Thursday, 9 July 2009

Leeds Festival of Design Activism: Postgraduate Research Colloquium. Thursday 2 July 2009

On a sunny Thursday in Leeds, seven PhD students, two facilitators, two potential PhDers and one interloper attended the one-day Postgraduate Research Colloquium to share, explore, develop and discuss PhD research. Here's what the website said:

The Postgraduate Research Colloquium is intended for PhD students working in the field of Design Activism. It will provide an opportunity to explore critical issues in their doctoral studies and receive extensive feedback on their work from facilitators and fellow students.

Katie Hill, who organized the event intended the colloquium to be a comfortable space where PhDers could spend time talking about their research with other PhD peers. The sessions were PhD-student led, rather than academic-led (the latter being a common model for conferences).

We began the day with a short exercise to think and reflect on life as a PhDer. The exercise was a reminder that we have lives outside of our PhD’s. We listed three great things and three challenges with doing a PhD and stuck our Post-it notes on the wall. An interesting observation was that things like time, freedom and focus were both great things and also challenges.

The day was split up into two sessions. In the sessions, we were given 10 minutes each to present and then had 30 mins for discussion time. Our facilitator Wendy had a neat idea to write on coloured Post-it notes a question, a suggestion and an issue, we saw for each person’s research. This was really helpful as sometimes we ran out of time to discuss everything and each of us could take away a handful of Post-it notes to reflect on.

The day wrapped up with a plenary. Guy Julier, Head of Research at Leeds Metropolitan University, and Clive Dilnot, from Parsons New School for Design in New York, joined our plenary to hear how the day went. Joyce and Wendy, the two facilitators gave a short wrap up on the day.

Joyce told us briefly about the broad scope of work being undertaken by the PhDers in her group. The research ranged from fashion social enterprises, to digital storytelling, to ecological literacy, to critical approaches to service design, to mapping worldviews of designers in relation to sustainable design strategies. This group’s reoccurring theme was about being honest and transparent about the research process.

Research methodology was a theme in both groups. I think most design PhDers have come to know enough people now to see that academic design research is digressing from traditional academic research practice. Every design PhDer I know has been actively exploring new research practices around how design is being investigated in an academic context. This has been a big theme of my own research. I have presented my research process numerous times now with the underlying argument that the subject matter of design requires a researcher to deal with it in a different and much less scientific-way in order to extract, understand and communicate the richness of design.

Joyce recently authored and presented a paper on a handful of design PhDs which use new and different practices of research to undertake academic investigations into design. Her paper was presented at the EKSIG 2009: Experiential Knowledge, Method & Methodology conference last year and was titled, Capturing tacit knowledge: documenting and understanding recent methodological innovation used in Design Doctorates in order to inform Postgraduate training provision. You can download the paper here.

Wendy, expanded on the other group's theme to say that in our group, we also spoke about transcending disciplinary boundaries. We had talked more about the challenges we found as doctoral research in design is still pretty much in its infancy.

Clive closed the session by stating that in just our small group of researchers, our research topics were so broad and varied. If PhD research is to expand the field of design into the twenty-first century, it will not be about taking the path we all know best. Instead it will be taking the lesser known path because the destination we seek for our research- into, for or through design, is something we are never going to be quite sure of during the process.

The PhD Colloquium was followed by the Design Activism Practitioner Conference. I'll publish an update of any reporting from Leeds Met here.

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