Design Principles and Practices 2014
I enjoyed presenting at the Design Principles and Practices Conference in Vancouver on January 18th, 2014. As my first experience presenting as a Design Researcher rather than as an assistant to one of my professors, it was great to share my thesis work with other talented, inquisitive, open-minded – yet critical – academics.
Highlights included the following:
Heather L. Daam from Design Academy Eindhoven, Netherlands discussed “Empathic Design Research as a Strategic Catalyst for Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration.” In preparation for designing a product service system, students spent extended periods of time with elderly individuals through conducting interviews and participant observation. Students were required to embrace the serendipity that involving ‘real people’ brings to the research and design process.
After gaining insight into an elderly individual’s everyday, students used various making techniques to create knowledge. Students prototyped the elderly stories as videos, simulations, infographics, re-enactments, audio clips, illustrations, and storyboards.
These visual and experiential stories were then used to trigger shared insights during a workshop designed for collaborative analysis. Groups consisting of both students and stakeholders approached each infographic or video three times in order to reflect upon the following questions:
- What do you see?
- What are these people thinking?
- What are these people feeling?
After this initial analysis, groups silently clustered their notes (written on post-its) based on emerging themes. Choosing one theme, each group attempted to approach that theme from different angles, designing based on the following prompts:
- Low-cost solution
- High-tech solution
- Solution made by kids
- Robotic solution
- Collaborative solution
Groups heavily relied on the stories they reviewed earlier to help make decisions during the making process; to establish a shared language amongst the group; to provide a common experience from which all members could understand and build upon; to feel connected to the ‘real person’ behind the design; and to catalyze further collaboration.
Joyce Thomas and Dr. Deana McDonagh from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, along with Dr. Megan Strickfaden from University of Alberta, discussed “Empathic Research Strategies: Empathy in the Design Process.” This trio of academics emphasized ethnographic methods to help designers not necessarily see new lands, but see with new eyes and make the mundane visible. Through empathic listening, designers can try to understand the why behind not just what people do, but also what they say and feel. Thomas, McDonagh, and Strickfaden recommended the following research strategies:
- Make your observations visible.
- Utilize the different knowledge, skills, and perspectives of your team.
- Assume what is obvious to you, isn’t obvious to another.
- Regularly remind yourself that you are not your user.
- Prioritize shared understanding in order to create stronger shared commitment.
Thomas, Strickfaden, and McDonagh also presented on “Unpacking Students’ Belief Systems towards Designing for the ‘Other.’” Their presentation demonstrated an activity that prompts students to reflect upon their preconceptions and assumptions through analyzing their relationship to objects that students considered necessary for survival. Throughout the activity, it is important to keep track of student questions,which indicate student values. The academic trio shared the following five basis angles to analyzing The Self and The Other:
- Belief system.
- Immaterial: values, beliefs, actions, and relationships.
- Material: objects and landscape.
- Physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual.
- Individual and society.
Of all the presentations I viewed, Dr. Lucinda Havenhand demonstrated the most criticality, self-reflexivity, and risk. Her presentation entitled “Learning from ‘Others’: Theories of Marginality and the Design Process” began with the following question:
Do designers always work from a position of privilege?
Havenhand went on to discuss epistemic privilege and the dualistic structure of society, proposing that one side is always privileged while the ‘other’ is marginalized. Citing Bell Hooks and Donna Haraway, Havenhand proposed that the margin is a side of radical possibility, of differentiated perspective; from the margin, one can look both outside in and inside out. She challenged: Are subjugated standpoints more able to transform the world?
As designers, rather than claiming we do good, perhaps we should focus on simply doing better.
Havenhand presented the following dualisms:
- REASON / emotion: Design is a systematic, rational act; while empathy is a hot topic, it continues to be undervalued.
- CLARITY / ambiguity: Design privileges end product over process.
- MASTER / beginner: Don’t teach out the sense of being a beginner; there is a unique curiosity that accompanies the beginning.
- UNIVERSAL / individual: Often, the attributes that motivate us are those that make us unique.
- DESIGNER / non-designer: How do we not privilege the expert and truly learn from and enable participation by the ‘other’?
- DESIGNED / used: What happens to our designs once they leave us? The mundane signs of use tell the stories of our designs.
Marginality is not set in stone but socially constructed and often shifting. Designers can honor, ask, and learn from others, but we can never assume that we understand marginality unless we are amongst those marginalized. As a designer, I continually strive to see and think differently than I currently do. Similar to Havenhand, I aim to incorporate heterogeneity within my design approach, building dialogue, empathy, and understanding through attentiveness, presence, and time.
Kathleen Brandt presented on ThinkLab, a transdisciplinary media studio which she co-founded at Syracuse University. As an experimental environment, Thinklab “integrates structured thinking tools, software, and techniques with interactive media technologies to advance the capacity of transdisciplinary work to move from concept to action.” As designers increasingly engage communities directly, Thinklab provides a venue where there is “no expert” as all participants are able to take advantage of Thinklab’s template of interactive components.
I especially resonated with the work of Dr. Amber Howard of North Carolina State University and Kirsten Southwell of Second Story Interactive Studios. Entitled “Community Experience Design: Bringing People Together to Do Great Things,” Howard and Southwell clearly articulate a strength-based approach to design. The goal of their approach is to grow the entire community, both online and offline, digitally and in-person.
“As designers, we cannot limit our focus to fixes or solutions. We cannot make people do something,” explained Howard.
- Identify problem.
- Analyze causes.
- Discover goals to fix / ameliorate the problem.
- Make plan.
- Implement plan.
- Evaluate if the problem was fixed.
- Build diverse teams.
- Find common ground.
- Articulate collective vision.
- Build transparent communication channels.
- Empower members to act based on their strengths.
As opposed to a problem-solving approach, following a strength-based approach requires a different way of being a designer. It requires cultivating a shared purpose, shared effort, shared identity, and shared ownership, as well as demonstrating commitment and accountability to the future of the community. In order to discover the strengths in others, designers and community members must first belong, then believe, connect, and finally empower one another to act, bringing their collective vision to fruition.
Photo Credit: @amberkhoward
The researchers within my themed session included the following:
- Dr. Lin A. Hightower of Kennesaw State University, “Designing to Preserve Cultural Heritage.”
- Abdul Azeez Said Al Ghareebi of Brunel University, “Meaningful Spaces: Reclaiming Public Spaces for Its Residents.“
- Zara N. Contractor of Emily Car University of Art + Design, “Talking Things: Engagement Multicultural Communities through Object Narratives.”
“One rarely finds local context within urban planning policy,” explained Abdul, whose research analyzes the gap between public perception and urban planner intention. “The only way you can see the culture of a community is by visiting the local museum, not by looking at the actual city.”
Zara’s research continued in the vein of the “empathy economy” that was a common throughout many presentations. Her Talking Things Toolkit builds social capital and a sense of community through personal stories uncovered through objects.
Presenting at the Design Principles and Practices Conference provided a unique opportunity to learn more about the work of other academics and design researchers!