What is Design?

To an extent, everyone designs just as they do maths, however, knowing how to count coins doesn’t make you a mathematician. A simplistic definition of Design is ‘a plan or sketch to show the look and workings of an object’ before it is made or executed. In reality, Design is far more complex.

Design goes with lots of words.

Design Strategist — Design Manager — Experience Design — Design Thinker — Design Maker — Design Expert — Spatial Design — Co-Design — Design Hack — Industrial Design — Stage Design — Design Novice — Communication Design

So, what is Design?

Design is more than a plan, process, or object.

Design is always emerging.

Uncharted Spaces 2

UNKNOWN — Unpublished — Undocumented — Undisciplined

I am at the beginning of my research journey. The slate is clean. I have no published journal articles and not a solo exhibition to my name. As a designer, my position is valid.

I’m presented with both the challenge to explore the unfamiliar and an opportunity to grow.

I decide to tread slowly, as design appears to generate its own energy — it seems to either lure designers back to practice or propel one into research only vaguely linked to design. I don’t want to get caught in the rip or be swept to a place outside of design — I wish to stay grounded and strengthen my understanding what is already here, yet undiscovered.

Uncharted Spaces

This section looks at the uncertainty of exploring the unknown. It uses both storytelling and reflection to travel through spaces which are uncomfortable, confusing and uncertain. Uncharted Spaces traverses paths that split, connect and wind around. It is a space for reflection, critique, confidence and uncertainty — a space to untangle ideas through a narrative. It’s worth noting this introductory section, consciously breaks the first rule outlined by Andrew McNamara’s paper Six rules for practice-led research; ‘Rule 1: eliminate — or at the very least, limit — the use of the first person pronoun, “I” as a centrepiece of a research formulation’.

Story 1.  The Blind Spot

Roland Schimmel, Blind Spot II, 2004 from KNAW on Vimeo.

There is so much to read, so many interesting conversations to process, but pressingly is this requirement to contextualise my research or so-called ‘thing’. Read more, learn more, think more seems the only way forward — but this isn’t plausible with a splitting headache.

A headache is present but my perspective is not.

I have my thing — it is an artwork called Blind Spot 2 by Roland Schimmel. The title of the piece seems fitting, as I am also reading a book called In A Manner of Reading Design – The Blind Spot edited by Katja Gretzinger. I haven’t found the words to describe the ‘thingness’ you see, but I can talk about it through an experience.

Late last year I visited an arthouse in Japan called Backside of the Moon. It was a collaboration between artist James Turrell and architect Tadao Ando. The house façade wasn’t that different from the other structures on the island, but from knowing Turrell’s work, I expected the interior to be.

The depth of darkness within the space made navigation tricky.  With my primary sense sight lost my other senses are heightened. To understand where in relation to others I am situated, I rely on the sounds of footsteps and my sense of smell. I guide myself through the unfamiliar space primarily through touch — letting the wall guide me forward. I’m anxious the wall will end and I’ll be stranded. It does end but perfectly synced is the instruction to take a seat. The experience leaves me feeling clumsy, unsure and uncomfortable.

I’m slightly more relaxed now seated and as time passes my eyes begin to adjust. However, the uncertainty doesn’t completely leave. With time, I observe something emerge from the darkness, but then it disappears. Was that a dark purple blob and what I am witnessing now is the shapes afterglow? Are things pulsating, moving, changing — I’m not certain. Maybe my eyes are tricking me. Does the expectation of seeing something mean I’m fabricating the vague image before me?

With time, I gain confidence. Yes, there is a distinct frame to this image. The impression is soon confirmed by the guide who instructs us to stand and walk towards it. I can clearly see silhouettes of others, but now my other senses retreat. I realise that there was always light within the space – my eyes simply hadn’t adjusted.

My research is about looking at the world through new frames. What can I learn from letting my senses recalibrate and what will I notice if I watch for long enough so the ‘thingness’ emerges.

A hyper state of wanting to know, define, solidify my research is my natural reaction to pressure. If my research is interested in learning, mindsets, awareness and cultivating the capacity to observe things differently, then mastering the art of stepping forwards and back is where I need to head. I want to discover my blind spots and see the afterglow of objects. This is thingness. There is always light, darkness and more to an image.


Story 2.  Challenging tacit belief and shifting habits

Learning about learning provides me with a different frame of reference to my research. This reflexive practice prompts me to question my ontology and challenge my beliefs. It calls for awareness whilst I travel through both familiar and unknown spaces and requires me to cultivate the skills to respond rather than my innate reaction.

On this research journey, I am in charge of navigation and I wonder the best way to travel through uncharted space? I don’t know the space I am travelling through but I have a guide as to how long it will take. Travelling on this unknown path is ultimately the experience. I’ve experienced the discomfort of not knowing before. I will find my way. I don’t know which path I’ll take. I trust that moving towards the unknown is key as in this space I will learn. It feels like I am directing a fearful student and supporting them to take calculated risks. I wonder how we can learn to embrace the unknown with greater confidence? Is it about merely adopting a give-it-a-go and nothing-to-lose attitude? If this is the case, then it seems logical to focus on the process rather than the result. Nothing is predetermined in this space, and I’ve learnt perfection is not a destination.

The simple act of delivering on something exposes you. Did you make it, or did you not? It’s a vulnerable space, and an unsatisfying process if you focus on the perfect result. Aiming for perfection, or working towards a predetermined outcome may swiftly tick the box, but counterproductive if your goal is to learn.

So, I embark on this experience not knowing where I am heading. I acknowledge using language to articulate ideas is daunting. It calls for me to address some of the long-established beliefs around my strengths and weaknesses.

I am a hopeless speller and will always be
I am creative
I am / I am not good at drawing
I am disciplined
I am a visual and kinesthetic learner
Aural communication is a weakness of mine
Languages are not my thing
I need to pay more attention to grammar
I have the attention span of a goldfish
I am extremely focused

I see much of the above is contradictory. However, I acknowledge reading academic articles can’t be a fruitless exercise in the context of a PhD. I need to shift from a space where words directly pass through to one where they are retained. Training my attention while reading seems fundamental and this basic skill requires practice and consistency. Time on task is also crucial, however, there is little point spending a lot of time on a task if the results remain the same. In other words ‘a sense of the deliberate use of the time available, and not just time on task to practice, practice and practice (particularly if the practice is overlearning of the wrong, incomplete or irrelevant’ (Hattie, Zierer, 2018). Developing strategies such as taking notes while reading should help develop active reading and comprehension skills. Writing is another basic skill which will continually develop. A personal and WonderLab blog provides a platform to practice and potentially a space dialogue. This digital space also affords me the opportunity to stop and reflect whilst travelling on this unknown path.


Story 3. Setting the Scene

I am Wendy, and I am a designer.

Following my name is a title — what does this mean or imply? To me, this title was mysteriously attained. I’m not sure when it occurred as I don’t recall receiving a formal notification. Was it when the Bachelor in Design was awarded to me or was it once the title appeared beneath my name on a business card? Not long after graduating I discovered titles in design were something you claimed yourself or something others claimed for you, and it seemed no quality assurance check was needed.

I am a designer — but why, how, when and to whom?

Challenging this label may not prove helpful particularly given the privilege it provides in the structure of a design school or design-oriented PhD Collective. However, I would like to acknowledge that not everyone has the opportunity of being labelled a designer in this space. For me, this label doesn’t mean much as I know there is a plethora of experiences and titles I do not possess. We all hold experiences that both work to our advantage or disadvantage. So with humility, I claim;

I am a designer interested in pedagogy.
I am an educator interested in design.

Looking back I recall a few pivotal moments in my adult life that have been transformative. However, I’ll recount the moment I decided to break from working as a designer. The driving forces in a commercial context are often money and ego and it was always more, not less. Sadly, personal authenticity and sustainability remained largely absent. Outcomes were valued over the process, and space for compassion, empathy, sustainability, honesty and integrity denied.  It was activities outside of work that reigniting my passion for learning. Ceramics, woodwork, upholstery, running, swimming and cooking demonstrated other ways of being within a creative space.

My current practice is full of tacit, implicit and explicit knowledge, so the first step in the research journey is to make sense of the entanglement of knowledge that I hold within. Stepping back before proceeding down a particular route with the research allows me to be deliberate with the selected direction. The research framework does not imply the journey will be linear, fixed or formulaic —  space needs to be held for divergent thinking and varied ways of knowing so that I understand what the inbuilt blind spots are. Accepting that deadlines, presentations, milestones and completion of the PhD are not a means to an end, but rather part of the unfolding process of learning — this is a shift in my ontology.

So now the emphasis of the research is on the process and not the outcome. It’s a space where things are always unfolding, being experienced and made. This frame is the ontology I bring to the research, to the practice of teaching, and to design. This way acknowledges the connection in all that we do — that is the chain of interdependence. My areas of research don’t explicitly connect; improvisation, sensory play, learning communities, creativity, affordances of space, and mindset. However, exploring what these ideas offer to the practice of design and learning is the concern of the research.

Design and pedagogy are the overarching themes of my research but they are not the research. This is reflected in the reading that interests me. It is also evident when I look at all the diagrams I’ve drawn and notes made to make sense of the research — it is by no mistake that word design is omitted. I question, is this because the ontology I bring to the research is that of a designer? I remind myself to practice with caution, as unlearning what it means to be a designer is fundamental to shifting the ontology I bring to practice and research.

I am conscious of the allure of tangible outcomes — they often suggest things are resolved. The shift in my being acknowledges that outcomes aren’t static — they are forever unfolding with each interaction.

The research is about the designing of the process.

I am a learner interested in learning.