Tuesday, 26 February 2008

A Research Update

I have almost completed my first phase of qualitative research which has involved interviewing the Project Clients of Dott 07. I had two main aims for this phase:
  1. Look at developing an evaluation model for the Dott 07 programme, using insights from both the design and client side to see what kinds of criteria are similar and different;

  2. Understand the experiences and learnings of participating in a design project from a client-point of view.
The first aim has changed a lot. I have never really liked the word evaluation. My instinct was that evaluation was not what I was doing with the Dott 07 programme, but I know I will need a set of criteria to discuss across all project that are at the least, “intelligent and consistent”, as Jim Collins says in his book, Good to Great and the Social Sectors.

I have just 2 more interviews to go and have thoroughly enjoyed doing all of them. One of the most enjoyable aspects of my previous work was meeting and talking with new people, getting insights into their daily experiences, and thinking about how design could have an impact through the products and services we were helping our clients develop.

During my first phase of research, I got to travel a little around the north east region of England. I had to go to Middlesbrough for some interviews and squeezed in a trip to the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA), which was showing a major exhibition called Bauhaus 1919 - 1933. It was wonderful to see some key pieces from the Bauhaus Archive in Germany.

While my interviews for the PhD take on a very different aim, I really enjoyed listening to people’s experiences on a design project. It’s something that I was always curious about in my old job and the PhD gave me a platform to explore this a little.

The process did not come without some learnings. Here are some which I think are important to point out:
  • Planning, organising, interviewing and transcribing takes a long time! Plan accordingly;

  • I wrote up a planning document, inclusive of aims, before I begun interviewing. I found it was a great reference to go back to to ensure I was clear on my direction;

  • I drew upon my previous experience in practice as a design researcher which was really valuable. Everything from filing documentation into envelopes to writing up Confidentially Agreements, were things that none of the academic research methods books told me;

  • Confidentially Agreements help lots! I wanted and needed honesty, and part of being able to get that was making sure that the interviewees knew exactly what I was going to do with the data collection;

  • Some of the Project Clients I met at the Dott Debates, which proved to be a really helpful introduction. I was able to let them know who I was, gauge their interest in being interviewed and get a sense of their roles on the project. It made it much easier setting up the interviews;

  • The interviewees found the use of visual aids really helpful in remembering and discussing the design outcomes. It had been 4 months since the Dott 07 Festival and everyone could use a little reminder;

  • I think it’s important to mark out a core set of questions. In some later interviews, where time became an issue, I wasn’t clear on a core set of questions and had to go back to the interviewee to ask them these questions later on;

  • Above all, have fun! The task is a crucial part of the data collection, but if you can’t be yourself and connect with people, you’re just not going to get the feedback you want.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Desform (December 2007)

The smaller and more focused conference of DeSForM (Design and Semantics of Form and Movement) in December 2007, followed shortly after the bigger InterSections 07 conference.

Initially, I wasn't sure how DeSForM would contribute to my research, but reflecting back, it was a great networking conference and it also provided some great insights and learnings in the area of academic research methods for design research.

On the first night, the delegates got plenty of opportunity to bond with a night out to see the Glow Festival, which was a short tour of light installations throughout Newcastle city. The tour ended up at Tokyo, a funky bar which served up an evening meal and drinks.

During the days, DeSForM’s calibre of design research work and presentations was wide and impressive (click on the picture below for the full programme).

It was so wide that some delegates were left wondering at the end, ‘What was DeSForM all about?’ This seemed clear to the organising panel, but was only clarified on the last day at the Plenary Session. While the seemingly lack of focus could shed negative light on the conference, I thought that its ambiguity was valuable in allowing delegates to bring their own meaning to the conference.

For me, generally, the conference was valuable because:
  • It spotlighted research methods, which conferences such as InterSections 07 are not so much concerned with;

  • It dealt with broad subject areas, reminding me of the endless potential for design research to explore;

  • It was nice to see and think about products for awhile as these days, I am mostly involved with services, design thinking and design methods.

On a more detailed note, some of my take-aways from the presentations include:
  • The reoccurring theme of narratives throughout the conference which is slowly but surely showing it’s importance in all the sub disciplines of design;

  • I really enjoyed Bernard Buerdek’s presentation of design methods history. He not only validated my identification of a 40-year time frame that the field of design tends to see from theory to practice, but also spoke along the trajectory of design's concern with methods to meaning.

  • Geoff Hollington asked some questions which were explored at InterSections 07. He asked, how far do we go as designers in the kind of work that we do? Hollington called for a balanced approach and needing the knowledge of what this is. My work in design methods might help us identity this 'mission creep' (James Woodhuyson, InterSections) more clearly;

  • Carnegie Mellon University presented 2 papers. Having worked extensively with CMU-grads before, I was very familiar with their design methodology and I loved seeing and feeling that familiarity again. Seeing and understanding the CMU methodology in another context really is a testament to the rigour of the CMU approach;

  • Peter Higgins was invited back from InterSections 07 as a keynote for DeSForM. I really enjoyed his presentation a second time around, seeing the ideas and inspiration of combining narrative, media and architecture. This time, Higgins made me see the importance of finding a connection to a place when designing for it;

  • Northumbria University’s School of Sports Science and Psychology presented 2 papers showing the openness of a discipline such as design. One of the presentations was around trust in a research project and they discussed the concept of the wisdom of crowds. This will become really important when communities become involved in the design process;

  • Two presentations (Kevin McCullgh and CMU’s) both brought up questions about the extent to which we can design behaviour. The simple answer is that we can’t, but as designers we can shape it and/or influence it
From my synthesis of the conference, I saw four themes emerge. For me these were: narrative, products, technology and people.

It was interesting to also hear the plenary panel’s feedback on the conference as a whole. Buerdek said that we talked a lot about theory and concepts and had little products to show for it. He asked if the next DeSForM conference could include more design outcomes we could reflect on, so that we might further develop our thinking, theories and concepts in the ever-evolving and expanding field of design.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Why I haven’t been here for 3 Months…

I guess coming back to this blog requires some kind of explanation after a 3-month departure.

After InterSections I stopped blogging because I very much see blogs as go-to places rather than come-to-you. So instead, I started writing one-page newsletters, of the same name, and distributing them to my supervisors, peers and the research and consultancy office I work within at the University called the Centre for Deign Research.

The reason why I have chosen to pick up the blog again is really for my own purpose; to document some key points along my PhD journey that I think is worth mentioning. This has meant I have had to back-track a bit and publish with correct dates, so please mind the lag as I catch up on 3 months of thinking, research and activity!