Thursday, December 27, 2007

Design as Research: Path to Knowledge Creation & Critical Insights

Design as Research: Path to Knowledge Creation & Critical Insights download 36 page pdf file 1.1 mb here.
I was invited this afternoon to lecture to a batch of PhD candidates at the CEPT University and I chose to speak on the topic of “Design as Research: A path to Knowledge Creation and for Critical Insights”. Many design schools and University departments are asking their teachers to acquire PhD qualifications and almost all of the candidates are required to go outside the design discipline to make the transition to a higher qualification if they are to be promoted. However there is little appreciation of the inherent research capacities that are embedded in the design process itself and most designers are required to wander outside their core areas of competence in search of a PhD qualification to further their career as a teacher in design. The question whether the qualification would make them better teachers of design is not in the frame of reckoning and I felt that our understanding of design has in recent years moved far enough to ask for a degree of clarity on this front.

Many design thinkers, have in recent years, made available valuable insights into the role of design research and this occasion gave me the opportunity to revisit some of their writings and to put together my own arguments on the nature of design as it is seen today by some of us and what it could be in the days ahead. In my search for published resources I did not need to go far from my own room since I had been gathering a number of current resources on design thinking and design research and my office has a mini-library that is fairly up-to-date on this particular topic. It gave me the platform to connect the discussions that have been going on the few discussion lists that I am a member of with particular reference to the PhD-Design list which is a platform where over 1200 design professors have been debating these very issues over the past few years and their discourse has been a source of great inspiration and learning for me. The other list that I participate in is the AnthroDesign list, which has many designers, ethnographers and anthropologists; all discussing tools and techniques of design research and this too has been a very stimulating platform of rich learning.

Many of the current thinkers and those who have done considerable research on the topic of design research and its unfolding trajectories are here on these lists and many who may be lurking on these lists too occasionally make significant contributions through their occasional offerings that provides a rich source of intellectual stimulation. I have been encouraging my students to observe these exchanges as best they could and to draw from these current insights about the state of the art in the profession and in academia. In India the DesignIndia list too has been a platform that connects many design professionals who may otherwise be disconnected from the world of design discourse.

For my lecture I was able to cull together insights from a number of published sources and the key arguments came for one key resource, which is the book by Peter Downton, Design Research, RMIT, 2003. I appreciated Downton’s position that, I quote, “Design is a way of inquiring, a way of producing knowing and knowledge, this means it is a way of researching”.

I built my own arguments on these statements and drew additional inputs from a comparison of the positions taken by Herbert Simon, in The Sciences of the Artificial, MIT Press, 1969 and the counterpoint offered by Donald Schon, in The Reflective Practitioner, 1983. The lecture explored the relationship between knowledge production in the sciences and what is produced during the design process. At NID we have developed our own models of the design process as part of the Design Concepts and Concerns course that is offered to all our students at the graduate as well as the post graduate levels. These models gave me the context for exploring the relationship between the various stages in a systems design journey and the corresponding types of knowledge that they generated. While we now have an appreciation of this phenomenon the design profession as well as the academia is still quite uncertain about the validity of their time tested processes and seek to get support and validation from the scientific discourse which is not quite able to fathom that complexities of the design way.

Here the quote by Alain Findelli in his introductory note to the Design plus Research conference at the Politechnico di Milano in 2000 draws our attention to the critical statement by Klaus Krippendorff as he bemoans the lack of faith that designers exhibit in their own knowledge and convictions.

“Probably the most notable pathology of design discourse is its openness to colonisation by other discourses... From within designers are groping for new conceptions and uncritically adopting the perspectives of other discourses invite into their discourse paradigms that may prove disabling in the long run, and incoherences that could break a community apart and systematically erode its identity” Klaus Krippendorff.

This gave me the occasion to discuss the recent books by leading design thinkers around the globe, all of whom have dealt with the changing nature of our design understanding as well as provided some very significant insights about the nature of the design activity as well as its role for humanity in the near and distant future. Research in design and about design are themes that are explored and the findings are helping shape a new identity for design as a field of research.
1. Tomas Maldonado, Design, Nature, Revolution, Harper & Row, 1972
2. Silvia Pizzocaro et al, Design plus Research, Politechnico di Milano, 2000
3. Peter Downton, Design Research, RMIT Press, 2003
4. Nigel Cross, Designerly Ways of Knowing, Springer, 2006
5. Bryan Lawson, What Designers Know, Elsevier, 2004
6. Klaus Krippendorff, The Semantic Turn: A new foundation for design, Taylor & Francis, 2006
7. John Thackara, Wouldn’t it be great if…we could live sustainably – by design?, Design Council, 2007

Design and Design Research needs to discover their core offerings that cannot be substituted by any other form of scientific or academic research and then build a framework of confidence and conviction to offer their own discourse that can make the dream of building sustainable futures as a desirable direction for all of us as John Thackara has been demonstrating through his initiatives with the Design Council, UK as well as through his Doors of Perception initiatives in Europe as well as in India. Designers need to embrace design and the design journey with conviction and we will be able to then convince countries and governments to use this discipline to address the complex issues that confront all of us in our daily lives. Many of these cannot be solved or addressed by our known science methods and design must take centre stage if some of these truly wicked problems are to be solved at all. The paper and model of the design journey as well as the styles of thinking in the design process can be downloaded from this link as a pdf file 271 kb size.

My presentation to the CEPT University PhD class can be downloaded as a pdf file 1.1 mb size from this link: “Design as Research: Path to Knowledge Creation & Critical Insights”.

Last year my lecture to the CEPT PhD candidates was about the Ethics of Design Research. The visual presentation of that lecture can be downloaded from this link as a pdf file of 58 kb size.

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