-on’, bought, shared, examined… but somehow sanitized. This explains the over-emphasis on methods, tools, touchpoints…. as a sub-productification of service design as opposed to design research true characteristic as a nebulous, gnarly, complex and, in some ways, one that is still confronting new territory… its all about packaging!