Category: Reflections


Over the last few years I’ve been wondering about a lot of big questions: what are design methods? do design and “method” go together? how should we talk about “design method” in a way that respects the emerging and innovative ways that designers work? and most recently, how might we explore and describe new forms of designing based on collaboration and learning?

This blog is a record of my journey through some of these questions. Along with my reflections about design methods, I occasionally post about my experiences in various seminars and courses that I attend during my time as a PhD candidate.

Daily Reflection 05: Slight Progress

Today I am one step closer to completing my early topic map. I continued to draw relationships between the aspects of design that I am interested in addressing, a process that helped me also construct an early justification for my direction. It has been interesting to move back and forth between the broad scale of my DESMA application essay (roughly: “how can design methods facilitate wicked problem solving”), and the area where I hope to focus my research. I jotted down a quick paragraph to explain my thinking, which I will try to distill to a few key points:

1. Externalization is important for working through the models that we have of the world
2. Designers often use visualization to compare, critique, and refine models of the current point in time
3. Once they have defined a model of how things are, they can move on to how things “could be” in the future
4. Therefore, the ability for people to externalize their models is important if they hope to change their environment
5. If more people understand and have the ability to externalize their models, the design process may be applied to problems at the scale of a community

These points led to some important questions that may shape of my literature review:

1. How are designers educated about the methods they use to model model “how things are” before offering models of “how things could be”?
2. How do designers practice the methods they use to model “how things are” before offering a model of “how things could be”?
3. What are the outcomes of using methods to model problems of “how things are”
4. What are the activities and principles that make modeling a successful problem-solving technique?

Daily Reflection 04: Beginning to Map

Today I continued to work on mapping the content connected to my research into design methods. After some much needed feedback and reflection over the weekend I have started to see how I can target my topic. I spent the majority of the day mapping out my personal understanding of what designers do, what methods they use and why, and where those methods came from. The map is far from complete, but I am starting to feel more comfortable putting topics on the page. My hope is that this map is a skeleton that I will build out over the course of my work. Starting with a map that I created from my own understanding of design, should help me maintain my perspective on the research, and allow me to see gaps in my own knowledge as I develop my argument.

As I was reading up on the design process today, I had a little positive reinforcement for my mapping exercise. Last year in a graduate seminar at North Carolina State, our class read a short article by Hugh Dubberly, Shelley Evenson, and Rick Robinson on their Analysis-Synthesis Bridge Model of the design process. After I looked up the article, I perused a few other resources by Hugh Dubberly related to models in design. He has done a fair amount of work that points to the potential for models to have a profound impact on the way designers communicate not only with each other or clients, but with academics and researchers. If designers share models—what Dubberly defined as “an idea about how part of the world works”—we are then able to critique, build from, and refine them, thus bringing rigor in both research and practice. On that note, I am back to visualizing my model of design practice and design methods. I’ll certainly have to save a copy of my early maps, because undoubtedly they will undergo some drastic transformations as I share them with my advisors and colleagues.

Daily Reflection 03: Circling Back Around

Yesterday afternoon I sketched a very rough map of topics related to design methods. Coming in today I wanted to continue expanding my map — filling it out and refining it by adding all sorts of important details, descriptions, subtopics, relationships, etc. etc. etc. Throughout the day today I struggled to make the kind of in-depth synthesis I was hoping for. Of course, as I sit and reflect on my work this week I am struck by how easy it is to get wrapped up in excitement and forget the lessons I learned just the day before. After a few transitions from paper to computer to stickies to computer to big sheet of paper, I might simply finish today where I left off yesterday. Two important lessons I learned from today:

– enter a process or method with a clear understanding of what you are trying to achieve, but build in moments to step back and reflect on your progress — and don’t be afraid to do it early

– visual notes worked for a short while to externalize my through process, were not sustainable

However, despite some of the struggles I faced today, I do feel closer to finding a focus. I keep coming back to education. Design methods and design methodology are inevitably going to be an important part of my research, but as I consider my experience and goals, I find myself continually drawn to design education. There is a lot of momentum behind design thinking as means for addressing some big problems in business and social welfare. If the current expansion of design beyond its walls continues than it is even more important to have: a) evidence for the value of design thinking, the design process, and design methodology, and b) and understanding of effective ways to educate people about design. In essence, I am wondering if my research should look to design pedagogy for principles and techniques for developing understanding of design (and the methods that are a part of it!)

Daily Reflection 02: Surveying the Landscape

I am starting the research process by spreading out wide. Today was all about breadth. Letting myself following trails of sources throughout the day, I attempted to map out topics that are relevant to my interest in design methods. Meandering through sources certainly has its dangers — I find myself keenly aware of the potential to force together seemingly related topics, or pursuing a direction that does not connect with my original concept. In the past, surveying literature has raised a fair amount of anxiety in my life. Today, I find that embracing a literature survey with an open-mind and a conscious understanding that I will not define the direction I am headed today helped keep things in perspective. I find myself much more comfortable with the research process without the pressure to know something right now. Pressure will come eventually, but I find it reassuring that I have already learned from my past experiences in the process.

Constructive outcomes of my day include some of the following thoughts and questions:

– how do cognitive science and pragmatism relate?
– how do people learn design methods? consider students entering design school for the first time. how do they react? does their design education influence their learning in other areas? what are the best ways to teach design methods?
– do cognitive science and/or pragmatism support the learning of design methods/methodology?
– what role does framing play in design methods?
– how can framing be important in other contexts?

Time to begin synthesizing some of this information, but first I need to sort through the mess of articles on my desktop.

Daily Reflection 01: Setting the Stage

Before getting underway with my research project I need to establish a few ground rules and guiding principles for the immense undertaking of three years of research and the pursuit of a PhD. As a method for working through ideas and practicing my writing, I will be maintaining short daily reflections during the week. In order to keep my journaling manageable, I have a recurring reminder and a time limit of 20 minutes. I haven’t attempted daily documentation before, but hopefully getting in the habit now will pay off down the road.

Today was an early milestone in the DESMA project. Sitting down with two of my advisors brought forth some important considerations that I need to manage throughout my research project. In particular, an essential focus more me will be process management. Maintaining focus on one topic at a time, organizing my resources, and engaging in clear and concise communication are practices that I am committed to maintaing over the course of the next few years. My daily reflections are the first piece to that puzzle, but I will undoubtedly refine the practices, methods, and tools that I use throughout the research process, just like any good designer would hope to 🙂

Week 01: Finding a direction

During my stay in Sweden as part of the DESMA program I will be writing weekly reflections to help document my time, but also work through ideas and questions. Thursdays seem like a good day for now, we’ll see how it goes.

As I finish up my first week here at Ergonomidesign, I find myself somewhere very familiar, off the deep end of design methods. After having just spent a solid amount of the last year devoted to working with design methods for my master’s thesis, I can honestly say it is easy to get lost and overwhelmed in working on them. However, after a few months away from the topic, I have some brief thoughts on my experience with design methods so far:

1. I have only scratched the surface of what I know about design methods (a fact made even more evident from the brief conversations I’ve heard here at Ergonomidesign)

2. My thesis was a proposition for incorporating design methods into other disciplines; I am excited to delve into detail about what makes design methods unique and valuable

3. “Design Methods” can mean a lot of things. It is time to get specific when I use the phrase

Thankfully, I have had this week to take a step back and slowly think about what design methods are, and what they are used for. I have only had a brief chance to chat about my, but I hope to get some more in depth feedback soon — after all, there are certainly plenty of savvy designers hovering around here! My initial challenge is parsing out exactly what about design methods am I going to study. During my graduate work I often got bogged down simply trying to parse through the huge number of examples that people refer to as “design methods.” Now, it is possible that I will head down the same path, but simply realizing that there other areas of design methods to investigate is exciting. I came up with a couple of rough areas that might help explain what I’m talking about:

1. How methods are structured – Time, materials, number of participants
example question: How do design firms structure, organize, implement, etc. design methods throughout a project?

2. How methods are developed/developing – Evolution, value, trends
example question: What are the dominant methods (or types of methods) included in current design methodology?

3. The process of methods – Workflow, communication, evaluation, delivery
example question: How is design methodology practiced throughout the course of a project? (is this basically describing the design process?)

4. The purpose of methods – Describe, define, organize, test, etc. (from my thesis, mostly an effort to categorize different methods)
example question: What are the primary goals of design methodology? What methods are appropriate or used at specific points within the design process/design methodology?

5. The context of methods – Environment, stakeholders, activities
example question: Where does design methodology take place? What does it “look” like? Who is involved?

I am pretty sure there are overlaps in among my topics, but they seem like a good starting point. After considering my current position and the newly formed DESMA network, I have a growing interest in the process of methods. By process, I am thinking specifically how design methods fit into the workflow (e.g. everything from how a method is chosen to how the results of the method communicated to someone who isn’t a designer in a meaningful way?). I may be getting into tricky territory with the terminology: method process within the design process? But as I refine my ideas I hope to come up with a better name. Identifying these five ways to study design methods also led me to an important question: how do I distinguish between the design methods and methodology? The answer I came up with at this point is this:

Method vs. Methodology

a) The methods designers use come from a variety of disciplines and practices that are not necessarily specific to or developed for design (e.g. storyboarding).

b) Design Methodology consists of a combination (or choice) of methods, tools, and techniques that designers use throughout the design process (e.g. interview + affinity diagramming + rapid prototyping).

But soon enough, my next question arises: is there a difference between design methodology and design process? I think there is. Hopefully I am at a good place to start. The goal for me now is to find a direction from which to approach design methods so I can target my readings for a literature review.