March 18, 2014
The first day of the conference left me equal parts exhausted and excited. When I climbed into the shuttle van back to the hotel (coincidentally seated next to keynote speaker, Karel van der Waarde…we talked about Ikea furniture and I tried to be chill even though on the inside it was very very out-of-body) it was with the distinct feeling that I was a bit different than I’d been that morning…like my mind had been stretched just a bit wider than before in a sort of mental yoga exercise.
Day two came way too early but away I went for another round of inquiry, challenge, and spontaneous meeting of awesome educators. The second day was a bit heavier on people presenting papers of their research. I attended several interesting sessions including one by Daniel McCafferty challenging the dead metaphor of designer as problem solver and instead re-framing it to be designer as gardener. (And yes…he is Canadian and I’ll be very shallow and admit the reason I originally chose to attend was because I totally miss my cohort and just listening to his accent was a bit like coming home in an academic manner.) Perhaps the most provocative paper session I attended (though didn’t realize it at the time) was by Dori Griffin whose presentation was titled Design + the Doctorate: A Call for Participation in the Disciplinary Discussion Surrounding Doctoral Education in Design.
Dori received her PhD in Design History a few years ago. Dori presented on the overall lack of design publications in peer reviewed journals and made a very compelling argument that because design research isn’t published on an academic “arena”, it becomes all but invisible to the wider academic world, perpetuating the notion that designers make pretty pictures but beyond that don’t really have any academic heft. It was interesting and provocative and I felt an internal glow when she cited that the few people who actually have published are also the few people in the design higher ed world I had contact with when I was deciding just what my academic next step might be (yeah…again totally shallow but I will say that because I have personal emails from both Meredith Davis and Kate LaMere makes me feel cool…and dorky for feeling cool.)
But anyways, Dori was riffing about the PhD and its importance and I was feeling part of the tribe since I couldn’t agree more with her and then a bit later I told her what I was doing with my life and how I too felt like were tracking and asked her about her own thoughts when people like me, who are designers at heart, go into other fields to do doctoral work. I was thinking she’d say “you’re awesome!! way to go out into another field and be a design missionary and make the world a better place by “connecting the dots” and being all trans disciplinary and collaborative!” but she didn’t….what she said was basically that what I was doing wasn’t adding to the body of knowledge for design.
Yep, what I was doing was adding to the body of knowledge for education. I was an educational researcher and that was very different than being a design researcher.
And then I realized we were having an ontological/epistemological conflict and smiled because here I’d been thinking that everyone at the conference was “just like me” but really we’re all kind of on the same team but totally not identical. I was thinking you carry design inside of you, like when you’re nearsighted or have perfect pitch, and just by virtue of it being somehow woven into the core of who you are, it colors whatever you happen to be doing. All research becomes design research because you as the designer are the one doing it. In her conception…not so much…rather, it seems your research is first colored by your field.
So…it did make me think a lot and I can say with all honesty it is the one sort of controversial nugget that has stayed with me now two days after the event because I know what I think kind of as my own first reaction and I see where she (and people who have been design-schooled all the way through) are coming from and yet I don’t think I buy it. Sure, I acknowledge that I chose to pursue a doctorate in education rather than in design because what gets me most excited is people and what gets me most upset are the stupid, unduly rigorous and complex structures the discriminate so many people, but still I think design is large enough to encompass what I’m doing because I think fundamentally I’m up against a design problem, couched in educational terms. And actually, I think everything might be able to be distilled down to design problems since we do indeed live in a designed world.
…yet I also know that these ideas are totally mine, the product of my own environment, etc. So…to each their own, I think. And the one constant is that research, or rather Research, must be done. No matter what camp you find yourself in there can be no denying the design research landscape is pretty much a barren desert. But, perhaps that is also what makes it exciting. Whatever anyone can contribute will build the framework for the future and if this conference is any indication…there’s a lot of amazing out there ready to be found.
And now it’s back to the trenches and the books and the articles and even more the thinking and dreaming and exposure to ideas totally outside your own head…here’s to the adventure.