Reading

James Baldwin is a wonderful writer. I’m working my way slowly through The Fire Next Time, and the following passage just punched me in the chest:

Here was the South Side – a million in captivity – stretching from this doorstep as far as the eye could see. Ands they didn’t even read; depressed populations don’t have the time or energy to spare. The affluent populations, which should have been their help, didn’t, as far as could be discovered, read, either – they merely bought books and devoured them, but not in order to learn: in order to learn new attitudes. (Baldwin, 1993 p. 61)

Never have I ever felt so nailed by a critique. Have I ever really read to learn? Or has it always been to learn new attitudes? What’s the difference between learning [x] and learning a new attitude? What sorts of books is Baldwin talking about? And how does Baldwin distinguish between learning and learning new attitudes?

This last question seems to me to be a consequential one, and I would love to know how Baldwin makes the distinction (and if he is on record explaining it anywhere, I would love to read/watch.. so please leave a comment if you know).

I quoted from the First Vintage International Edition of the book, published in 1993.

Writing Personal, Authentic Text

I help lots of folks write personal statements, research statements, grant proposals, letters of intent, etc. I enjoy it quite a lot. But more often than not, the first draft that’s brought to me lacks personality and authenticity. If 500 submissions come in, this one is going to sound like 479 of ’em.

There is a lot of writing that seeks to say what (they think) a particular audience wants to hear. This almost never works. The audience matters, for sure. But there’s a difference between what your audience wants to hear and what you think they want to hear. And this difference is maybe often blurred or ignored.

Instead of spending time reflecting, sketching, and organizing a text that is a personal and authentic representation of the applicant, writers try to think of the things they can say that will win the audience. The irony in this case is that the audience wants to read something personal and authentic, and they are savvy enough to tell when they’re reading a text that has been written to win them over.

Demarcating Design Research

I’ve been thinking over these last few days about just what we mean when we say “design research.” Does saying we do design research or that we are design researchers imply that we do a different kind of research? Does it mean that as design researchers we make a unique intellectual contribution to the realms of scholarship and practice that couldn’t be made by psychologists, sociologists, linguists, or cognitive scientists?

I want to make sure I’m not being misinterpreted here, and so I need to clarify that when I say “design research,” I do not mean, “design inquiry.” I think these are two different things. Design inquiry is unique. It is distinct from other kinds of inquiry. If design researchers practiced design inquiry, then perhaps their contributions (in terms of methods or methodics) would be a unique contribution to the intellectual landscape.

But to my knowledge doing design inquiry is not part and parcel of design research. In fact, it’s maybe only essential to research-through-design, which currently enjoys a kind of pariah status (at least informally) in the design research community. So, is design research writ large just a lot of scholars working “on a common theme but [from] different disciplinary perspectives” (Gibbons et al. 2006 on p.28)? A cursory look at the TOC of some design conference proceedings might support an answer in the affirmative. And if so, then what are the implications for the field?

Gibbons, M., Limoges, C., Nowotny, H., Schwartzman, S., Scott, P., & Trow, M. (2006). The New Production of Knowledge: The Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies. London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Knowledge Claims in Design Research

One of my summer research projects has to do with knowledge claims in design research publications. The question stems from an interest in understanding the similarities and differences between how knowledge claims are formulated in design research publications as opposed to natural and/or social scientific research. One would expect there to be some overlap as there is scientific work done in design research. In fact, there are lots of different kinds of researchers publishing in design journals so one might expect to see a variety of kinds of knowledge claims (claims with different ontological and epistemological underpinnings) being made in a given journal or conference. But what (if anything) sets a knowledge claim in design research apart from knowledge claims in the natural and social sciences? A preliminary observation is that within some articles there are a variety of different kinds of knowledge claims that have conflicting epistemological and ontological underpinnings. How do we account for this variety? And what are its implications for publishing in design research?

Summer Research Projects

The academic year is over, and after having taken a few days off, today is the day I launch into several really exciting and interesting projects.

Following are summaries of each major project. Hopefully, writing about each of them on the blog throughout the summer will provide (1) a modicum of accountability to the anonymous readers who may be checking in with me and (2) an opportunity to play a bit with the ideas in a public forum. This latter provision stems from a perceived need to achieve a greater comfort level with playing with ideas “out in the open” instead of waiting to share them in a more final, polished format.

For each project, I provide the “framing question,” and some amplification.

  1. What form do knowledge claims take in design research? This project is a comparative analysis of three different kinds of research publications: design publications, natural science publications, and social science publications. Random samples of each type (e.g. papers from Design Studies, Nature, and the American Sociological Review) have been preliminarily analyzed in order to gain a deeper understanding of the practice of making knowledge claims in design research by comparing a sample of its claims against other kinds. This is part of a larger project aimed at explicating the practice of design research.
  2. How do design researchers cite Donald Schon? Schon is probably one of the most frequent citations in design research. When researchers cite Schon, how are they citing his work? Are they demonstrating their familiarity with the “canon,” or does the citation have broader implications for their research questions or analysis? This paper is a first step towards a broader project of understanding the practice of design research. This project is being done in collaboration with Laureline Chiapello, from the University of Montréal.
  3. How is theory used in ToCHI publications? A similar study currently in review for publication in Design Studies asks how design researchers use theory in their texts. We distinguish between theory use in a written texts and theory use in a research project. We make no claims about how theory functions in the broader research project–only about how it functions in the text. This paper asks the same question, but focuses on publications in a leading HCI journal: ToCHI. **Another paper follows this same pattern in analyzing papers published as CHI, the leading HCI conference.**
  4. What possible (presents and) futures does the design research community imagine for itself? One way to approach this question is to inquire as to how we characterize it now. When I say “design research,” I mean “research through design,” as opposed to the scientific, humanistic, and historical (among other) kinds of research being conducted in the field. I use discourse analytic techniques to explicate a lengthy discussion on the PHD-Design listserv in order to suss out the generative metaphors that writers use to (1) characterize the current state of design and (2) imply (particular) possible futures.
  5. How have design theories progressively deepened our understanding of designing? Building off of a current project that adopts methodological falsification as an analytical lens, this project departs from Lakatos’s notion of sophisticated falsification and asks how a sub-set of design theories (theories about design) have deepened our understanding of design. In Lakatos’s words, referring to scientific theories, “… a theory is ‘acceptable’ or ‘scientific’ only if it has corroborated excess empirical content over its predecessor (or rival), that is, only if it leads to the discovery of novel facts.” (Lakatos and Musgrave, 1970) Using CK theory, the FBS framework, Figural Complexity, and Bounded Rationality, we ask what “novel facts” each theory provides.
  6. Can there be scientific theories that do not scientize design? This question served as the foundation for a paper recently presented at the European Academy of Design conference in Paris. It uses Karl Popper’s criteria for scientific theories as an analytical framework to argue that there can be scientific theories of designing and, importantly, that these theories do not “scientize” the design process, which is to say that they do not provide us with an understanding of designing as a scientific activity. We are in the midst of overhauling the paper in order to submit it for publication in a leading engineering design journal.

Aside from preparing for my qualifying exams in the fall, this list describes how I’ll be spending my summer days (save for a week off in August before the semester begins). Now the only thing left to do is get started…

Understanding Designing

How can we achieve a deeper understanding of designing

There are many ways to answer that question. We can achieve a deeper understanding by engaging in a design process, by reading about design, by critiquing designs (or designing)… all roads of inquiry lead hopefully to one thing: deeper understanding. Achieving one step closer to a thing about which we’re curious. [I like the “step” metaphor, which is not mine, by the way. I once asked a friend why he’d been listening to Mozart for the last thirty years. He said, “Because each time I do I get closer to him.” Achieving a deeper understanding of anything puts us one (perhaps many) step(s) closer to it. But there are many ways to take the steps. So, how do you decide?]

How do you determine whether to design, read about design, critique designs, or scrutinize design theories? How do you decide whether to take a philosophical approach, a scientific approach, or a designerly approach? None of these are really easy questions, so don’t expect any easy (or for that matter well-formulated) answers.

I met Karl Popper for the first time last year. I know. 30 years old and I’d never read Popper before. Or Thomas Kuhn for that matter. Boy did I miss out. But no longer! Anyway, I’m still getting to know Popper but he and I have something in common. We’re both curious about what it means to “be” something. Popper was curious about what it meant for a theory to be scientific as opposed to something else. I was curious about what it means for a theory to be designerly as opposed to something else.

Our overlapping interests fit together quite nicely in a (thankfully still current) discourse within the design community about the relationship between design and science. You see, since design is a relatively new “discipline,” it is helpful to compare and contrast it with more mature disciplines like science in order to establish its “own” identity. Among others, I know at least the philosopher Martin Buber wrote about distancing and relating as methods for ascertaining identity. In what ways is design different from science (distancing) and in what ways is it similar (relating). If I had to speculate, I’d say that the pendulum is swinging towards relating at this moment.

But the relating questions asked, right now, maybe have less to do with what design and science have in common and more to do with how to negotiate the relationship between them. What can science do for design? What can design do for science? Maybe negotiate is the wrong word. Maybe optimize is better. Regardless, both are valuable questions. Both equally meritorious of answers. Both signify a shift in thinking about design and science not as competitors but as teammates.

It’s possible to use scientific and philosophical-scientific approaches to study design in ways that help the design research community attain a deeper understanding of the object of its inquiry. And this is how Erik Stolterman and I are going about it at the moment. In our work, we don’t suggest that what science has trumps what design has. But we are saying that science offers design something worthwhile and interesting.

Normativity and Design

Story: During a debate about the future importance of design–but not Designers–an audience member raised her hand. She was a designer from Peru. “I have to interrupt,” she said, “because I sense that you’re ignoring the degree to which design is already happening in a substantive, vibrant way in, for example, Peru. Peru doesn’t need the West to come in and ‘save it,’ because its capable of saving itself.” The audience broke out in applause.

There’s something unappealing about the perspective that the developed world has the means to enter a problematic situation in the undeveloped world and generate otherwise unattainable solutions. The Way of the Developed World (hereafter WdW) is thought by many to be a kind of magic bullet. It has the brains, money, time, power, etc. at its disposal which the rest of the world lacks. How could rural villagers in Turkmenistan possibly come up with a solution for showering without indoor plumbing to rival that from a team of thinkers from IDEO or Frog Design? They’re outmatched.

It’s not atypical to hear this sort of thinking challenged. Things that resemble imperialistic thinking tend to invite dissent, which is a good thing. Much less often, one might hear that it would do those Turkmenistani villagers well to consider the WdW rather than write it off in an attempt to maintain the integrity of their ways of thinking and doing. This perspective accuses those who would challenge the WdW of the very thing that it has become so well known for: remaining closed off to other ways of thinking/doing and idolizing its own.

Recall the Peruvian dissenter. She presses on the suitedness of the WdW to “save Peruvian design from itself.” The perspective described in the previous paragraph frames her dissent as (1) unwilling to acknowledge the potential value of the WdW and (2) stubborn in its adherence to local ways of thinking and doing. Why shouldn’t she at least consider that the developed world has something to offer? This is a rhetorical question. I’m not seriously asking it because I see in it some fundamental flaws.

  1. It implies social and/or economic equality which is, in reality, nonexistent, and
  2. It implies that the developed world is willing to hear dissent/challenges and, in the unlikely event that valid opposition manifests, it is willing to recognize superiority from an(other).

Multiplicity of perspectives matters, but cultural hegemony should give us pause. Science is dependent on the scientist. Philosophy on the philosopher. Logic on the logician. And interpretation on the interpreter. Objectivity is chimerical…

[Work in progress. To be continued…]