Summer 2004

Adding muscle to design with a computer-game protein shake

Design Research: Methods and Perspectives

Edited by Brenda Laurel
MIT Press, £25.95, $39.95

In her introduction, Brenda Laurel reminds us how designers are misconstrued variously as ‘decorationists, elitists, or servants of the consumerist machine.’ By setting up design as a marginalised activity like this, she creates the rhetorical need for an antidote – a fortifying protein shake to help make design a more, in her word, ‘muscular’ profession. According to Laurel and the book’s 40 contributing authors, design research is the solution. The assumption is that we make ourselves better at what we do through research. ‘From flying cars to brave new books to computer games, from industry to academia to the independent studio, designers today are employing a panoply of research methods to strengthen their work,’ says Laurel in typically engaging style.

Little space is wasted explaining why this is so. Instead 334 dense pages are devoted to exploring how. Design Research is divided into four parts – ‘People’, ‘Form’, ‘Process’, and ‘Action’. The first section, introduced by Christopher Ireland, the Principal and CEO of Cheskin Research, is about design’s customers and audiences and the roles they play in the design process. In order to make sure their needs and desires are heard, various quantitative and qualitative strategies are employed. These strategies are derived mostly from the social and behavioural sciences, but also from business and marketing, and some other fields such as theatre – Laurel has an MFA and a PhD in Theatre and her ideas on computer-human interaction were published in the influential Computers as Theatre (1991).

In ‘Form’, the most intriguing section, Laurel invites us to a kind of under-water dream space away from the pressures of the marketplace – a deep dive into ‘the essence of design itself’ – where form, structure, ideas and materials become the object of study. Anne Burdick, the author of this section’s introduction, describes this place more practically as a ‘research lab’ where the ‘act and material of design [are used as] the means of investigation.’ Denise Gonzales Crisp’s essay ‘Toward a Definition of the Decorational’ embodies this theme and in the process creates a new form of design writing in which the act of writing is also an act of research.

‘Process’ is the largest section of the book and, seemingly, the most practicable. The essays provide a range of perspectives on how design research actually works within the frameworks of organisations, and how to convince decision-makers of its importance. There are case studies of specific companies and working environments as well as procedural models and personal belief systems. The idea is that you can pick and choose among them. As Laurel says, ‘each of the approaches described in this section can fail; that’s why it’s good to have more than one of them in your back pocket.’ The final section, ‘Action’, presents focused case studies of design research that has taken place in the contexts of movies and television, museums, identities and brands and computer games. In fact four of the book’s nine chapters are about computer games.

The book’s stated mission is to further ‘coherent discourse’ surrounding design research. After a while this discourse begins to feel a bit too coherent, a bit too cosy. Many of the authors are Laurel’s colleagues from her various ventures past and present; some are her students and fellow faculty from the Art Center College of Design where she is Chair of the graduate Media Design Program; some are her clients; and one is her husband. This interconnectedness does not devalue the content, of course, but it does contribute to the sense that the world of design research that this book portrays is more hermetic and self-referential than it really is.

The book also assumes that design research’s territory consists almost solely of digital technology – computer games being the most prevalent example used. This emphasis is due in part to a need, as Lunenfeld notes in his preface, for ‘new categories of design research because of the impact of digital technologies on the design disciplines over the past twenty years.’ But it is also due, of course, to Laurel’s and Peter Lunenfeld’s digital media backgrounds. Considering this bias, I feel it should be part of the title.

A preface by Lunenfeld (a member of faculty on Laurel’s Media Design Program) goes some way towards sketching the origins and evolution of the discipline: twentieth century definitions are summarised in four sentences. However as a interested lay-reader, I would have benefited from a basic mapping of the subject – its historiography, protagonists, schools of thought and recent developments, for example. Instead, Design Research plunges headlong into the specifics of some very contemporary, largely US-based methods and perspectives without reference to the discipline’s journey to date.

Many of the chapters are characterised by their lively and personal, often anecdotal, writing style. All the chapters except one are broken down into sub-headed chunks and all make liberal use of bullet-pointed lists, steps, charts, matrixes, and diagrams. Anne Burdick’s design of the book is rigorous and intelligent, and all the decisions feel deliberate. It suffers, however, from poor quality black-and-white photographs.

Laurel’s point is that enduring and valuable design is something that goes on not at the surface level of situated moments, where meaning is quickly lost ‘in the deep, roiling currents of our dynamic culture’, but, rather, it has to demonstrate an ‘understanding of the currents themselves’. The book can be seen as less about design research, and more about research design or, to put it another way, the design of research methods and systems. As Eric Dishman observes in his essay, ‘Design research methods are themselves “products” that need to be designed for different audiences, purposes and contexts.’

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