Invitation to speak at Draw #5 on Creative Research Methods

The task to speak about creative research methods for Design Research and Writing (DRaW #5) at Monash University, required me to understand the methods I employ and articulate them to an audience. Preparation for the session enabled me to develop a deeper understanding of my practice through practice. Composing a visual narrative in the form of a presentation was a way to transform my implicit understanding of creative research methods into explicit knowledge. Visualising the intangible, articulating my thoughts and facilitated discussion post presentation all served to affirm that the mixed method approach I employ is a creative research method.

It was suggested that I present something I’d previously shown called Blind Spot. However, I choose not to represent this narrative as it didn’t explicitly address the session theme. In this case of DRaW #5 the main requirements were;

– focus on Creative Research Methods
– discuss your experience with the topic for approximately 10 minutes
– respond to questions and participate in an expanded discussion lead by the moderator
Note: It doesn’t specify a slideshow presentation is required.

From the onset, the task to speak at DRaW may appear relatively straight forward, e.g., prepare a visual narrative and articulate this to the audience. This approach takes for granted knowledge acquired from seeing examples from previously attending DRaW, and it also assumes that the slideshow framework is appropriate and relevant.

Questioning is how I respond to any brief — I use this approach to acknowledge the defined and the ambiguous, and ultimately it helps add breadth and depth to the task.

Searching for the unspecified

Producing the unexpected is the designer’s task according to many. We are asked to reach beyond the brief and develop innovative solutions. There are some strategies designers may employ to do this. An approach I use in my design practice is to review the task and look for what isn’t specified or the potential loop-holes. Briefs can be restrictive spaces, and this technique helps me establish an open mindset that can focus on possibilities rather than limitations. Seeking to find, understand and exploit the unspecified is often dependent on one’s original mindset. The surrounding conditions together with the right mindset means the clearly defined or ambiguous can generate impetus for questioning, exploration and experimentation. Using this strategy is by no means the magic bullet to developing innovative solutions, but it highlights what may be overlooked, provides greater clarity and motivates me personally — so in that sense it’s a win.

Defining Design

I am part of the WonderLab PhD cohort which is researching Design and Learning. You would assume as a collective we would have a common understanding of what is Design means, however, in reality, every person holds a nuanced view of what it encompasses and what it excludes. Could this be a call for each researcher to articulate what they mean by Design in the context of their research? Or, as a cohort do we establish what the term Design means in the context of WonderLab?

How do we form this common understanding?

Defining Design

How do we communicate the value and meaning of the design discipline when it literally has hundreds of branches? Do we need to be pedantic and specify what we mean by Design in each instance it’s cited?

Balance as Bias

The reading Balance as bias: global warming and the US prestige press set by James Oliver in Research Methods 2, prompts one to consider how knowledge is formed (ontology, epistemology, methodology, methods), and consider potential pitfalls with how it’s disseminated.

The contribution we make to knowledge is paramount to a career in research, and the value of this contribution is typically determined by that which is written. What, by who, where and the final form that matters. It is knowledge cemented by words which are valued most in the research space — this is how we measure contribution — a single action — the act of putting something into words.

What if we encouraged a balanced approach to how knowledge is created and disseminated? What if we valued a multiplicity of expressions and gave preference to subordinate ways of knowing and understanding? What happens with the knowledge that is shown, performed and experienced, and how can new ways be recorded, disseminated and ultimately considered permanent contributions to knowledge.

Attending to the pitfalls raised by the article, we may need to privilege other ways of knowing. Subordinate ways of knowing may need to rise with conviction and confidence — demand attention — and in cases overshadow the status quo.

Through process how can we develop a better understanding of design and forge new pathways? How can we let the path unfold? By looking at, in and through design, a new understanding might be generated. The research aims to strengthen designerly ways of knowing through design. The design practice drives the research, and the research drives the design practice.

Therefore, submitting a written thesis would sit contrary to the research itself. Writing will be a star within the research but ultimately a star sitting within a constellation.


ENDNOTES

Boykoff, Maxwell T. and Jules M. Boykoff. “Balance as Bias: Global Warming and the Us Prestige Press.” Global Environmental Change 14, no. 2 (2004): 125-36. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2003.10.001.

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.

WonderLab Research Space

“Understanding the connection between our beliefs, behaviour and continuous learning this second space explores the design of experiences that drive personal transformation. Working with the solution-focused orientation of design, these projects recognise that the culture change of a school, organisation or community might start with the individual. These projects take a holistic approach that emphasises the multi-modal nature of design to engage learners in surfacing tacit beliefs, harnessing intrinsic motivations and forging new habits to support real shifts in learners’ mindsets. The emphasis here is on behaviour and the learning triangulation between doing, knowing and becoming.” — WonderLab Research space.

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.

Sensing the Terrain

If design pedagogy emphasised process and mindset over the material outcome, what would the individual’s experience be?

Figure 1.

The design process requires multi-modal thinking. There is no formula – it can be linear or non-linear, challenging or effortless, simple or complex. Experienced designers understand this, and typically work intuitively – rather than consciously – through the process until reaching a satisfactory outcome. The intangibility of this process presents a significant challenge for learners, educators, and practitioners as typically the primary concerns are the material outcomes.

This obsession with the material outcome in both design education and professional practice is reinforced by assessment, award schemes and more broadly by society itself. Placing such value on the end product undermines the importance of how the artefact came to be. At times designers are asked to reveal the process behind a specific project. However, the verbal and visual articulation of the process too often becomes a polished package akin to the material outcome itself. There is no denying that these anecdotal recounts aim to explicitly reveal aspects of the process, however, much of that communicated relies on implicit and tacit knowledge of the process itself. Do these edited narratives unmask the process, or do they perpetuate the mystery and allure surrounding both creator and outcome? How authentic are these recounts and what could be gained from discussing the less tangible aspects of the process? Do these project and process stories assist learners or do they directly speak to those already in the know? These narratives do support the idea there is a correlation between process and material outcome, but the question remains how can we balance the emphasis, so process and learner mindsets are valued higher.

The research seeks to balance the emphasis on what we value and how it is measured. It seeks to redirect attention away from the material outcome and take a holistic approach to the learning experience. Rather than following the status quo, it looks to reimagine design education by centring the focus on learner mindsets, and the thinking modes required during the design process. On a micro level, the research will address how we effectively support learners so they can act as improvisers, creators, strategists, leaders, and collaborators, but also how to operate in reflective and singular modes. This skill of switching mindsets is challenging, yet one that is essential for learning and design practice.

Researchers outside of design have explored the value of cultivating specific mindsets through brain-training exercises and mindfulness. However, mindset development largely sits on the periphery of the design process and remains isolated from learning and practice. This research proposes to embed these ideas into the process and assessment rather than perpetuating society’s obsession with the material outcome.

It is important to note that the primary factors of learning, mindset and process, are equally applicable to participants and facilitators. Every interaction is like a dance, you can move together, part ways or trip over each other — everyone plays a role in how the performance comes together. Breaking with the traditional hierarchal structures in education allows individuals to participate and contribute to learning environments in ways previously not possible. You are unlikely to see the words student and teacher within the research documentation, but you may see flattened or flipped hierarchal structures.

Figure 2.