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Strategies for Design-Science Collaborations

27. May 2018

Bringing Design to Science — Part 2: the how

Calligraphy by Stefanie Weigele
Calligraphy by Stefanie Weigele

My last essay “Bringing Design to Science” was an attempt to describe the relationship of design and science. I would like to build on the essay and explore this relationship further.

Throughout the twentieth century, science has informed and inspired design. With the proliferation of digital technology, this relationship has changed. In many ways, design can now inform science. This fundamentally redefines the interconnection of design and science and it changes the role and responsibilities of both domains.

At the end of my last essay, I presented three projects from the interface programme and the Urban Complexity Lab at the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam. The projects demonstrate successful design-science collaborations — and I believe that many insights for these collaborations can be created from the projects.

However, I did not explicitly present strategies for initiating and conducting design-science collaborations. I explained the why — but not the how.

This essay is about the how.

Strategies for Design-Science Collaborations

In my experience, designers and scientists do not really like each other. There are plenty of clichés and preconceptions on both sides. Scientists view designers as frivolous nitwits who are only interested in superficial aesthetics and lifestyle products. Designers, on the other hand, believe that scientists have no taste, are incapable of explaining their ideas and are not interested in communicating their work. These clichés are neither true nor productive.

So while a closer collaboration between design and science seems like an obvious and desirable idea, there are obstacles for initiating projects that involve both sides.

I am clearly coming from the design side of this problem. So I cannot suggest how the scientific community could open up to the design world. But I can make suggestions for strategies that would enable the design community to initiate a closer collaboration with the scientific world. All strategies are somewhat obvious — but I believe it is useful to describe them at least briefly and present concrete ideas of how designers can initiate design-science collaborations.

Before we jump right into the strategies, one quick remark: when I speak about science, I explicitly include the humanities! This is probably because of my German background. In Germany, the distinction between the natural sciences and the humanities is less strong than in Anglo-Saxon countries. The terms “Naturwissenschaft” (science of nature) and “Geisteswissenschaft” (science of the mind) have the same root. They are both “Wissenschaften”.

But now — on to the strategies: engage, embed, co-create, collaborate, and agenda setting.

Engage

This is very obvious — but also very important. Especially if you are already in academia. Go out and meet colleagues from other disciplines, departments and universities.

However, this engagement should not be limited to personal contacts and research projects. Engaging other disciplines can and should also happen on the teaching level. Bringing colleagues from other disciplines to your classes and projects is sometimes a great challenge for the students — but it is also very productive. Asking students to address scientific problems and creating designs for them is an extremely valuable experience!

To push the engagement even further, contribute to a scientific community. Publishing a scientifically sound paper in an adjoining discipline is quite a challenge — but it is also a fantastic opportunity to engage with a wider audience. And it is a statement that design has indeed a relevance for science. In the Urban Complexity Lab, we are regularly publishing papers in computer science, visualisation, and digital humanities conferences and journals.

This strategy can already be useful for students. In our Lab, we usually have one or two student teams who get the opportunity to develop their own projects into fully fledged research endeavours. A good example for this is the project Shifted Maps by Heike Otten and Lennart Hildebrandt.

In this project, the two students have assumed the role of researchers who engaged with the academic field of visualisation — but the aesthetic, interactive and communicative quality of the implementation is an indication of their design skills.

Shifted Maps visualizes personal movement data as a network of map extracts showing visited places.
Shifted Maps visualizes personal movement data as a network of map extracts showing visited places.

So engaging with the scientific community is not only valuable for teachers and professors — but also for students. If the collaboration between science and design intensifies, I believe this will actually be a requirement for a successful design education.

Embed

Embedding designers in scientific teams is probably the most promising, the most exciting and the most challenging strategy. Scientific teams are already often interdisciplinary. Not out of idealism but out of necessity.

One reason for this is the computer. Today, computer systems are involved in most scientific research. Dealing with large amounts of data requires someone who understands algorithms and databases. This not only requires a computer scientist. When you work with data, images and interfaces — and if you intend to publish your work beyond the close academic circle — you need designers. And you don’t only need them as an external partner — you need them on your team.

Right now, it is fairly unusual to have designers on scientific teams. In my last essay, I have shortly presented the project “The Organ Generator”. It is a great example for the impact that an embedded designer can have in a scientific team. The specifics obviously depend on the research topic — data visualisation, interface design, dissemination strategies are areas where design is very important. These contributions are not only aimed at the communication and publication of findings. Data visualisation is highly relevant for the analysis and interpretation of data that is collected during the project. I know from experience that creating bespoke visualisations for scientific projects create new perspectives on data and support the scientists in finding methodological problems and opportunities.

“Bloodline Alpha 1” - the design of the software was part of the Organ Generator project.
“Bloodline Alpha 1” – the design of the software was part of the Organ Generator project.

I sincerely hope that embedding designers in scientific teams will be standard procedure in a few years. There are great opportunities for both design and science. But both disciplines need to adapt. Scientists and funding agencies need to understand the importance of this approach in order to enable it. And designers need to be able to address the complexity of scientific research. And — most importantly — as design teachers, we need to prepare our students for this kind of work.

Co-Create

Co-creation techniques are well established and are very well documented. However, there is one aspect of co-creation that is slightly overlooked. Co-creation not only means that one partner supports the other in expressing ideas about formations, visualisations and interfaces. It also means that both partners have to collaborate in order to enhance understanding and to have a debate as equals. Co-creation in an academic context is a knowledge transfer into two directions. Ideally, the result of a co-creation process are questions, observations, hypotheses, experiments and findings that are shared by all partners.

In this context, I cannot stress enough how important it is for designers to understand the science part of the project. It is not enough to treat data as numbers, visualisations as pictures or interfaces as templates. All design done in a scientific context needs to take into account the models, methods and insights of the project. In a scientific project, you need to understand the science. This sounds intimidating — but it is possible. And in all likelihood, you will have access to a really strong scientific team.

Designers in a research project are usually involved in the communication and dissemination activities. So they need to explain and interpret the questions, findings and methodologies of the project. They act as translators between the scientists and a wider audience. And explaining something is the best way to learn.

Collaborate

The best strategy for a successful design-science collaboration is to make valuable contributions to the overall project. This statement is a bit trite — but true nonetheless.

In order to do so, designers have to identify points in the scientific method where they have the greatest impact. I believe these points are currently found at the very end of the scientific process. The diagram below is a simplification — but it shows possible opportunities for design work.

A simple model of the the scientific method with possible applications for design.
A simple model of the the scientific method with possible applications for design.

The last point in this process — “engage with public” — is not strictly part of the scientific method (if “public” is understood as an audience beyond the academic peers). But I believe it is becoming more important and it will be a greater requirement for scientific projects in the future. As noted above, design plays a very important at this stage and it is at this point where most design-science collaborations will start.

I suggest to work our way backwards. Once the value of design has become clear at the dissemination stage, the benefits for involving designers at several stages of the scientific process become more convincing.

With the right setup, design and science can collaborate as equal partners in a research project. However, there are a number of challenges associated with this strategy. Some of them are quite difficult as they are political.

The biggest problem here is that design is not yet fully recognised as an academic discipline by funding agencies. Most research programmes still focus on the established domains and do not recognise design as a research area. This is obviously problematic for the academic design community. For a design team, the only way to get a grant from a research funding agency is to associate itself with a larger scientific consortium.

This is not necessarily bad. Being part of a consortium creates lots of opportunities for engagement, co-creation and collaboration. And I appreciate that funding initiatives increasingly require research projects to address communication and dissemination activities as these are problems that call for an involvement of designers.

However, in this setup, designers will always be in a supporting role. And I believe that designers should also create their own research agenda. Which brings me to my last point…

Agenda Setting

Last but not least: if science and design are going to collaborate as equals, design needs to establish its own domain-specific research agenda. This is as important as it is difficult.

The main challenge is that the term design is not properly defined. It is highly context dependent and ranges from the styling of furniture to software development. It would be very difficult to define a general research agenda that represents all approaches, schools, sub-disciplines and manifestos of the design world.

However, within this diversity, it is possible to carve out a framework for design research questions that address specific fields of study and practice. For example, I have no problem to identify and to describe research questions in the area of data visualisation and interface design. It would go beyond the scope of this essay to describe these questions in detail — my point is simply that research activities are linked to specific well-defined questions — and not general problems.

So the question is: what is our intrinsic motivation as design researchers? What do we want to find out? What are the questions that are relevant for our discipline? What are our domain-specific strategies and methodologies for answering these questions?

While I believe that it is important to collaborate with scientists and to support other scientific research, designers should also pursue their own agenda. The role of design in a research project goes beyond providing services for other academic disciplines. And this is not a contradiction. Large, interdisciplinary research projects can provide a great framework for pursuing intrinsic design research questions.

Conclusion

I have said it before and I am saying it again: design should not be more scientific! Designers can claim a disciplinary autonomy and can refer to unique ways of knowledge production and research. The notion that a design-science collaboration would require design to be more objective and more methodological is misleading. This approach has failed in the past and would ultimately sabotage the very qualities that make design relevant for the scientific community.

It is actually the other way round. What makes design attractive for science are the specific approaches of professional design – the “designerly ways of knowing” as the design theorist Nigel Cross puts it.

As noted above, the relationship between design and science is not very well established and it is not trivial to implement the above strategies. But design and science can inform each other. New forms of collaboration can create new areas of expertise, new insights and new theories. There is much to be gained — and nothing to be lost.


This essay was also reviewed by my colleague Marian Dörk. Still going strong as a design-science collaboration!



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