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.

Changes in Design Education

Andrew Maier recently posted a thoughtful essay on the changing nature of design education. It’s similar in criticism as a piece I ran a year ago in interactions magazine by Meredith Davis, who speaks of the need to reinvent design education; unlike Meredith, however, Andrew comes to the conclusion that designers need to take responsibility for their own career. Implicit in his article is that a graduate program isn’t going to build a career for you – and that money spent in grad school may be better spent on books with similar content.

For students who have a background in design, experience in design, and raw skills, Andrew’s totally right: they can drive their career any direction they choose. One soon realizes that a career is a narrative, and it’s one that can be completely designed and controlled. Want to do the speaking circuit? It’s easy – find a compelling story to tell, and practice the speaking skills to support it. Looking for the corporate job driving brand resonance? It’s an easy position to get, and there are pretty tactical ways to formulate a portfolio to attract the right recruiting efforts. And the content in the $70 textbook Andrew writes about [presumably Beyer and Holtzblatt’s Contextual Design]? Yeah, you can read the book and learn the “right process” [which is, of course, never actually done the way it’s written in the book].

But there’s two main contexts where a formal graduate program makes a ton of sense, is worth the money, and plays a critical role in the advancement of our profession.

The first is in attracting adult talent to the intellectual process of design. This talent likely already has “experience” in the world, and so a four year degree with foundations studies isn’t going to cut it. For people in the middle of their career, a structured set of classes and a rigorous process is necessary. The rigor of the engagement drives personal “realignment” and the formal structure – and the simple fact that there’s a substantial financial investment at stake – seems to make people take the education seriously, where reading a book might not be as quickly absorbed.

The second is in opening new doors to new opportunities, those that are too big to be studied in isolation and too complicated to be processed implicitly. These are the problems that are tackled at the HCII at CMU, and at Austin Center for Design, and at most graduate programs – and they are tackled through project work, in groups, with real stakeholders, in a supportive environment. I don’t think that one can fundamentally leapfrog these educational settings, as it’s tremendously difficult to simulate project-based design work.

I recently authored a piece for interactions that won’t get printed for a few months, but touches on this very issue. In the piece, I describe five predictive recommendations about the evolving nature of education, and how to best structure both pedagogy and content to succeed in the coming educational shift. I’ll share two of them here:

  • Reject the technical delivery limitations prescribed by technology. The majority of software intended to support online learning is abysmal [Blackboard, one of the most popular tool for online delivery, is described as a “a horrendous monstrosity and the people who created it should be ashamed” [], and as a result, the experiential qualities of online delivery may suffer for reasons entirely out of the control of the educator. During the educational revolution, we’ll see educators actively refuse to use subpar products, and we’ll witness an increase in hybrid approaches to teaching – models that combine a digital component with in-person, collaborative sessions augmented by traditional tools like whiteboards and post-it notes.
  • Create a safe environment for learning experiences to occur within. Perhaps the most important aspect of successful education is the idea of empowerment: of creating an environment where failure can be explored, instead of simply trivialized, and where students can learn to be more effective learners. The educational revolution will bring a change of project-based learning, where the cycle of [rote memorization – test – pass/fail] is replaced by an iterative approach of informed trial and error.

I think the point Andrew is making is sound – that education needs an overhaul. I’m pretty excited to be a part of that revolution.

Another Attempt at Design Certification

Conversations of official design certification have come and gone over the last few decades, with little traction. There’s another attempt to organize designers – in this case, graphic designers, who seem to focus exclusively on logos and static websites – and the attempt seems exclusively focused on the fly-by-night $200 website shops that deliver precisely on their promise: pay $200, and get a website that’s worth approximately the same.

I’ve always had an immediate and negative reaction to the idea of some official certification board – similar to the process of AIA certification that an architect must achieve – but I’ve never really tried to analyze why. I think I’m at a point where I can formulate several reasons why it’s a non-starter.

  1. The conversation almost implicitly reduces design to aesthetics, which is increasingly the least relevant and appropriate use of design talent. The “bad design examples” provided on the site are gratuitous looking, and that’s where the conversation starts and ends. There’s no mechanism to judge the interaction design, the functionality, the cultural need, the benefits to users, the value provided to the company, or any of the other facets of a design problem. And while design aesthetics aren’t entirely subjective, the resonance of visual design is obviously in the eye of the beholder: Not ironically, I found the design certification site itself to be poorly thought out, with an ugly information hierarchy, a sophomoric use of type, and silly clip-art icons added without clear rationalization.
  2. The idea of certification is presented as a method of protecting those who purchase professional design skills. I’m not aware of any data – qualitative, quantitative, or otherwise – that indicates these people need protecting. It’s far-fetched to assume that one who purchases a $99 logo has a deep and passionate need for a strong, well thought out mark and identity package. When you buy a car for $400, you don’t expect it to last very long or be very effective. This idea of “protecting the purchaser” seems like a ruse to protect the fragile aesthetic sensibilities of designers who just don’t like ugly design work.
  3. The one reason that might be appropriately provided FOR certification is almost never considered: that design has a cultural resonance of equal or greater weight than law or policy, as design decisions are reproduced in mass and permeate the visual and semantic landscape of our world. And even this is mitigated at both a federal and a local level, through the use of bans on billboards and requirements about misleading advertising.

It feels like those clamoring for a professional body of certification are trying to protect a profit margin on a skill that may have already been commoditized. The rallying cry to “empower business” isn’t necessary: designers are empowering business through intellectual, strategic and appropriate design work.

Big Buckets of Money

I met with Justin Petro yesterday to do some final logistics planning for the bootcamp, and we were discussing the part of design process – ideation – where ideas start to build and evolve, and new ideas form. He described how important it was to tie these to “a big bucket of money”, even at this early stage, in order to explicitly shift the focus of social innovation from altruism (and likely unsustainable) to profitable (and therefore able to take a long view). I started thinking about what big buckets of money are actually available for social innovators to tie their ideas to, and came up with this list:

  1. Direct sales profit, product. Someone directly pays for an artifact.
  2. Direct sales profit, service. Someone directly pays for a service.
  3. Indirect sales profit, service. Transactional fees are extracted from a third-party exchange.
  4. Venture capital. Private equity, with an expectation of 5-10x return on 3M+ in 3-5 years.
  5. Angel capital. Start-up financing, with an expectation of a 10x return on <2M in 3-5 years.
  6. Foundation grant money. Large grants coming from private foundations, usually spooned off the top of an endowment.
  7. Private-sector grant money. Small grants coming from wealthy individuals, with an implicit expectation of some form of organizational control.
  8. Government grant money. Small to large grants, coming from agencies like NSF or the DOE.
  9. Government contractor money. Small to large contracts, coming from agencies like DOD or DARPA.
  10. Long-tail internet grants. Micro-grants aggregated through a service like Kickstarter, FundableIndieGoGo or ChipIn.

What other big pots of money am I missing?