July 2011

Design Research – A Failure of Imagination?

by Andy Polaine on July 7, 2011

in General

Have design education and design research failed to fire up the imagination in public discourse? I believe so and I believe the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) mantra has unbalanced thinking about education curricula in general. John Thackara’s recent Observers Room newsletter notes the same:

Last month, as the Dutch government expelled trouble-making artists from the state funding system, UK and US policymakers demanded a stronger focus by education on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — the STEM subjects. They claim a STEM workforce “determines a nation’s ability to sustain itself.”

No it does not. A too-sharp focus on STEM creates an innovation policy that is not fit for purpose. We need to diversify, not reduce, our ways of knowing and acting in the world. We need to emphasize the social dimension of innovation, not just technology. And we need to master systems thinking more than silo thinking. Experimental art and design can help us do all of the above — not as an alternative to science, but as its enrichment.

True innovators decline to remain locked in the STEM cell.

Last month I spoke at the Cumulus/Design Research Society Researching Design Education Symposium in Paris and argued a similar case. For a profession that claims imagination and divergent thinking to be among its key attributes, design research has failed to ignite public imagination. Despite efforts by the likes of John Maeda, the rhetoric of STEM dominates the media. Science writers expound in newspaper columns, entire TV channels are devoted to the wonders of science. Science is, of course, important, but this one-sided view of research has not been counter-balanced by an equivalent, passionate exploration of the boundaries of design in the public sphere. Yet the potential is there – arguably, a handful of TED Talks have done more to raise the awareness of the importance of design than several decades of design research publication. Although there are exceptions, design research has failed to imagine and communicate an integrated vision of design comparable to that of science.

The paper I wrote for the presentation argues that design has failed to integrate the nexus of theory, research and practice and is a call to arms for design researchers to bring their activities into a broader, public discourse. Despite the rhetoric of interdisciplinarity, design education research has become too convergent in its thinking and discipline specific. As practices such as service design engage in projects at the public policy level, it is essential for design to explicitly articulate the process of design synthesis in order to gain and maintain credibility, for such projects offers an opportunity to bring design’s value and activities on par with the sciences in public discourse.

You can download the full paper, Design Research – A Failure of Imagination? and the presentation slides (8.5MB PDF – lots of images). The full proceedings of the symposium are available on the conference website.

I would be very interested to hear any feedback or opinions from others on this subject.