Design research is one of those concepts that can have multiple meanings depending on how you want to approach it. I’ve generally considered design research to be any work we do to understand the contexts of our design and the effects and consequences that our design decisions have in the world. The goal of good design research should be to support better design by highlighting the need for empathy, understanding, and responsibility.
I was recently able to hear others speak on the topic at the 2013 Design Research Conference hosted in Chicago by IIT Institute of Design. The organizers decided to center the theme of this year’s conference around the balancing of design forces. How do designers work with or against the forces of ego, empathy, humanity, and technology?
As you might expect from such a broad theme, there was a great diversity in tone and content in the presentations from speakers. There seemed to be a conscious effort to bring in speakers from both practice and academia and across multiple disciplines (including design, engineering, science, and business). In fact, the speakers were so diverse that, in some cases, it took quite a stretch to make the connection back to design research. But perhaps this was a statement in itself, that the field of design research should be recognizing knowledge from other fields to better define its own methods and practices.
Here are some of the moments I found most interesting:
In what was my favorite presentation of the conference, Matt Jones, interaction design director at Google Creative Lab, described his team’s work as creating stories of alternative futures. All design is fiction and a big part of a designer’s work is creating belief in one particular story. If you read our previous blog post from content strategist Laura Allcorn, you’ll recognize Jones’s description as similar to the practice of Critical Design. Jones suggested the most powerful presentations of a design are not those that describe far-flung future utopias, where everyone is beautiful and the designed product has somehow created a perfect life drastically different from our own. Rather, convincing design scenarios focus on changing one thing, some small vital detail, and asking what it would mean for us to live in this alternative, but familiar, world. Richard The, an interaction designer on Jones’s team, went on to describe how this storytelling philosophy played out in practice with their work on Google Glass. The majority of their team comes from advertising or filmmaking backgrounds, and he described how film plays a key role in their process. They were making films about the design before the product even existed, in essence using filmmaking as a method for exploring design possibilities.
Rhiju Das, a researcher at Stanford, has been looking at leveraging citizen science in the field of RNA nanotechnology by creating an online game called EteRNA that allows players to design and test their own RNA-based nanostructures. While there have been similar examples of games that used crowdsourcing to solve scientific problems, this is the first in which players are actively and knowingly creating hypotheses and designs that are then actually tested in real experiments carried out by Das’s lab. He proposes a future in which the entire scientific process can be crowd-sourced, all the way through hypothesis, lab testing, and even mini-publications of player findings.
Don Norman talked about his plans to re-release his classic book, The Design of Everyday Things, with updates based on how he feels the field has changed in the 25 years since the book’s original release. One of his big points was his concern over the gap between design researchers and the product groups responsible for shipping a product. He urged researchers to find new ways of making their research findings more practical for use and more easily transferable.
Siobhan Gregory & Linda Pulik posed an interesting challenge to any designers and design researchers who want to do work in “social design,” or the design of products and services in the social sector. They presented a critique of many designers’ claims about the impact of design on social problems, when the typical social design project lacks the rigor and patience necessary to truly become involved with any community. They called on social designers to make greater commitments of time and process and recognize that sometimes design isn’t what is required but rather a human sense of care.
The conference was a great illustration of the diversity that can be found in fields of design and design research. I always find it revitalizing to learn about the different perspectives people have on design and the ways they are applying it to shape the world around us.
— Norman Lau, Senior Experience Designer