Design Research Practices

Design Research Practices

Final Essay

Reflect on how your understanding of the discipline of design has changed and the role design research can play in exploring your interests and practice moving forward.

Before enrolling in the Media Design Program (MDP), my working experience in design was limited primarily to engaging production skills to provide services for a client. The agenda being served was entirely the client’s, and was generally towards a commercial goal. ‘Design’ mostly referred to the service being purchased or the end result: the product. I rarely used it in reference to the method of inquiry. Design was essentially about crafting formats.

For the most part, I followed a User Experience methodology which began with ascertaining the client goals and user needs, and working from there to create a design for the project which ‘worked’ for the client. That was the hallmark of a successful project.

If design is the ability to create meaning using the elements of design, my work was primarily about conveying a client’s message, not creating meaning. In recent years, there are only a handful of my projects that felt in any way significant for me, and none that had much in the way of criticality or lasting influence. This was a key factor in my decision to apply for the MDP.

I had a sense that intuition played a role in my process, alongside a somewhat structured inquiry, but I hadn’t really been exposed to the idea of design as research. My first term of Art Center’s Media Design Program has opened my eyes to design as a vehicle for discovery. I have become inspired by a form of design practice that engages in meaningful dialogue; thinks through making; involves the audience as co-authors; affords open interpretations; and challenges prevailing social values and ideologies.

Essentially, I have begun to see design not just as a means of providing answers or solutions, but primarily as a means of inquiry and questioning.

There have been a large number of experiences and influences that have influenced how I understand design and have caused me to reexamine my own trajectory for future research and practice. My MDP project work has been an influential space for me to explore these ideas, together with exploring them at a theoretical level.

I have become very inspired by the work of critical designers, such as Anthony Dunne, Fiona Raby and Noam Toran. For the Authoring Critical Media class, instructed by Anne Burdick, Ben Hooker and Tim Durfee, I created a project entitled Coping Mechanisms through which I began to explore Critical Design. “Critical Design uses speculative design proposals to challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions and givens about the role products play in everyday life.”1 The brief for this project was to design an object for an idiosyncratic individual, and create a one minute film to illustrate its use. However, for me, the project became a means to question how rituals, patterns and routines provide us with meaning and identity at both an individual and societal level.

In our People Knowing class, with Sean Donahue and Ben Hooker, we explored how we might engage in conversations with inhabitants of various public and private spaces. Over the course of the projects, I experienced how an idea could be developed through rapid iterations to shape a more effective result. The idea of ‘iterating in public’ was completely new to me, but was an incredibly successful way of developing and exploring ideas and interactions that would not have occurred had we sat brainstorming in a studio environment. I can see this becoming a means of inquiry that I use regularly in future. I was particularly interested by how this method can afford a shift in the role and nature of the author. Authorship can become shared between the designer(s) and audience, while at the same time allowing for a more suitable voice to be found through interactive iterating.

Through experimenting with these new research strategies, I am beginning to see a new means of exploring some of the questions that initially lead me to the MDP. These questions include how I can engage my unique strengths and interests fully through design, and how I can participate in the larger conversations I am interested in through my work.

As a designer, I have always struggled with aligning the disparate elements of my personality, knowledge and interests. I have skill and experience in both the technical and creative arenas. My interests bridge a certain dichotomy: the physical and the philosophical; the scientific and the spiritual; the pragmatic and the poetic.

At times I’ve found myself caught between two labels—the designer and the developer—asking questions about how I identify my role. I’m beginning to wonder now how useful these definitions are in the first place.

I was very excited by the idea of Poetic Research as proposed by Terence Rosenberg in his essay “The Reservoir”: Towards a Poetic Model of Research in Design2. He draws on the Nietzschean concepts of the neo-Apollonian and neo-Dionysian paradigms. The neo-Apollonian philosophy promotes rationalism in the strictest sense. It holds that “in science there is a common language and a common set of assumptions which hold across all time and space.” The neo-Dionysian disposition on the other hand opposes the “objectivity” of the rationalists with an intense subjectivity. Neo-Dionysians are “antipathetic to rational scientific method, indifferent to methodological concerns and are concerned to celebrate, the private and the personal, and other suchlike matters which are not of scientific concern.”

Rosenberg uses the ideas of the centripetal and the centrifugal to analyze these different impulses in the creative process:

“The centripetal force pulls inwards trying to make coherent and urges to make compossible with a body of knowledge (ground); drawing connections to established research practice and established knowledge… The centrifugal force pulls away from the ground… [exploring] possibilities beyond, and creates deviations from programs to normalize… The impulse is not towards certainty but to escape from it.” Rosenberg, 2000, p4-5

Rosenberg goes on to suggest that the creative process advances in a “fragile balance” between the centripetal and the centrifugal. His proposed “poetic” way of working creates a dialogue between the rational and irrational, where “certainty and doubt are mortised and jointed in an uncoiling and recoiling.”

Identifying with the struggle between the more rational and intuitive aspects of my personality, it was incredibly helpful for me to see this explored in an academic manner. I have struggled to successfully integrate these contrasting dispositions with my work to date, but I was encouraged by Rosenberg’s model of Design Research to explore new forms of practice that involves a balanced back-and-forth between them.

I also believe that embracing the tension between these seemingly-opposing positions is something central to what it means to be human. There are elements of the neo-Apollonian and neo-Dionysian paradigms in both the best and the worst evidence of humanity. I’m interested in exploring this personally in how I work, but also in exploring the wider ideas and implications of this at a cultural level.

While reading and engaging with these ideas, I was working on a project for Week X entitled Personal Topographies. Through the project I wanted to explore the relationship between maps and personal memories by collecting an archive of personal moments and using them to plot Los Angeles on an emergent memory topography. The project examined the blurring and overlap of these distinction between the map and memory as conceptual models. Maps are, of course, not exact interpretations, they are representations of a place; recordings of how a landscape was experienced. Memories are, in a similar way, subjective interpretations of moments.

Furthermore, the project became a means for me to explore this dialectic between the neo-Apollonian and neo-Dionysian philosophies. Maps are perceived as authoritative artifacts; the type of rational, structured model central to the neo-Apollonian way of knowing the world. Memories, on the other hand, are often referred to as being unreliable or inaccurate, but to the neo-Dionysian they are the greater truth, essential to the celebration and exploration of the private and the personal.

Although I feel the finished form of the project might have been more successful in representing this dichotomy, it was nonetheless an invaluable means of exploring these broader ideas and identifying a key area of interest for me around which an ongoing line of inquiry might form. Ideas, questions and interests began to come together in a more structured manner as I worked on developing the project. This is yet another example of how the process of design has become a means of discovery for me in recent months.

Building on Rosenberg’s views on the creative process, I have also been influenced by Donald Schön’s view of the ‘reflective practice’. He proposed “an epistemology of practice implicit in the artistic, intuitive processes which some practitioners do bring to situations of uncertainty, instability, uniqueness, and value conflict.”3

The insights and newly explored methodologies I have experienced through MDP are revealing “‘designerly’ ways of knowing, thinking and acting”, as Nigel Cross describes it4. I am learning what it means to research as a designer, embracing design’s unique approach to applying my “knowledge, skills and values in the techniques of the artificial”. Other disciplines, such a science, are rooted in systematic, rational and objective research, but as a designer my voice and opinion are equally important to my research. I am learning the importance of bringing myself into my work, of taking a stance and expressing my point of view through my practice. My career to date has involved designing ‘for‘ clients—taking myself out of the equation—so I am realizing the need to intentionally pursue this unique ‘designerly’ way of working.

Cross goes on to suggest that design research, in contrast to research methods borrowed from other fields, creates unique opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration. He quotes Herbert Simon who writes that:

“Few engineers and composers… can carry on a mutually rewarding conversation about the content of each other’s professional work. What I am suggesting is that they can carry on such a conversation about design, can begin to perceive the common creative activity in which they are both engaged, can begin to share their experiences of the creative, professional design process.”Simon, 19695

I have a long-held interest in collaborating with individuals from other fields. Through these recent insights I am starting to speculate about how such dialogues might inform my work. What can I as designer can uniquely offer in these interactions? How can design facilitate communication across the arts, sciences and technology? And how might that conversation become part of my future practice? Over the last number of years I have been interested in individuals, such as John Maeda, who are pursuing these interdisciplinary conversations. This dialogue, specifically between Design, Art, Science and Technology, builds on my interests in the relationship between the contrasting neo-Apollonian and neo-Dionysian philosophies.

The dialogue between Technology and Design, for example, has become increasingly important with the prevalence of telecommunications in recent decades. My projects, such as Personal Topographies, Beyond Moments and Remapping Memories, have also allowed me to investigate questions around what it means to be human in an increasingly digitized, data-driven world. I previously mentioned contrasting strict, structured data (e.g. geographic co-ordinates system) with fluid, subjective concepts (e.g. memory). A similar dichotomy exists at points of interface between the physical and the digital worlds. We interface with the digital on an increasing basis, and yet these interactions are fundamentally non-natural; they are designed for the machine before the person. Our interactions are almost always with text and image on a small screen with a mouse and keyboard attached. How can design create opportunities for the Internet to break free of the technological limitations we’ve given it? How might my research investigate moving beyond this: creating new ways for people to engage meaningfully with technology and with each other through it? What will the world look like as interactions break free from the screen and become present in a more tangible way in our everyday lives? How will our lives change as devices become more integrated with our physical surroundings?

These ideas have also been informed by a number of essays which discuss the idea that “at the core of a new design ethics is the question of what it means to be human.”6

I’m particularly interested in whether aspects of our interpersonal interactions are lost in the limiting binary nature of the digital world. Through the pervasion of social networking and similar tools, we are now, more than ever, engaging through tools (devices and screens) rather than directly with people. Will these innovations bring us closer as individuals and communities? Or will they bring about greater psychological and social distance as the majority of human interactions occur through digital mediators? If communities are increasingly existing online, what will become of national, ethnic and religious identities in the future? If our ‘souls’ and our technology are increasingly interacting in more intimate and more public ways, what are the implications of this for both the individual and society?

The digital telecommunication and computational systems that are so prevalent in our lives have been shaped by the ideologies from which they have emerged. They have been developed in a post-industrial, capitalist society. Much of my work to date has been creating purposeful, functional tools for technological platforms, usually driven by an economic goal. I am interested in whether the affordances of our telecommunication media encourage activities that are more oriented towards production and consumption. Technology is developed to serve specific purposes—and they afford task-driven experiences. What might non-purposeful designs for technology be like? Design that encourages be-ing rather than do-ing? Technology that affords non-productive activity (or non-activity)? For me, research in this area offers a rich space to question the influence of ideologies on our technology and their effect on the individual and community. 

“Even more important than improving our interfaces with machines is design research’s potential contribution to improving our relationships with each other, our communities, our cultures and our democracies. Design is not only about serving the needs of business, but also about determining and working towards the greater good for society, government, education and the environment.” Lunenfeld 2003, p.147

My work and study at MDP is forging a new ‘designerly’ means of discovery that is reshaping my practice. The references, projects and ideas that I have outlined in this essay are forming a personal constellation of design research influences that will guide my work as I move forward.