Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Interdisciplinary discovery through design workshop, Monday 28 September 2009

Yesterday I was at the Interdisciplinary discovery through design workshop, hosted by Tom Inns of the University of Dundee and who leads the research initiative, Designing for the 21st Century.


Here's what the workshop invitation said:

The Designing for the 21st Century research initiative was originally conceived as a platform for building new interdisciplinary research partnerships between the engineering and technology communities and researchers in the arts & humanities... A broad portfolio of projects have delivered on this agenda, interestingly however, many have gone far wider bringing in researchers and stakeholders from across the UK research council communities. In all of these projects a design research perspective has allowed interdisciplinary research teams to explore a range of business and social issues in new ways.

This one-day workshop will profile the work of six research teams that have worked in this way. Participants at the workshop will then have the opportunity to reflect on the emergent roles for design research within the interdisciplinary research landscape and strategies that might be adopted to capitalise on this approach.

Throughout the workshop, it wasn't defined if we were talking about design research in practice or in academia. But the good thing for my own research is that it is currently working in both contexts ie. My research topic looks at the changing and expanding role of the designer, and my research process is a discussion about a researcher looking into design (the latter is key to a PhD because one's research process needs to be articulated in order to asses the reliability and validity of research findings or theory).

The workshop was held a the Imperial War Museum in London and was well-attended by mostly academia, quite a number of people from the Design Council and a few PhDers such as myself as good friend, Qin Han, aka Design Generalist.

I did tweet some notes during the event, but operating my new phone isn't quite at the level of efficient translation of my thoughts, but I do want to thank Lauren (redjotter), Fergus, Tamsin, James and Nick who responded to a few tweets (and I did try and include some of your comments in the conversations) and thanks to those who watched updates.

The workshop began with a presentation from Tom. He spoke about the current archipelago of design practice which sees many different islands represent current and emerging practices of design such as product design and service design.

Tom and Tom's archipelago of design

I love this analogy because it not only maps a terrain but also reflects the state of the different design practices, which are always similar in nature but aren't often connected in any other way. It also illustrates many new islands of design practice, which have popped up alongside the traditional modes of product, fashion and communication. These new island include service design, social design, design for development, design for sustainability etc.

Furthermore, Tom's archipelago is influenced by deltas (design history), currents (such as design thinking), lighthouses (such as the Design Council), cold fronts (lack of research funding for design), oceans of uncertainty, banks (of management), inlets, streams and the analogy goes on.

The research projects for the Designing for the 21st Century initiative were to act as ships either navigating the islands, or landing on them to explore ethnographically what was happening on the islands. Either way they were, as Tom mentioned, to be the Scott of Antarctica- finding new knowledge about design, especially since traditional notions of design have changed (or expanded) over time. One of Tom's slides showed this and below I have adapted a short cut version of his slide:

Traditional notions of design -------> Extended roles of design

generating ideas ---------------> facilitating ideas
managing trade offs ---------------> negotiating value
visualising the tangible ---------------> visualising the invisible
accommodating uncertainty ---------------> navigating complexity
profiling users ---------------> mediating stakeholders
synthesising futures ---------------> synthesising strategy

Adapted from Tom inns presentation for IDD, 28 Sept 2009

We then had five presentations from the Designing for the 21st Century initiative to give us insight into the initiative's projects. The projects profiled were:
  1. Improving healthcare through design research by Prof Alastair Macdonald, Glasgow School of Art: Looked at how visualisation and participation could help in healthcare in the Ideal States project

  2. Mobilising older workers through design research by Prof Jeremy Myerson & Jo-Anne Bichard, Royal College of Art, London: Looked at reinventing the workplace for the aging population in a project called Welcoming Workplace

  3. Engaging audiences through design research by Prof Chris Rust, Sheffield Hallam University: Looked at the My Exhibition project which sought to explore how “affective” communication could help personalise experiences.

  4. Designing interdisciplinary research by Dr Lucy Kimbell, Saïd Business School, University of Oxford: Looked at the Designing for Services project which explored how service designers worked with SME's involved in science and technology

  5. Reducing crime through design research by Adam Thorpe & Prof Lorraine Gammon, University of the Arts, London: Looked at the Bikeoff Project where design was used to help reduce bike crime.
To give an overall feel for the projects, some commonalities I noted seen across the projects included:
  • The wide variety of stakeholders used on each project
  • This made the methodology complex, such as in Lorraine Gammon and Adam Thorpe's project where they attempted to visualise the process (check out their methodology map here)
  • A bit of theory was often overlaid on the project to help explain it, and most of the time the theory was literature from another discipline
  • Most projects were done "through" design ie. the academic researcher was doing the project as well as reflecting upon it. Lucy Kimbell's project however took a more ethnographic approach to exploring designing services in SME's. But this last point raised the question I had at the beginning of the day which was, were we talking about design research in academia or in practice?
After the five presentations, it was a break for lunch and back for a workshop.


The workshop asked us to reflect on the presentations and contribute our notes on what was the role of design research? More specifically, what perspectives, skills and methods do design researchers bring to the table?


Below are some tweets I got back when I asked the question on Twitter:

Jamesamperi: "Role of design research- to inform, inspire & set parameters around the activity of design giving it a better chance of success"

fergusbisset: "Role of Des. Res. is to make explicit what has hitherto been implicit within process of design and amongst the design community"

TAMSINA: "Role of design research... [doing all we can] for the sake of designing awesome experiences"

In our group we talked about the spectrum of doing design research in academia and in practice. Some differences were noted, such as more time and more theory being overlaid in academia. Some key words we identified among our individual scribbles in response to the question were:
  • Giving people a voice
  • Navigating uncertainty
  • Openness
  • Communication
  • Flexibility

Under the the question, what skills and methods do design researchers contribute we said:
  • Flexibility
  • Rapid learning
  • Iteration
  • Awareness (of people and markets)
  • Visualisation (making the implicit explicit, thanks Fergus)
  • People-centred
  • Bringing insight
The same kinds of words did keep on popping up and TAMSINA tweeted in response to the 2nd group of words: "Basically all the skills of a designer then!?! Design research is an oxymoron." The first part of Tamsin's comment was later repeated by a delegate in the final group discussion.

Tom did a quick overview of all the posters, drawing our attention to the fact that openness came up in many of the posters in response to the first question. Delegates raised issues with this saying that with openness, who owns the project? And also, how do Uni's teach this?


Under skills and methods, Tom drew out the fact that participation was the dominant theme, and mentioned that workshops were a great platform to allow this. A delegate commented in response to this theme that design and its visual nature allows a more democratic process as its not tied to a particular vocabulary.

The final exercise we did was listing challenges and opportunities for design research and what some action steps could be. My small group chose to focus on Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) and we noted that the key challenge was having all disciplines in silos and a key opportunity would be to have them all work together by identifying, supporting and rewarding a catalyst. We also spoke about shifting paradigms of HEI's from places of teaching to places of learning. It reminded me of Sir Ken Robinson's awesome TED talk where he discusses creativity and how schools kill creativity.


In the final discussion for the day, more observations and issues were raised. Here are some I noted (but I think Qin might have more soon):
  • Design academia and practice need a better relationship
  • We have been talking about "different manners" of design research today
  • Design as a word has many uses which can be confusing
The workshop ended at 4pm and I went home a bit exhausted and soaked like a sponge! But it was great to hear more about the Designing for the 21st Century projects, Tom's design archipelago, reflect on design research (in academia and in practice), meet new people, old friends and also consider where my own research sits in the wider context of academia and practice.

- Update -

For further reflections on the workshop, see Qin Han's Design Generalist blog post. She goes indepth on the Bikeoff project and also Lucy Kimbell's presentation on Designing for Services.

Lauren Currie's blog has a public lecture of Tom's at Dundee University's MA Exhibition. Titled, The End of Design, both Lauren and Qin tell me Tom adapted this lecture for the workshop presentation written about in this blog post. Lauren's also posted a video of the lecture, so check it all out here.

2 comments:

Qin said...

named and shamed... you are so efficient in bloging events :)

sandhiya said...

Brilliant!!! This time of year Website Designer Australia is turning into an avalance. I'm certainly going to take your idea and run with it. Thank you.