Art and Design research, at 1:56am (due to jetlag)

I had dinner last evening with Bo Reimer, his wife Maria, and their friend Julie Ault. Julie, one of the cofounders of Group Material, is working through her PhD in Art (not in Philosophy, nor in Art or Architectural History – it’s a doctoral degree in Art, and I suppose my surprise that such a degree even exists illustrates my own lack of European academic culture and tradition – although Julie did mention that it’s a fairly new idea even in Europe). Julie described some of the challenges facing the academic community of artists who are pursuing this advanced degree, and they are strikingly similar to those facing the academic design community – primarily, defining what “rigorous research” means in the context of the discipline (in this case, Art or Design), and illustrating to the Scientific community that the research is, in fact, as substantive as research a Scientist may conduct, but is quite different in actual content, method, and dissemination.

In Design, Jodi Forlizzi and John Zimmerman have been actively forcing a conversation of the role of interaction design research in the traditionally scientific (and applied, as engineering) discipline of Human Computer Interaction. In many ways, their research into the role of research (yowzer!) might be seen as polemic – as they both fight for tenure, they are looking for precedent into the nature of design in a traditionally scientific community, and how to best substantiate the rigor of the work we do, given it is not repeatable (and repeatability isn’t even a goal of design). And to compound the problem, the design research described in the academy – “case-based research, design in the support of HCI research, critical design, and research through design, where understanding is codified into an artifact that in turn evolves new research questions” – is an entirely different body of knowledge and work than design reserach in professional practice. In the latter, designers work (often for a client) with users to understand their latent wants, needs, and desires, or simply to understand the problem space a given problem exists within. In the former, design researchers work to literally advance the body of knowledge of designers. This is an advancement void of context of a professional problem or a client, forcing the question: is design always applied?

I had nearly an identical conversation with Alex Kirlik and David Weightman when I was visiting UIUC several months ago, except in Alex’s case, he was struggling with the role of research in Human Factors. While arguably HCI, human factors and interaction design are “simply” lenses upon the larger context of Design, it’s fascinating to see how disconnected the entire conversation in academia is from in professional practice. For I can guarantee that none of my colleagues at frog design read to this part of the post, as the entire conversation is deemed (in a highly pejorative stance) “just academic”.

For discipline that have a large connection to an applied context (like design), and for those that have an unfortunate public reputation of lacking rigor (like art), this disconnect will only grow unless it’s explicitly attended to in a language that both camps, the academics and the practitioners, can value. And at least for the discipline of design, and presumably for the discipline of art, the need for a connection between practice and academia is timely, as cheap and powerful technology has afforded an opportunity for coallescqnce of applied work and intellectual work that can benefit all of culture and society. I intend to speak, at least, to this opportunity at my upcoming talk in MEDEA.