About an Ongoing Conversation…

On the 28th of June 2018, thirty two delegates at the Design Research Society conference in Limerick came together to have a conversation about the current state of research through design: the challenges, the opportunities, the problems and the possibilities that this concept raises and presents for design research today.

Below is the original proposal which brought us together at DRS2018. But this or rather, these conversations didn’t begin in that room, and they don’t end there. This Medium publication is one location where we plan to collectively continue sharing and exploring our diverse experiences, reflections, thoughts and provocations in relation to the subject.

Our hope is that this can be a place for open collective conversation. If you have something to contribute, we invite you to join us. Write something, submit it to this publication, and we’ll publish it all here.


DRS2018 Conversation Proposal

The Ascendency of Process over Outcome: considering the challenges of how to present the object of research through design

Abstract

Research through Design is a process that has been absorbed into the mainstream but without consideration of what it fully entails. In this Conversation, we go back to the original sense of the term and look at how each of us might interpret and apply it in our work so that the notion of process is foregrounded. For some, this means taking the learning from processes that have not developed as expected. For others, it is about how societal or personal process itself may be designed. How can process itself be captured and presented? How can research whose primary material is inherently immaterial be adequately presented? The challenge is to find ways of presenting a dynamic narrative of research process, which remains accessible after the fact. The snap-shots and freeze-frames of still/video photography and artefacts produced and recorded during the research process are a trail of evidence left behind after the crime. How do we catch the research redhanded? In what ways can the dynamic immaterial research narrative be presented as its own ‘artefact’ rather than having to rely on second-hand documentation?


Context of Conversation Topic

The research value of research-through-design (RtD) (Frayling, 1994, p.5) lies primarily in the research process. As Bruce Archer described the nature of RtD1 : “There are circumstances where the best or only way to shed light on a proposition, a principle, a material, a process or a function is to attempt to construct something, or to enact something, calculated to explore, embody or test it” (Archer, 1995, p11). Artefacts designed and produced as part of this process can be aesthetically alluring, and have the potential to draw attention away from the research itself (Buwert, 2015). If not carefully presented and contextualised, artefacts produced as part of the ‘through-design’ of the research process can be uncritically misconstrued as embodying the research output itself. The starting point for this conversation is the recognition of the ascendancy of process over outcome as research output in RtD practice-as-research: “that ‘the doing’ (the process) yields more new knowledge and insight than ‘the done’ (the outcome)” (Lambert & Speed, 2017, p.105). In this sense, RtD is entirely possible in the absence of physical artefacts. We understand this in several senses. It is possible to research a process through RtD, when no material product is anticipated. And it is possible to design products as part of RtD where the design ceases at the point when sufficient insight is gained. In other words, the artefacts of design research need only be developed to the level of resolution necessitated by the research enquiry. This can mean very finely resolved aesthetics and a sophisticated embodiment, or less finely resolved or sophisticated embodiments. Artefacts arising from failed (or yet to be successful) experiments and processes can also represent a freeze-frame still image of a moment in a process yielding valuable insights.

fig.1 Incomplete attempt: bubble wrap as a waste mould for sand casting. (Lambert 2015)

Ian Lambert’s early (improvised) attempts at sand-casting using bubble-wrap as waste moulds, were unsuccessful, in that the mould did not complete, but nevertheless yielded valuable insights. Presented with the unbreached remains of the waste mould (fig. 1) the sequence of failures form the piecing together of stills in the narrative of making. These incomplete pieces only make sense when placed alongside the remaining waste mould, but the new knowledge and insights that have emerged are not things a researcher could have specifically gone in search of. They have emerged through a reflective process, where the failure has been celebrated rather than grieved, and possibilities have been opened up through risk-taking.

fig. 2 PKI Research Lab in the Wild: deploying artefacts designed to engender conversations (Wilde & Underwood, 2018)

The capturing of mid-process artefact ‘stills’ resonates with Barber and Osgerby’s In the Making exhibition (2014) at the Design Museum, where objects were displayed “interrupted mid-production” (Barber and Osgerby, 2014, p2). Presented as such, the objects yielded new ways of seeing and understanding making processes. The insights found in mid-process stills are not exclusive to material making processes. This same strategy can be applied to design processes that may have no materially embodied outcome, and the same challenges arise. Just as Lambert’s failed mould artefact is evidence of process not the research itself, so photographs of engaged participant groups in papers employing participatory methods are only freeze-frame evidence of a moment in process (c.f. Wilde and Underwood, 2018; fig.2). How can the participatory process itself be captured and presented? How can research processes whose primary material is inherently immaterial (social engagement, behaviour, culture, futures) be adequately presented? In all these cases, the challenge is to find ways of presenting a dynamic narrative of research process, which remains accessible after the fact.


Conversation Research Question

How do we ensure that the presentation of the research in RtD is encountered as rich narratives of process rather than as individual freeze-frame moments isolated during or at the imagined end of a process? The snap-shots and freeze-frames of still/video photography and artefacts produced and recorded during the research process are a trail of evidence left behind after the crime. How do we catch the research red-handed? In what ways can the dynamic immaterial research narrative be presented as its own ‘artefact’ rather than having to rely on static freeze-frame moments?


References

Archer, B. (1995) The Nature of Research, Co-design, Interdisciplinary Journal of Design, January 1995, 6–13.

Barber, E. and Osgerby, J. (2014). In the Making. London: Design Museum

Buwert, P. (2015). An/Aesth/Ethics: the ethical potential of design. Artifact. 3, 1–11. doi:10.14434/artifact.v3i3.3960. ISSN 1749–3463

Frayling, C. 1994. “Research in Art and Design”, in Research in Art and Design, 1(1), 1–5.

Lambert, I. and Speed, C. (2017) Making as Growth: Narratives in Materials and Process, Design Issues 3(3), 104–109

Wilde, D. and Underwood, J. Designing towards the Unknown: Engaging with Material and Aesthetic Uncertainty. Informatics 2018, 5(1), 1