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.


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.

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.

Mapping the terrain

Deciding where to begin the research journey is complex and particularly challenging when the areas of interest don’t appear to relate. The readings set for the Research Methods unit have acted as provocations, prompts and created a space to consider the practice of research and research as practice. Prior to commencing the research, it has provided a buffer — and prompted me to inquire how looking within and beyond the practice of design can add depth. Critical thinking prior to commencing the research has helped clarify the research purpose and the ontology brought to the research.

The research now explicitly acknowledges the inquiry is contained in the field of design — thus understanding the role design plays in the research and practice seems crucial. The starting point should centre around design so that the foundation of the research doesn’t rely on assumptions or ambiguous understandings of the role it plays. This new understanding requires me to shift the start line of my research to understand who in the design space is emphasising the importance of process and mindset. Through a contextual review, I’ll be asking the basic why, who, when, where, what and how questions. The research looks to fill a gap in design education by attending to the cracks and neglected spaces within the current ecosystem.

The belief there is a gap in knowledge is the crux of the research. However, what initiated the research was ultimately a hunch based on my experience as a student, practitioner, educator and through discussions with colleagues at the Design Academy of Eindhoven, the Netherlands and the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts (KADK) in Denmark. This quick review is by no means extensive, so ultimately it requires a comprehensive ‘contextual review in order to uncover tangible gap in knowledge’ (Gray, 2004). Passion planted a seed for the research but in order to formally begin the contextual review, confidence in the direction is needed.

Clarification of the research has come through an ongoing practice of creating diagrams to express my ideas. This practice of visualising ideas and language is something designers intuitively do. Nigel Cross refers to this as ‘designerly ways of knowing and thinking — which is the understanding of the design process through understanding design cognition’ (Cross, 2006). In many instances, the diagrams are the source of an idea and provide evidence of where the thought originated. For me, the most useful diagrams are the ones that formalise a thought as it happens, or those that create a platform for new ideas to branch off — these diagrams tell stories by presenting just a snippet within a sequence of moments. Figure 3, 4 & 5 illustrate a string of ideas around interactions between researchers and participants. This approach ‘sets up a different relationship with the research problem which drives the research study’. (Haseman, 2006).

Dwight Conquergood’s paper Performance Studies: Interventions and Radical Research claims that ‘the dominant ways of knowing in the academy is that of empirical observation and critical analysis from a distanced perspective: knowing that, and knowing about’. (Conquergood, 2002). His text questions how we situate ourselves within the research e.g., do we choose to take a top-down approach or one ‘grounded in active, intimate hands-on participation and personal connection’. (Conquergood, 2002). This notion of distance and perspective is linked to how we conduct research and calls our attention to the fact that the researcher’s behaviour influences the study. It is through words Conquergood prompts us to consider how we are located in the study, but these questions can be asked in other ways. For example, the diagrams (figure 3, 4, 5) created at the Palm Springs WonderLab intensive question the dynamics established between researchers and participants. The diagrams act as prompts and provocations — nothing more and nothing less. They provide an objective way to view relational hierarchies. The varied heights are not prescriptive but could suggest attributes that may influence e.g., power, knowledge, age etc.

R = Researchers   / P = Participants

Figure 3. Sequence One

Figure 4. Sequence Two

Figure 5. Sequence Three


As a practice-based researcher, I acknowledge that utilising established diagrammatic approaches to visualising research may reveal other epistemological ways. In Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences: Research in an Age of Info-glut, Kristin Luker proposes the bedraggled daisy diagram to capture search terms for the literature review. The original purpose of this diagram is to uncover combinations of search terms which may be have been previously overlooked eg. learning communities and modality, or learning communities and mindset. The Thesis Whisperer indicates this type of diagram aide is particularly useful in the initial stages of a research project. However, in the case of my project, the bedraggled daisy diagram in Figure 6 propels my research into the distance. Searching for literature based on this diagram would be like putting the cart before the horse. In other words, it fast-tracks the research into looking for a solution, rather than first identifying the problem or a tangible gap in knowledge.

Figure 6.

It prompts the question, are maps the means of materialising the immaterial and a way of simplifying complexity into something which is accessible? If so, the bedraggled daisy approach at this stage does little to guide the research forward. At this stage centring the initial contextual review around design, pedagogy seems most relevant. Figure 7 demonstrates an alternative to the bedraggled daisy above and provides a more logical foundation for the initial contextual review.

Figure 7.

Such diagrams capture thoughts and help me locate myself within the research. They also document moments in flux, where connections are both breaking and making.

‘Visualizing Research takes you on a journey through the research process, helping you to draw your own map, negotiate the challenges of your studies and reach a meaningful, fulfilling destination’. (Gray, 2004). However, the process of charting or mapping the research journey should ultimately provide clarification and not a distraction. John Maeda in The Laws of Simplicity articulates ‘finding an organisation scheme that works best for you is a wise investment’ (Maeda, 2006).

Using Maeda’s technique of organising information through a process called ‘SLIP: Sort, Label, Integrate, Prioritise’ could provide greater clarity than a more complex visualisation such as 3D matrix diagram (Figure 9, 10) or a fluid method such as the mind map (Maeda, 2006). The organisation of research fields using Maeda’s ‘SLIP’ method can be seen in Figure 8 below.

Figure 8.

Figure 9. 3D Matrix (Gray, 2014)


Figure 10. Example only. Visual representations can both confuse or clarify the purpose. They help one to locate themselves within the research while they should not ‘give the impression that space is a surface’ (Massey, 2005).

The map always presents a restricted view and is never be absolute — it is a suggestion of an incomplete space — as space itself is always a multiplicity of things and half-formed encounters. Space is ‘always in the process of being made. It can never be finished; never closed. Perhaps we could imagine space as a simultaneity of stories-so-far’ (Massey, 2005). A map can only ever capture a moment or be a slice of something bigger. How can a map tell a story that reaches beyond just that moment in time, or how could it become a ‘representation of space and time’? (Massey, 2005). How could a visual representation always be in the process of being made, and encompass the multiplicity of happenings — places, people, communities, encounters etc. Massey is continually inviting us to question how might the reimagining of space and time affect the way we engage with it.

The readings in Research Methods in particular Performance Studies: Interventions and Radical Research by Dwight Conquergood and A Manifesto for Performative Research by Brad Haseman call for greater diversity in how we conduct, publish and value research. They call for research to shift beyond a text-centric approach to accommodate other modes of knowing. In Dwight’s paper, he refers to Kenneth Burke’s argument ‘that print-based scholarship has built-in blind spots and a conditional deafness’ — such sentiments resonate, however, the contribution ‘text’ makes to knowledge is undeniable and Dwight himself clearly articulates that ‘textocentrism — not texts — is the problem’. (Conquergood, 2002).

Dwight Conquergood suggests another way of reimagining the visualisation of knowledge; ‘Transgressive travel between two different domains of knowledge: one official, objective, and abstract — the map; the other one practical, embodied and popular — the story’ (Conquergood, 2002). The suggestion of travelling between different domains is most interesting, and something to explore during subsequent phases of the research.

To conclude, the research aims to acknowledge different ways of knowing. The methodology will largely be practice-based research, however, it is hyper-aware that it should not rely on a narrow range of formulations. To serve as reminder practice-based research should not ‘assume; (i) the innovative nature of practice-led research; (ii) that its novelty is based in opposition to other research methods; (iii) that practice is intrinsically research, often leading to tautological formulations; and (iv) the hyper-self-reflexive nature of practice-led research’. (McNamara, 2012).


Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkley: University of California Press. 1969.

Cross, Nigel. Designerly Ways of Knowing. London: Springer, 2006.

Conquergood, Dwight. ‘Performance Studies: Interventions and Radical Research 1. The Drama Review 46, no. 2 (2002): 145-56.

Gray, Carole. Visualizing Research: A Guide to the Research Process in Art and Design. Visualising Research, edited by Julian Malins. Burlington: Ashgate, 2004.

Haseman, Brad. “A Manifesto for Performative Research.” Media International Australia 118, no. 1 (2006): 98-106.

Hattie, John and Zierer, Klaus. 10 Mindframes for Visible Learning: Teaching for Success. Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2018.

Maeda, John. The Laws of Simplicity. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2006.

Massey, Doreen B. For Space. London: Thousand Oaks, 2005.

McNamara, Andrew E.  Six rules for practice-led research. Journal of Writing and Writing Courses, pp. 1-15. (2012)