The Practice of Interdisciplinarity in Design and New Media

Keywords: Inclusive Design, New Media

This essay examines the history of a multi-disciplinary Centre for Design and New Media developed over a period of three years in Vancouver, Canada. I explore the challenges of developing research models that make it possible for a variety of investigators and practitioners in the areas of Design and New Media to link their work to that of engineers and computer scientists.

In 2000, the New Media Innovation Centre (NewMic) was started in Vancouver, Canada under the aegis and with the support of five post-secondary academic institutions, industry and the federal and provincial governments. Approximately, nineteen million dollars was invested at the outset mostly from industry and government. I was one of the leaders in the planning and development of NewMic, in large measure because I have a long history of involvement in teaching and researching, as well as producing new media. (The industry members included, Electronic Arts, IBM, Nortel Networks, Sierra Wireless, Telus and Xerox Parc.)

One of the foundational goals of NewMic was to bring engineers, computer scientists, social scientists, artists, designers and industry together, in order to create an interdisciplinary mix of expertise from a variety of areas. The premise was that this group would engage in innovative research to produce inclusive and new media designs of a variety of products, network tools and multimedia applications. The second premise was that the research would produce outcomes that could be implemented and commercialized in order to produce added value for all of the partners.

I spent a year at NewMic as a designer/artist in residence in 2002 and was also on its Board of Governors from 2000-2003 until it was closed down late in 2003. There are a number of important features to the history of this short-lived institution that are important markers of the challenges and obstacles facing any interdisciplinary dialogue that includes artists and designers working with engineers and computer scientists. Among the challenges are:

  • The tendency among engineers, designers and computer scientists to have an unproblematic relationship to knowledge and knowledge production
  • Lack of clarity as to the meaning, impact and social role of inclusive and new media design products;  
  • Profound misunderstanding of the relationship between inclusivity, user needs and technological innovation; 
  • Conflicting cultures and discourses;
  • An uninformed and generally superficial understanding of the differences between the cognitive sciences and ethnographic explorations of human-computer interaction; 
  • Focus on a false distinction between pure and applied research.

Underlying some of these challenges was an apprehension that without interdisciplinarity, it would be impossible to be innovative. The artists and designers from Emily Carr Institute who participated in NewMic and whose concerns were centred on community, creativity, outreach, inclusivity and the ethical implications and effects of new technologies, found themselves in a difficult and demanding position.

The Culture of Collaboration, Design and Interdisciplinarity

Diana Forsythe, in a superb book entitled, Studying Those Who Study Us: An Anthropologist in the World of Artificial Intelligence says the following:

1. To knowledge engineers, knowledge is an either/or proposition: it seems either present or absent, right or wrong. Knowledge thus seems to be conceived of as an absolute. If you have it, you’re an expert; if you lack it, you’re a novice.
2. Knowledge engineers seem to conceive of reasoning as a matter of following formal rules. In contrast, social scientists—especially anthropologists—tend to think of it in terms of meaning and to note that the logic by which people reason may differ according to social and cultural context.
3. Knowledge engineers tend to assume that knowledge is conscious, that is, that experts can tell you what they know if only they will. They do not have systematic procedures for exploring tacit knowledge, not so they seem aware of the inevitably partial nature of the retrospective reporting conventionally used for knowledge elicitation. (Forsythe, 52)

These three points are central to understanding the culture of collaboration that needs to be built when researchers from diverse disciplines in the arts and engineering and computer sciences decide to work cooperatively. One of the challenges in any collaboration is developing a model of how different cultures and discourses can develop a best practices approach to understanding each other. It is not just an issue of people speaking and thinking differently, or having different research paradigms (although those two issues must be dealt with if any collaboration in this area is to be successful), it is also crucial to explore expectations, needs and what each discipline means by outcomes.

For example, the area of Inclusive Design is about ensuring that environments, products, services and interfaces work for people of all ages and abilities. The differences and similarities between applied and pure research need to be kept in mind on an almost continual basis. (Pure research is speculative, long-term and more oriented to speculative thinking as an end in itself.) In some instances, an applied approach may not capture all the nuances of a product’s potential design and use. An applied strategy may not delve deeply enough into the subtle relationship that people have with the environments they inhabit and the objects they utilize.

The supposed disparity between pure and applied research strategies was one of the areas of greatest conflict at NewMic. Industry members in particular wanted to move from research to end product as quickly as possible. And while this may be a necessity in the private sector, it takes more time for researchers from post-secondary institutions and independent labs to both understand the direction they want to pursue and to produce results. This may well be a weakness with the latter group, and it is the case that a good deal of the research done by universities produces no measurable outcomes, but this does not belie the fact that some of the most important research in the 20th century has come from the post-secondary sector.

The distinctions between applied and pure research are in general, false, since there are many examples of pure research resulting in practical outcomes and applications. One of the best examples of this was the discovery in 1946 that “certain nuclei act as tiny magnets. Scientists then could scarcely have imagined the practical applications which would lead to today's multi-billion dollar industry in magnetic resonance medical imaging (MRI), which doctors use to scan the tissues and bones of patients in diagnosing cancerous turnouts or hair-line fractures. But the original discovery only provided the opportunity for the applications. To realize these required a great deal of additional sophisticated engineering, applied science and commercial development.” (Harvey Brooks, Harvard University 2004)

An added complication was NewMic’s inclusion of researchers and practitioners with backgrounds in art and design. Artistic research is very much defined by doing, but it is also circumscribed by the process of playing as well as the creative ability to capture and realize the importance of chance and serendipity. The outcome of research in the arts is often the work of art itself. Design, on the other hand defines itself through its close relationship with clients and looks to materiality (even in a digital world) for confirmation and validation.

There are of course many examples of successful collaborations, which in some instances have produced spectacular pay-offs like the inclusion of artists-in-residence at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center. (Harris, 1999) In the Palo Alto case the synergies between artists, designers and engineers produced some wonderful results and many other centres have tried to duplicate their experience. In the private sector, the design company IDEO is an excellent example of how to build a culture of connection and interaction between different disciplines. (Kelley, 2001)

The NewMic collaboration began with two major reference points, Palo Alto and MIT’s Media Lab. Again, this was not unusual. Other projects in Montreal, Melbourne, Dublin and Germany referred to and attempted to reflect the successes of MIT and Xerox. In the beginning the mandate of NewMic was described as follows:

To accomplish its mission, NewMIC was focused on the following objectives:

  • Attracting and retaining outstanding faculty and graduate and undergraduate students in new media research and in art and design areas.

  • Building excellence in new media innovation.

  • Developing better industry-university-institute collaboration for the purposes of technology transfer.

  • Encouraging the transfer and commercialization of technology through incubation support.

  • Attracting more venture capital to the new media industry. (March 2001)


The design component was incorporated into the vision by default under the rubric of New Media. This proved to be an error because so much of New Media is driven by interface design, product design and inclusive design as well as 'old media' goals. Ultimately, the goal was to frame the experience of users of New Media within a product-oriented set of research pursuits. Ironically, so many of the lessons that designers have learned over the last two decades, the importance of detailed ethnographic inquiry, the need to think about the relationship between product and user, the flexibility that is necessary to make interfaces work for many diverse constituents, the fact that design is really about people and this knowledge, that inclusivity cannot be attained without understanding how people live, was not directly applied to the research in New Media at NewMic.

The emphasis on innovation, technology transfer and commercialization, although necessary, cannot be accomplished in a context that is entirely oriented towards applied research with short timelines. This is a conundrum because it is completely understandable that industry would want to see some results from their investment, but the essence of collaboration is that it takes time. In fact, one of the crucial lessons of the NewMic experience is that developing designs that are environmentally sensitive and inclusive requires not only that people from different disciplines participate, but that time be given over to the development of shared communities of interest. Interdisciplinarity is as much about a coming together as it is about recognizing differences.

Diana Forsythe in her own words:

"Anthropologists have been using ethnographic methods since the 1970s to support the design and evaluation of software. While early use of such skills in the design world was viewed as experimental, at least by computer scientists and engineers, ethnography has now become established as a useful skill in technology design. Not only are corporations and research laboratories employing anthropologists to take part in the development process, but growing numbers of non-anthropologists are attempting to borrow ethnographic techniques. The results of this appropriation have brought out into the open a kind of paradox: while ethnography looks and sounds straightforward, this is not really the case. The work of untrained ethnographers tends to overlook things that anthropologists see as important parts of the research process. The consistency of this pattern suggests that some aspects of ethnographic fieldwork are invisible to the untrained eye. In short, ethnography would appear to constitute an example of invisible work."