Update: On shapes and methods and mixed metaphors

I have so often attempted in the last weeks to pick up this blog again and write, at least, the one post that explains why there has been so much silence lately, but that this is going to change now! … Never finished any of those … But now, finally, here it is. (I hope!)

I have used up my writing time / writing energy for a report I have to hand in at this critical point of my PhD. An evaluation point is looming, the first one in which I explain what I did and why, what I want to find out and how I am going to do that. Which sounds straight forward enough, but has been a bit of a trip for me.

There have been times when I felt I could not do it. I could not do what was expected from me at this stage. The points I struggled with the most were: expected contribution and evaluation. And it took me long to understand a) why it was so complicated for me to respond to this and b) why everyone wanted this. The short answer is that a) non one has ever asked me before. Design projects have a structure very different from what is expected academically. In design it is more accepted to ‘follow a hunch’, to be not as clear about the expected outcome when starting to work. Because at the point you are clear about this, the project is over. Making things is part of the process. It is hardly ever guided by a question, but more by a clearly defined setting and mood. I just cannot replace the word mood here with something more defined, because it fits so well. A mood-board, a designers tool to both inspire and represent work, is a summary of the intended target group, use cases and, yes, initial ideas about appearance and the lifestyle is aims to fit, the general mood of the project. Therefore, while I had a defined area and felt prepared to go ahead, others expected a question. And the translation is not as easy as it sounds. It is not as easy as turning a statement into a question, because the focus becomes important.

Q:What is it specifically about the area you want to look into?
A: I don’t know because I have not done anything yet and I will know the answer when I have done it. I recognize the beast when I see it.

Regarding b),  I see that this approach is not very scientific. It is not measurable,  falsyfiable, reproducable. But, to some extend it feels more honest. Because I cannot tell how often I have been told that my focus will change during the PhD and my plan will change and all of that will be good. As long I can justify what I do and why. Which is what I do as a designer. My own practice during BA and MA has always been based in reflections about what I expect to happen, what I do to achieve this and whether that worked or if its back to the drawing board. I, nonetheless, try to be open to the requirements others give me and reflect on how they influence my work. I have started to think about the research question as the shape of my PhD. Now that the decision has been made I will work with one particular shape, one outcome I am aiming for. It will influence other considerations on how I proceed.  It can still be red, yellow or blue. But I have committed myself to a shape, or more specifically a methodological PhD. I did not expect this, I am not sure if I like it, but will go with it now.

That was a) and b) about the contribution. And there is an a) and b) about evaluation as well. Because I have not been trained, and I do not see it happen very often, to evaluate my design work. Aesthetically, yes. Practical, in terms of the crafts and tools I used, yes, that also. But in terms of validity? I am sure it is done. But not openly, structured, and most definetely not in advance. Which is related to the issue about contribution. If I do not define in advance what I make, I cannot really define the criteria I measure it against. Which is to some extend where my search ended and my question began: Can we work towards evaluation? How can we measure the outcomes of a design project?

After I felt I worked my way around both a)s and b)s I realised how much my way of communicating had to change. In my design education I have been told to always go the extra mile. To suprise, question and challenge the reader/viewer. Which I have been told is not welcome anymore. So the bits and pieces that I worked hard for, to make my work stand out, all were the first to go. And it was – and still is – hard for me to accept that there is a contribution in there. That what I have produced it worth something, even though (because) it has the same shape as everyone elses. And here I start mixing metaphors, because here a shape is only a shape.

I have finished the report, the personal crisis and progress with my quest to be both a designer and an academic in an HCI world. Which before has not been so clear an aim in my mind.