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.

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