DESIGN RESEARCH THROUGH PRACTICE
From the Lab, Field, and Showroom
By ILPO KOSKINEN JOHN ZIMMERMAN THOMAS BINDER JOHAN REDSTRÖM STEPHAN WENSVEEN
Copyright © 2011 Elsevier Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter One CONSTRUCTIVE DESIGN RESEARCH
iFloor was an interactive floor built between 2002 and 2004 in Aarhus, Denmark. It was a design research project with participants from architecture, design, and computer science. It was successful in many ways: it produced two doctoral theses and about 20 peer-reviewed papers in scientific conferences, and led to other technological studies. In 2004, the project received a national architectural prize from the Danish Design Center.
At the heart of iFloor was an interactive floor built into the main lobby of the city library in Aarhus. Visitors could use mobile phones and computers to send questions to a system that projected them to the floor with a data projector. The system also tracked movement on the floor with a camera. Like the data projector, the camera was mounted into the ceiling. With an algorithm, the system analyzed social action on the floor and sent back this information to the system. If you wanted to get your question brought up in the floor, you had to talk to other people to get help in finding books.
iFloor's purpose was to bring interaction back to the library. The word "back" here is very meaningful. Information technology may have dramatically improved our access to information, but it has also taken something crucial away from the library experience — social interaction. In the 1990s, a typical visit to the library involved talking to librarians and also other visitors; today a typical visit consists of barely more than ordering a book through the Web, hauling it from a shelf, and loaning it with a machine. Important experience is lost, and serendipity — the wonderful feeling of discovering books you had never heard about while browsing the shelves — has almost been lost.
A blog or a discussion forum was not the solution. After all, interaction in blogs is mediated. Something physical was needed to connect people.
A floor that would do this job was developed at the University of Aarhus through the typical design process. The left row of Figure 1.1 is an image from a summer workshop in 2002, in which the concept was first developed. The second picture is from a bodystorm in which the floor's behaviors were mocked up with a paper prototype to get a better grasp of the proposed idea. Site visits with librarians followed, while technical prototyping took place in a computer science laboratory at the university (left row, pictures 3–5). The system was finally installed in the library (left row, picture at the bottom). How iFloor was supposed to function is illustrated in the computer-generated image on the right side of the picture.
iFloor received lots of media attention; it was introduced to Danish royalty, and it was submitted to the Danish Architecture Prize competition where it was awarded the prize for visionary products (Figure 1.2). In addition, as already mentioned, it was reported to international audiences in several scientific and design conferences.
However, only half the research work was done when the system was working in the library. To see how it functioned, researchers stayed in the library for two weeks, observing and videotaping interaction with the floor (Figure 1.3). It was this meticulous attention to how people worked with the iFloor that pushed it beyond mere design. This study produced data that were used in many different ways, not just to make the prototype better, as would have happened in design practice.
Developing the iFloor also led to two doctoral theses: one focusing more on design and technology, another focusing mostly on how people interacted with the floor. Andreas Lykke-Olesen focused on technology, and Martin Ludvigsen's key papers tried to understand how people noticed the floor, entered it, and how they started conversations while on it. It was this theoretical work that turned iFloor from a design exercise into research that produced knowledge that can be applied elsewhere. In design philosopher Richard Buchanan's terminology, it was not just a piece of clinical research; it had a hint of basic research.
iFloor is a good example of research in which planning and doing, reason, and action are not separate. For researchers, maybe the most important concept iFloor exhibits is that there is value in doing things. When researchers actually construct something, they find problems and discover things that would otherwise go unnoticed. These observations unleash wisdom, countering a typical academic tendency to value thinking and discourse over doing. A PowerPoint presentation or a CAD rendering would not have had this power.
1.1 Beyond Research Through Design
Usually, a research project like iFloor is seen as an example of "research through design." This term has its origins in a working paper by Christopher Frayling, then the rector of London's Royal College of Art (RCA). Jodi Forlizzi and John Zimmerman from Carnegie Mellon recently interviewed several experts to find definitions and exemplars of research through design. According to their survey, researchers
make prototypes, products, and models to codify their own understanding of a particular situation and to provide a concrete framing of the problem and a description of a proposed, preferred state.... Designers focus on the creation of artifacts through a process of disciplined imagination, because artifacts they make both reveal and become embodiments of possible futures.... Design researchers can explore new materials and actively participate in intentionally constructing the future, in the form of disciplined imagination, instead of limiting their research to an analysis of the present and the past.
However, this concept has been criticized for its many problems. Alain Findeli and Wolfgang Jonas, among others, noted that any research needs strong theory to guide practice, but this is missing from Frayling's paper. For Jonas, Frayling's definitions remained fuzzy. Readers get few guidelines as to how to proceed and are left to their own devices to muddle through the terrain. Jonas also says that the term provides little guidance for building up a working research practice — and he is no doubt right.
This concept fails to appreciate many things at work behind any successful piece of research. For example, the influential studies of Katja Battarbee and Pieter Desmet made important conceptual and methodological contributions in their respective programs, even though, strictly speaking, they were theoretical and methodological rather than constructive in nature. People read Kees Overbeeke's writings not because he builds things but because he has articulated many valuable ideas about interaction in his programmatic and theoretical writings. People read Bill Gaver because of his contribution to design as well as methodology, often against his wishes.
For these reasons, we prefer to talk about "constructive design research," which refers to design research in which construction — be it product, system, space, or media — takes center place and becomes the key means in constructing knowledge (Figure 1.4). Typically, this "thing" in the middle is a prototype like iFloor. However, it can be also be a scenario, a mock-up, or just a detailed concept that could be constructed.
We focus on leading examples of constructive research but follow Frayling's empiricist and pragmatist approach rather than offer a definition grounded in logic or theory. By now, we have a luxury: a body of research that does most of the things that Findeli and Jonas called forth. When looking at the 1990s, it is clear that what people like Tom Djajadiningrat in the Netherlands, Anthony Dunne in England, and Simo Säde in Finland did in their doctoral work was solid, theoretically and methodically informed research that could not have been done without a design background. Ten years later, there are dozens of good examples. For this reason, we explicate practice rather than try to define a field with concepts as big as design and research. Introducing a new word is an old academic trick used to avoid difficulties with existing concepts and to keep discussion open, if only for a few years.
1.2 Constructive Research in Design Research
This book looks at one type of contemporary design research. It excludes many other types, including research done in art and design history, aesthetics, and philosophy. It also skips over work done in the social sciences and design management. It leaves practice-based research integrating art and research to others. Similarly, it barely touches engineering and leaves out theory, semantics, and semiotics altogether. This book will not look at research done by design researchers if there is no construction involved, unless there is a clear connection to constructive studies. Finally, it will not review design research that builds on the natural sciences such as chemistry as this research is most typically done in ceramics and sometimes in glass design and conservation. We are dealing with research that imagines and builds new things and describes and explains these constructions (Figure 1.5).
What constructive design research imports to this larger picture is experience in how to integrate design and research. Currently, there is a great deal of interest in what is the best way to integrate these worlds. This book shows that there are indeed many ways to achieve such integration and still be successful. We are hoping that design researchers in other fields find precedents and models in this book that help them to better plan constructive studies. For constructive design researchers, we provide ways to justify methodological choices and understand these choices.
It should be obvious that we talk about construction, not constructivism, as is done in philosophy and the social sciences. Constructivists are people who claim issues such as knowledge and society are constructed rather than, say, organized functionally around certain purposes, as if in a body or in a piece of machinery. Many designers are certainly constructivists in a theoretical and philosophical sense, but this is not our concern. We focus on something far more concrete, that is, research like iFloor in which something is actually built and put to use. Not only concepts, but materials. Not just bits, but atoms.
One of the concerns many design writers have is that design does not have a theoretical tradition. For us, this is a matter of time rather than definition. Theory develops when people start to treat particular writings as theories; for example, such as happened to Don Norman's interpretation of affordance. It became a theory when researchers like Gerda Smets and Kees Overbeeke in the Netherlands treated it as such.
For this reason, we focus on research programs rather than individual studies. Chapter 3 explains this concept of program in detail. Here, it is enough to say that research programs always have "a central, or core, idea that shapes and structures the research conducted." Programs consist of a variety of activities ranging from individual case studies to methodology and theory building. This richness is lost in definitions of research through design that tend to place too much weight on design at the expense of other important activities that make constructive research possible.
Excerpted from DESIGN RESEARCH THROUGH PRACTICE by ILPO KOSKINEN JOHN ZIMMERMAN THOMAS BINDER JOHAN REDSTRÖM STEPHAN WENSVEEN Copyright © 2011 by Elsevier Inc.. Excerpted by permission of MORGAN KAUFMANN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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