Conversations about the future directions of design and design research

logga designprocesserThe conference was held June 16-19, 2014 and the main purpose of Design Research Society’s (DRS) conference is to create a platform for conversations around key issues in design. Host for the conference was Umeå Institute of Design, one of the world’s leading design schools.

There was something special about this year’s conference, you could sense it by the discussions taking place and it was also reflected in how the organizers had experimented with the typical conference format. For many design researchers it was obvious that something exciting is going on, the conference had managed to attract a large variety of design researchers and the topic for the conference was to discuss the “big issues” in design and to “push the boundaries of design research”. Could the DRS conference perhaps become the platform where the future of design and design research will be envisioned and shaped?

Design debates

The traditional ‘keynote lectures’ had been replaced by ‘debates’ where critical issues were debated by multiple speakers from the field of design practise and research together with experts from other disciplines. One interesting debate was on the future role of the designer, stating that “in the future design will be very important, perhaps designers much less so”. This discussion brought up an important discussion where Clive Dilnot, professor of design studies at New School University and Parsons School of design in New York argued that in the future design will be “the essential mode of acting in the world” and perhaps even a general human capacity.

Anna Rosling-Ronnlund, co-founder of Gapminder Foundation, highlighted the upcoming need of design and designers when, by 2100, 80% of the world’s population will live in Africa and Asia. There will be a huge need for ‘design work’ that will challenge designers in many ways, she argued. We need more anthropology and understanding of other cultures and needs, she continued. The question then is will designers do all this ‘design work’? Or could we no longer call it design as Clive argued?

Engage in conversations

‘Conversations’ was introduced as an addition to traditional paper presentations. The conversations varied from workshops, to structured discussions and more experimental sessions. What they all had in common was that people could engage on another level and advance the conversation around the project or research. One of the most popular conversations at the conference was the conversation “Democratic Design Experiments: Between Laboratory and Parliament” which was organized by amongst others Thomas Binder from Royal Academy of Fine Arts School of Design from Denmark, Per-Anders Hillgren, senior researcher from Malmö University and project manager at Forum for Social Innovation Sweden and Pelle Ehn, professor at Malmö university and a member of Forum for Social Innovation Sweden’s steering committe together with various of researchers in the field of participatory design from around the world.

Their conversation addressed the intimate relation between design and democracy and what it implies for designers to engage in societal challenges. They proposed that these engagements might be seen as democratic design experiments and actions in the realm between what we often refer to as a (design) lab – where experimentations on participation takes place, and the parliament – where public engagement formally takes place through representation. What they were referring to is to see these activities that go beyond the small attempts of a design lab and towards new ways of engaging the citizen in society.

The role of design

Social design or design for social innovation as we refer to it at Forum for Social Innovation Sweden was of big interest at the conference. There was an abundance of papers exploring sustainable futures and the role of design in creating them.

– Green consumption is no longer enough, said Sara Ilsted professor at KTH. We cannot consume our way out of this, we need a larger societal change where we need to address lifestyles and larger structures. This will entail a new paradigm for design, she continues.

Sara presented the project www.life2053.se that she has been involved in together with KTH, Green Leap, Energimyndigheten, Veryday and StickyBeat, which took its starting point in the need for more positive and engaging images of the future. By using a design and future studies approach called ‘backcasting’ they envisioned a plausible future and then travelled backwards to see which steps we can take to meet this. The project is so far a pilot but offers an interesting approach on how a changed image of the future potentially could impact the future. The project offers interesting possibilities and could be used as a tool by for example politicians, planners or even in education.

Patient democracy

Eva Knutz and Thomas Markussen from Kolding School of Design presented a project on patient democracy and shared decision-making in a cancer department in a Danish hospital. They argued that the ‘consumerist model’ and the law that states that no treatment may be initiated without the patient’s informed content, isn’t working in health care because it fails to work in cases of life threatening deceases, isn’t leading to improved effectiveness and is socially exclusive.

Instead they explored the notion of patient democracy by looking into design approaches that deals with design, democracy and power, where participatory design, adversarial design and design activism are three examples. By taking on the approach of design activism they initiated several disruptive design experiments on patient democracy and how shared decision-making could influence the way the patient perceived the situation.

Examples of such experiments ranged from that the patient were able to see the computer screen on which the doctor was sitting behind, to the doctor and the patient sitting next to each other in a sofa to moving the appointment outside the hospital for a walk-and-talk, enabling a neutral space for equal and shared decision-making. Through their experiments they are re-negotiating the role and rights for patients and pointing towards design as a potential for re-distributing power and authority in

Measuring impact

Another issue that was brought up by Denielle Emans and Adina Hempel from Zayed University in Dubai and Virginia Commonwealth University in Doha, was how to understand the impact of a social design project. They proposed that evaluation and feedback loops should be brought in at an early phase in a design process. The notion of evaluation and impact measurement sparked an interesting discussion amongst the participants. One aspect was how do you balance short-term versus long-term impact? Often it’s hard to measure impact after a certain period of time. Things happen after the designer has left and there has to be time to see what a community will do, and to let things be adopted and transformed.

One conclusion was that designers should be involved for a longer lifecycle. The complexity of some of the work is such that is becomes naïve to expect short-term impact. Everyone agreed on the fact that the length of designer’s engagement is something that needs to be addressed. Many participants also critiqued the need for evaluation. Highlighting that design is more about the process than being outcome oriented and that evaluation often reflects the needs of bureaucracy and not the needs of the community. One participant concluded the session by saying that “stories are enough – good stories are our (designers) idea of success”.

Collaborative clusters

Mariana Amatullo, Virgina Tassinari, Eduardo Stazowski and Adam Thorpe hosted a session where they shared some new perspectives from the DESIS Network. DESIS consists of 40 labs working together in a collaborative way within several research clusters such as Public & Collaborative, Aging & Ingenuity and the newest one Informal, Formal and Collaborative, where focus in on resilience in underserved communities and informal settlements.

In the DESIS network design is considered as a vehicle to promote community resilience. Design, they argue, is contributing to the rise of new potentialities in society. Eduardo Stazowski highlights for example that design contributes to the creation of the conditions where problems can be discussed, debated and eventually resolved. – We shouldn’t talk about designing solutions but creating the conditions for new possibilities, he says. Design can serve as a catalyst for social innovation by enabling new forms of collaboration where people, experts, and governments can work together to provide better public services (co-governance, co-design and co-production)

This was a brief summary on some of the emerging conversations at DRS2014 within the field of design and design research. Social innovation has perhaps never been more relevant to the design research community than it is at present and it will be interesting to see how the field will advance both in theory and in practice.

All information about the conference and full papers is available here 



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