Research through design: Five questions with James Pierce

James Pierce approaches design from multiple angles. With an academic background in human-computer interaction (he holds a PhD from Carnegie Mellon University in this field), he is a designer and researcher who explores speculative design, design theory, and everyday social practices. At the Jacobs Institute, he teaches two courses that reach students at different points in their undergraduate pathways: Discovering Design offers an entry point to the field of design for lower-division students from across campus, while User Experience Design is an upper-level course that equips students with skills for designing information systems and other interactive experiences. Linking these courses — and all of James’ work —is a focus on thoughtful, creative inquiry. We asked James a few questions.

You both design and study interactive technology, and your work spans many activities, including making, researching, writing, and teaching. How does this hybrid perspective on design inform your work?

Often in my research I use making things as a mode of studying things — so the process of designing and making artifacts is a tool or technique for understanding, exploring, and critiquing. This way of doing research is sometimes referred to as research through design, critical making, or design inquiry. One consequence of this extremely hybrid way of working is that no two projects ever really feel the same, as each often requires its own unique synthesis of methods, techniques, perspectives, and intellectual frameworks. When it comes to teaching, I draw on this full range of perspectives. Oftentimes in a single class we will move from researching users, to conceptual explorations, to physical prototypes, to critiquing projects.

Some of your work has included thinking about how designers might creatively grapple with the implications of new technologies. Here at the Jacobs Institute, one of the things we often talk about is finding balance between what can be and what should be. Could you share some thoughts on that balance, and designers’ role with regards to it?

No matter what area of design you work in, it is always necessary to frame and reframe the problem or issue at hand, particularly at the early stages of design. And this is no less true when a client comes to you with a very clearly defined problem! Often they don’t know what they want or need until they see some different options or possible final solutions. One of the challenges I face in teaching, particularly students who come from an engineering background, is that students often want to jump straight to a solution. My job is to help them learn to slow down and really grapple with the problems and constraints — and consider different possible outcomes and effects, or a particular line of inquiry or outcome, before they start building circuits or deciding which buttons go where.

Given UC Berkeley’s rich history with social activism and ethical issues, my classes also encourage students to think about the broader implications of their work. Students are taught to consider not only expected users, but also the many other stakeholders or constituents that may be directly or indirectly affected.

You teach classes with an interdisciplinary perspective, including Discovering Design, which is open to students across campus and serves as an entry point to the broad world of design. Can you tell us a bit more about that class? Do any “discoveries” stand out to you from this experience?

Discovering Design is an extremely enjoyable class to teach because it introduces so many facets of design — graphic design, interaction design, product design, speculative design, design methods, architecture, art, and more. Each area is introduced with hands-on activities, ranging from short design projects, to form studies, to observation activities. What stands out for me is seeing students discover which aspects of design they are most drawn to. Some students realize they are most interested in interaction design and use their course projects to develop their interaction design portfolios and apply for jobs in the field. Others find they are more interested in user research and design methods, and pursue graduate programs in these areas. It’s exciting to see students continue to take Jacobs coursework after getting their hands dirty playing around in the different areas of design that this course introduces them to.

What are you working on, or thinking about, right now? Any projects you’re particularly excited about?

At the moment I’m working on a project exploring the Internet of Things (IoT). But instead of starting with all of the hopeful aspects of IoT, we start with various points of anxiety: overstimulation, distrust, creepiness, and so on. From there I’ve been designing a wide range of artifacts designed to engage outside participants in discussing network anxieties. These early stages of a project are always quite exciting — as well as anxious — because it is unclear where exactly where the work will end up.

UC Berkeley provides a unique context for design. Does this context play a role in your work? What insights or advice would you give to someone interested in exploring Berkeley’s design ecosystem?

In Discovering Design we devote an entire week to discussing and analyzing the politics and ethics of design, from everyday things like high heels and toothpicks to more specialized and sometime hidden things like 3D printable guns and redlining practices. I find Berkeley students to be particularly adept at engaging design and innovation from a political and ethical perspective, perhaps because of the university’s emphases on both societal impact and innovation. My own work almost always explicitly engages these political and ethical dimensions of design. But every designer must consider these aspects to some extent.

My recommendation to undergraduate students who are interested in continuing to explore design opportunities at Berkeley is that they start with the obvious and consider all of the different courses offered at Jacobs. But after that, I always advise my students to forge connections between other class and disciplines on campus. For example, taking an anthropology class is useful for design anthropology and user research. Cognitive science classes can make you a better usability expert.

I also stress that the design skills and mindsets learned at Jacobs are applicable to virtually any area in which they end up working and practicing, because design can also be understood as a fundamental sort of human activity. So I encourage students to also be on the lookout for ways to apply design thinking and techniques to other areas, including their major area of study and other interests they have — whether that’s social activism, a startup idea, or how they organize their desk and closet.

Learn more about James’ work here.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

By Laura Mitchell