Design, Where Do We Go Next? Part 2 of an Interview with Meredith Davis

Last month, we published the first part of an interview I conducted with professor Meredith Davis, the Director of Graduate Studies at the NC State University College of Design, an AIGA fellow and medalist, and a member of the AIGA Visionary Design Council to define “The Designer of 2015.” In that portion of the conversation, Meredith mapped out the various layers of the design profession and identified the shift from designing artifacts to designing for conversation that has been happening in the field of design. What follows is a deeper explanation of design for conversation, and the implications that arise from it, particularly the need for empirical research and graduate studies in design.

MEREDITH DAVIS: Part of the reason for the work that Ric Grefe, Terry Irwin, Hugh Dubberly, and I are doing is to show what is occurring in the design profession. When we are immersed in a particular type of practice, we often do not see the other kinds of practice; or we see them but in a minimal sense.

Hugh Dubberly has, for example, done some work on rethinking the National Geographic. How do we put National Geographic online as a magazine? If we continue regarding National Geographic as an object (as we would in the realm of designing artifacts) and simply move it online (in other words, transfer it into the realm of interaction), then all that we’re doing is bringing the object-oriented thinking into the interaction-oriented world.

So in order to transform this way of thinking altogether, Hugh goes back and takes a look at the history of National Geographic, which started in the 19th century as group of people who wanted to finance exploration in the world. In that way, instead of thinking about the shift to the interactive level as an online magazine, Hugh asks what happens if we think of National Geographic as a membership organization that is connecting people to explorers. With this approach he is not merely translating an object into an interactive medium in order, for example, to be able to open up a caption or a map. Instead, he is thinking about the connections of people to information and people to people. The shift is from the object to story telling and from story telling to conversation.

This notion of rethinking what it means to design for conversation and for behavior over designing objects is the big shift that the field really has to understand. When you design for conversation, you have to know about the things you are designing. You have to know about people, settings, and activities; a rang of topics that typically don’t arise when designing objects with fixed features and function. And that is where design research and graduate programs become important.

We don’t have time in two-year master’s programs for students who graduated with degrees in design to prepare them fully in the empirical methods necessary to do research. Doctoral students come to us more mature in practice and with the experience of graduate study. They are interested in basic research that will inform later application and the work of others, as in the sciences. That work is different from the case study you would see in a professional office, where a designer needs to know about a particular client and his or her problem space. You don’t have to worry about sample size if you’re just trying to inform an immediate action on behalf of a client. You could interview a few people and gain a sense of direction from that.

That type of study does not hold up as empirical research. In empirical research, we do not want to make a claim that others will act on if it isn’t an accurate claim. So we teach doctoral students to think in those terms and to keep in mind that other people are going to generalize the information coming from research in their own settings. We have to make sure master’s students are realistic about their claims.

As a field, we’ve done a lot to build the history of design; to talk about standards; to address worldviews and belief systems; and to build methods. But we don’t have much going on in terms of research, compared to more established professions. Describing our future, the Visionary Design Council mentioned increase in the complexity of problems; interdisciplinary collaboration; rapidly evolving technology; and growing participation by users in the design process. All of those things require research because they also require greater accountability for our decisions. We have to develop that research. That’s the message for me when I think about where we go next.*

*Read also Meredith Davis’ essay for AIGA Centennial Voices, From Design Students to design Institutions: We’re All Responsible for Moving the Industry Forward.

By Basia Coulter
Published October 13, 2014