Transdisciplinary Design

Two Wrongs Make It Right

Posted by on February 13, 2015

After the previous phase of my research on transdisciplinary collaboration (see my earlier post, “Questionable Methods”), I thought I’d failed in my attempt to employ a “design-led” approach – turns out I’d simply failed to understand what this means. Not to worry though, I asked around, and I think I’ve got it straight now.

My current, working definition of “design-led research,” or “design-oriented research,” is any form of inquiry or exploration that generates new knowledge about whichever field, practice, theory, sensibility, or tradition you choose to call design.

My initial confusion arose from the fact that this kind of design knowledge is often generated by simply practicing design. In the same way that you learn about riding a bicycle by riding a bicycle (i.e. bicycle-led research), you can also learn about design by practicing design (i.e. design-led research). Praxis makes perfect, if you will.

Of course, there are many other ways of generating knowledge about design aside from practicing it. More familiar and conventional methods of research also contribute to our understanding of design, and they too can be considered “design-led research.”

In other words, “design-led research” has nothing to do with the order of operations. The design doesn’t have to preclude the research, and the research doesn’t have to be led by design at all. Design is not necessarily the means, but it is necessarily the end of “design-led research.” (“design-ended research,” anyone?)

Anyway, after I got over how crazy and misleading this all seemed, I decided that it didn’t actually change my research much. Whatever you want to call it, I was still interested in studying the distinct forms of knowledge that are generated by creative practices like design – and in this case, specifically collaborative transdisciplinary design.

Luckily, in our studio, I had a captive audience of transdisciplinary designers on hand to study. I considered simply doing observational research on my colleagues but preferred to find a more targeted approach to studying them, one that would allow me to control some important variables.

I settled on another poorly named research method: the “cultural probe.” This method is a favorite of designers seeking inspiration from the latent behaviors and tacit knowledge embedded in people’s everyday rituals. For my purposes, the probe was pretty simple: I just asked my fellow designers to respond to one open-ended question using three different means of communication.

The question I posed was about transdisciplinary collaboration, and it was genuinely intended to solicit my research subjects’ ideas about this pertinent topic. However, on it’s own, this question would have been little more than a vague survey. What made it a probe was my instance that responses be communicated in a range of different media.

This provocative little twist allowed me to look beyond my subjects’ given responses and into the subtleties of how they communicate with different media. My hope was that what they expressed explicitly would reveal something implicit about the creation and communication of ideas in groups.

If I’ve learned anything this year, it’s that communicating ideas in a group is an art. In a collaborative setting, an idea is only as good as the whole group understands it to be. It doesn’t matter how brilliant the idea is in your head, it will be dead on arrival if you can’t communicate it clearly and compellingly to your collaborators.

The act of translating an idea into something that can be clearly communicated and understood by others is an inherently creative act. In fact, I would argue that translation, communication, and expression constitute the creative acts that occupy most artists and designers.

In any case, it was communication as a creative act that generates distinct forms of knowledge (like designing or biking) which became the underlying focus of my study. I intended to explore how the same idea is communicated differently with different media and what this means about the creative and communicative properties of those media.

To keep this lofty pursuit relevant to our efforts in the Transdisciplinary Design program, I tried to select communication media that we commonly use in our studio: speaking, writing, and drawing. In our work, these media often manifest themselves in lots of conversation, emailing, and whiteboard drawing, but I elected instead to use voicemail, email, and an online drawing tool (thanks Google!) to allow subjects to complete the probe remotely – and hopefully to encourage their participation.

These distributed forms proved to be rather crude substitutes for the real media, but they allowed for some interesting responses nonetheless. From these responses, I was able to discern a number of reoccurring themes among my colleagues’ ideas about collaboration. I also reached some conclusions about the relative characteristics of different communication media.

Feel free to review my process and findings in the visualization above, but please take into account the obvious subjectivity of the data and the insights that result from cultural probes like this one. This method of research appears to be excellent at generating ideas and inspiring further research, but it does not result in definitive conclusions.

I will suggest that my findings are relevant to collaborative design practices – if only to ensure that it’s actually design-led research I’ve done this time. Seriously, based on my research, it seems appropriate to suggest that if you have an idea to communicate to a group, take a moment before just blurting it out and ruining it: much can be learned from the creative act of communicating your idea in more than one way.