Research in the Arts and Design

Let me begin by suggesting that the term contingency may be a useful way of thinking about research in areas not traditionally thought of as research-based. It is not fair to compare research in the arts and design for example, to the social sciences although they may share more than we realize. We therefore need some new thinking on the meaning of research in the creative areas both as method and as process. This is all the more urgent because artists and designers have had a great deal of difficulty arguing their case with government, the community and with industry. And, as we have seen in Great Britain, research in the creative areas is measured in much the same way as other disciplines and often not to the benefit of creative work. In fact, debate is needed on the policy environment being created in the UK around the Creative Industries because so many of the presuppositions being put in place are being copied elsewhere in the industrial world.

Contingency speaks to activities that begin without a clear sense of their outcome. Artists have always been comfortable with this as have some writers. In the past, some designers oriented their creative process around the expectations of clients and so it appeared as if their creative process was more concrete and less contingent than artists. Now, designers have more fully recognized that they are as involved in the invention of new ideas and processes as artists and so both creative engagements share a similar sense that outcomes are a byproduct of creative engagement.

A by-product? Yes, if the outcome is largely determined by an ongoing process that may not be linear, then outcomes are by and large as accidental even when the intentions are strong. Some artists of course, play with chance and accidents all the time and this was the foundation of the work of John Cage. Others plan their works very carefully and many have those works built by apprentices to specifications they have created. But, for the most part artists and designers to varying degrees learn to combine chance, accident and purpose to produce works that reflect only a small proportion of their intentions.

Traditional research in the social sciences uses a variety of time tested methods from observation to participant observation among many approaches, to try and understand phenomena and in many cases suggest solutions to problems and challenges. The methods range from the quantitative to the qualitative and constitute a vast constellation of strategic choices with the intellectual and practical goal of deepening and enhancing our understanding both of the world we live in and ourselves. I cannot do justice to the range here, its complexity and breadth. Suffice to say, nearly anything and everything can be the object or subject of research.

My point is that the same situation exists in the arts and design. Tim Brown comments on Charles Eames and the manner in which the Eames conducted a series of important design experiments in the early 20th century. (See Brown’s wonderful book, Change by Design published by Harper Collins in 2009.) “From their legendary office at 901 Washington Boulevard in Venice, California, the Eameses and their associates conducted a series of design experiments that stretched across four decades and covered every imaginable medium: the molded plywood chairs that became synonymous with American modernism; their famous case study house No. 8 in Pacific Palisades; the museum exhibitions they built, and the educational films they produced. Not always visible in the finished projects, however, is the methodological experimentation that lay behind them.” (71)

Crucially, the finished projects of designers and of artists only sometimes reveal their methodological origins and process. Many self-conscious and self-reflexive creators have of course from time to time created works that reveal method in their very materiality. But, for the most part, creative process remains unseen, background chatter as it were, with little seeming connection to method.

Here is an example of a creative project that sees itself within the traditional methods of the social sciences.

“I am a lecturer with the Department of Photography at the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University, specialising in the fields of photojournalism and social documentary. My recent projects borrow heavily from the practices inherent in visual ethnography and include hospice and palliative care (Lloyd, Passing Time, 2000), documenting a small regional community outside of Brisbane (Something about Us, Logan Art Gallery, 2001) and, currently, working on a project looking into substance misuse in the Mt Isa district.” David Lloyd.

This is a hybrid of course and one of many works that are challenging conventional definitions of art and media. But, it points out that how fluid the boundaries between creative processes are and how careful we have to be in assuming *lack* of method when they may well be one.

Contingency is about methods that are applied to creative challenges without necessarily linking process to outcome. This is also similar to prototyping which is a process of experimental exploration that is as ideational as it is material.

More on this topic over the next few months.

See the following report from the UK, especially chapter 3 for more debate in this area.

Teaching, Learning and Making in Design Education

One of the major assumptions in design education and pedagogy is that students have to “make” or “produce” objects, from for example, web pages to bicycles to books in order to prove that they have learned to become designers. This philosophy is further amplified in popular journals like Applied Arts, which features the work of designers (much as photographic magazines feature the works of photographers) as examples both of production and professional capacity as if the works themselves have enough presence and force to stand for the creative process.

This outcomes based strategy is pervasive in disciplines that frame learning through the products or objects students create. The assumption is that students become more active learners if they transform information and knowledge into something tangible. To varying degrees, this approach has immense value. However, my sense is that the focus on outcomes often reduces the students need to engage in wide-ranging and critical analyses and therefore to make possible the kind of self-reflection that is essential to learning. In other words interpretation, discourse and critique become less important largely because the object is meant to stand not only for function but also for meaning, process and aesthetics. There is in this approach a thin border between 19th century vocational learning and teaching and the depth that should be required of university students in the 21st century who wish to become designers.    

The tradition of making that dominates contemporary art and design educational organizations is often portrayed as one of the essential differences that design schools have with more traditional institutions. Making is given a higher value than just thinking or research that may have no pragmatic or immediate outcome.  I would like to argue in this short article that the underlying philosophy of “making” to show progress in skills acquisition is fraught with dangers, among the most important of which is rampant anti-intellectualism. Furthermore, from my perspective, the learning process both within design and generally, is by its very nature so interdisciplinary that the focus on outcomes (most fully exemplified by the fourth year graduation project that comes to stand not only for years of learning but for the general capacity and competence of the student) tends to distort if not undermine creative process as well as innovative and speculative thinking. Of course, I am not suggesting that making is an end in itself, nor that the fabrication of prototypes or objects is harmful or without merit. Rather, one of the most important elements of any creative discipline, in my opinion is that learners become creative problem solvers. In order to achieve that goal many different pedagogical approaches are needed, not the least of which is an awareness of the differences among skills, learning and research. Gaining that understanding means that design students (and for that matter design teachers) cannot approach learning in a linear fashion. There is no easy or simple road to creative and innovative thought or production, unless the purpose of the educational process is framed by a limited understanding of the vocation or discipline within which both learners and teachers are engaged.

In contrast, experience design is part of an effort to recast design process so that at a minimum fabrication can meet creativity in a middle zone, a space where designers can reach out to potential audiences or users, a space that is both highly contingent and not entirely framed by use. The challenge for successful experience designers then centres on communication, language and quality of interaction, that is, how to fabricate a relational environment that may or may not have objects as their focus. Experience design suggests something about the challenges that now face all designers as the ground upon which creative engagement shifts from makers to users, inverting the creative process so that the latter is often more responsible for their experiences than the former.

Ironically, this is the same problem that artists face. The fabrication of something from nothing and the translation of ideas into artifacts cannot be reduced to a series of mechanical decisions, but requires a combination of self-reflection and self-appraisal as well as external evaluation and critique. Concepts don’t become aesthetic objects just because the craft needed to make or create something has been well learned or even well executed. If creativity were a simple matter of craft or even technique, then there would be little aesthetic or technical difference among artists or designers or users. Self-reflection can be learned. At the same time, learning to work beyond the limitations suggested by any craft or technique is the foundation upon which both innovative and critical articulation rests. The challenge both for learners and teachers is how to open up an increasingly narrow and narrowing set of assumptions about the pragmatic outcomes of the learning process. This is one of the key challenges both for the discipline and the institutions that teach design. (This article first appeared in Applied Arts)