Friday, April 17, 2015

A note on Tonkinwise "Design Studies - what is it good for?"

Cameron Tonkinwise is one of the more interesting design theorists today. These days he is the Director of Design Studies at the CMU School of Design. In a recent article "Design Studies -- what is it good for?"(Design and Culture, Volume 6, Number 1, March 2014, pp. 5-43(39), Tonkinwise discusses what design studies is and what it can and should be. One basic question that Tonkinwise asks is "who is the intended audience for Design Studies research?" I am very much in agreement that we need this kind of discussion today. There is some confusion and sometimes almost desperation in many programs and schools today that associate themselves with design practice, design thinking, and design studies, be it traditional design schools or traditional academic disciplines trying to become more designerly. The desperation manifests itself in an almost unhealthy reflective stance around questions such as "who are we" and "what are we" when it comes to research.

One of the contributions that to me in a simple way reveals a lot of the intrinsic tensions in this field is captured by Tonkinwise in a table. He calls it the Design Studies Matrix. The table shows what is the nature of Design Studies research. The table shows that the answer is a compilation of answers to the more focused questions: by whom is the research done, the researcher is doing what, in order to achieve what, manifested as what, for whom. Just by reflecting on the table for your own research, a lot of interesting questions arise. I find this very useful.

Skipping to the end of the article (bypassing a more historical analysis of where design studies is today and how it got there), Tonkinwise is raising an interesting question. He argues that design studies research is mostly seen as based on some vaguely defined value of "liberal pluralism", that is, design studies is not actively taking any position, arguing for any particular value, it becomes a seemingly value free exercise. Instead he is arguing for design studies to "commit". When design studies commit to values, it becomes visible and distinct and more importantly for Tonkinwise, it becomes important for other purposes than just to serve designing as a practice.

Tonkinwise is initiating a conversation around an important topic. It is also a complicated topic. For instance, it is commendable to argue as Tonkinwise does based on the idea that research should aim at the greater good, the common good, that it should be guided by values that would lead to some kind of improvement at the largest possible scale. He argues that with such commitment in place the research could "resist the surge of capitalism toward this or that technological imperialism." At the same time, if design studies becomes a form of knowledge production that is guided by certain values it will inevitably be accused of not being guided by scientific principles. For instance,it will not be seen as being guided by pure curiosity with a devoted loyalty to truth.

Of course, research is never value free, so that is not the question. Any research activity is guided by some underlying fundamental values of what and why is the right thing to do as a researcher. In physics this is seldom discussed since it is obvious that a true explanation of our physical reality is the end goal and there is a common belief that that reality will function as a "right answer" and correcting device for any knowledge proposition. Medical research, searching for answers to serious diseases, seldom have to answer these questions. Again, there is a strong consensus about the importance and end goal of the research. But when it comes to design studies, everything changes. Design is not about explanation or description, it is about change and the not yet existing reality. It is about satisfying needs, wants, and desiderata. It is about shaping an imagined future. So then, who has the right to say that they do "research" about this future on behalf of someone else who is not involved and engaged in the process. Of course, stakeholders can be included in the process, but what about those who at the end pays for the research, tax payers, student tuitions, etc.

When the value that research commits to is not seen as an absolute or given, research easily ends up and may be confused with entrepreneurship or activism. I am not arguing for any particular stance on this. I am just trying to untangle some of the concerns that come to my mind reading this text. It is clear that there is a need for more conversations about this that would help us all to understand and see what the consequences are (longterm) for any particular approach or direction we may choose.


Harold Nelson said...

Good summative overview of the challenges. Design faces an uncertain future(s) without some serious commitment to determining what the fundamental and foundational questions are for scholarship and praxis in design.

Dennis Cheatham said...

You make a compelling observation here that deserves attention. Design is about intentionally creating an "ideal future" and research is without directed intent other than to increase understanding of what "is." 'Seems design/research are strange bedfellows (in their present relationship).

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