Monday, 21 August 2006

Personal Refelctions: In Form Symposium

In Form ( was a symposium on practice-led research held at the Powerhouse Museum on Saturday, August 19 2006, as part of Sydney Design Week. I gave a short presentation on my research (see previous post). Preparing for this presentation – which was the first time I had publically discussed my research – was a fantastic opportunity for me to structure an early model of my research design. Although presenting to around 60 design academics and professionals was a horrifically gut-wrenching experience, there's nothing like jumping in the deep end to see if you can float (swimming's still a while away).

The symposium itself was an engaging day, with a well considered balance of practitioners who engage in research as part of their practice, academics defining the territory and aims of practice-led research (PLR), and doctoral candidates (from UTS) at varying stages of of a PLR PhD. Following are some thoughts on issues raised over the day, and from discussions after the formal symposium, mostly with the postgrad students from RMIT – seeing their research blogs inspired me to begin this one:

Kees Dorst cited an example where designers were presented with a vast and thorough research document to inform their design, but it was clear they didn't bother to read it, resulting in generic, run of the mill design outcomes. He questioned whether this was an indication of designer arrogance (I'm the designer, I know how it should look), or an inability to understand the research. Ignoring the arrogant designer, this raises an interesting issue – one that cropped up a few times from the audience in the plenary session. When/where are practitioners taught how to interpret and use research? How is the research presented to them? Is it in a language they can understand? I'd argue that this is not just a design problem; if you throw a telephone book sized research report at most people, they're going to duck. Should there be more consideration of how research is presented to practitioners? Perhaps a step where the research report is condensed/interpreted and presented in an appropriate format? I'm not preposing that all designers are unable to interpret research and apply it to their work, but asking them to engage with a dense piece of academically written research is assuming they have been taught this language. There were several comments about how drawing practitioners back to university to undertake post-grad PLR projects is problematic because academic language is unapproachable for many practitioners.

This is where I think case-studies, or models, of PLR are going to be incredibly important; talking about what a PLR doctorate could be is not going to convince practitioners - showing them examples is. Seeing the incredibly varied ways Bridie Lander, Cecillia Heffer and the other postgrad students allowed practice to drive their research, which then feds back into their practice, was fascinating. One practitioner told me he was inspired, after seeing the postgrad presentations, to consider undertaking a PLR postgrad project.

So how do you make these case-studies visible to industry? In the case of academic PLR, this is part of the argument for producing an artefact. The artefact is an articulation of research in the language of the practitioner-researcher, which is also the language of their industry. This sounds too obvious to bother stating, but it offers one answer to the question of making case studies visible: you may not expect industry to read the exegisis (the academic documentation of the research) but you can expect them to come to an exhibition or examine an artefact.

So PLR is again seen as 'bridging' the gap between the academy and industry. It was discussed that expecting academic PLR to output both a written component and an artefact(s) is essentially demanding twice as much work, and, while I agree with this, I still believe for research to be relevant to both academy and industry, both articulations are necessary. Perhaps the length of the written documentation needs to be considerably reduced based on the scope of the 'artefact', which is, as I understand, what happens – christ knows who determines this ratio, and on what formula! But more importantly, non-academic PLR needs to present the process/reflections along with the artefact so practitioners are provided insights into the actual research; give us process, not just product.

There's much talk about 'bridging the gap' between industry and academy, but let's not get this confused with 'merging'. Not all practitioners are interested in research, but is a bad thing – if everyone is reflecting, who's doing? It is the responsibility of PLRs to make their research accessible to practitioners, even if this appears like more work, so it's not necessarily the act of researching that is influencial, but the knowledge of what research is uncovering through process. Publishing in journals along the way could be a valuable activity for researchers, even if only to force them to start writing, and allow feedback to identify problems. (I've actually heard a few academics argue, not at this symposium, that research students shouldn't publish until they are finished, but isn't the purpose of research to generate new knowledge, and make that knowledge public?). Also, publishing research in non-academic forums, in the language of the practitioner, should be recognised. Why not present the visual elements of your research to practitioners, to show them it's not all "ology" and dense text?

Where do practitioners go to talk about design? To design conferences (not academic conferences). In Australia, the main design conferences/festivals offer a limited slice of the design pie. Semi Permanent (although deserving of commendation for actually establishing a forum for Australian, and international, designers) is a showcase, rather than a dialogue, and this seems to be the case with other conferences I have attended. Why are practice-led designers not presenting here? I discussed the idea, with the RMIT students, of submitting to present a short selection of PLR postgrad projects, master and doctorate, from a range of Australian universities at the next Semi Permanent conference. It would also be fantastic to see some non-academic PLR projects discussed from the research perspective.

It's worth considering festivals like memefest (, which are dialogue, rather than show-case, driven. Australian undergrad students should be submitting work to these festivals.

This is becoming a painfully long post/rant, so a few other comments in point form:
* The 'quantitative cosmologist's' (did I get that right?) comment about design needing a mythology about where design has come from and why we're here was a fantastic, outside perspective.
*There were a few comments about encouraging practitioners who'd been in industry for 15 or 20 years to return to academic research - what about 4-5 years? The we have a slightly younger PhD base in the industry, practitioners interested in generating dialogue and new knowledge, building the discipline from within?

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