CoDesign, critique and conundrums

As of last week and until the end of the year, I have moved quarters and am now a visiting researcher at the CoDesign research cluster at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, 
Schools of Architecture, Design and Conservation, 
School of Design (aka KADK).

Last week was mainly spent acclimatising, but also on attending visiting researcher Tuuli Mattelmäki’s presentation on probes and other research methods for a group of new CoDesign students, and parttaking in the cluster’s weekly meetings, which last week included a visit from TV producer Ane Skak, sharing her experience with user involvement in cross media/ cross institutional projects. The presentations, the meetings and the projects presented or referenced were really inspiring – there’s some interesting things happening in this field and some interesting approaches taken. And one thing that is also clearly emerging is a very collaborative, engaged and openly conversational research environment. People take the time to talk with each other and savour the opportunity to share their questions and knowledge. So on top of drinking in the creative ambience of the design school environment (where all the work-in-progress mess, inspirational material and prototypes cluttering up the studios bring back sweet memories of being a fashion student, now a decade ago), I also enjoy this friendly and curious academic atmosphere and find this attitude to research and professional collaboration very appealing (even though I inevitably still feel like an outsider).

And Wednesday it was my turn to present my project to the group. As it turned out, however, the other PhD students in the group were all working from home (being in the final stages of writing), whilst another researcher was doing an all-day workshop elsewhere, meaning that I ended up presenting to a small group of senior researchers: Eva Brandt and Thomas Binder from the CoDesign group and Tuuli Mattelmäki from Aalto University. Of course it would have been great to get responses also from the other group members, but I also felt very privileged to get this kind of triple ‘master class’ attention on my project. And kick myself for not having recorded their insightful comments, but here’s trying to draw out the essence.

IMG_2603

Although I deliberately went for a flexibly handheld rather than a slick ppt-ey presentation, reasoning that my objective was not to sell my project but to lay out my uncertainties, I had actually really tried to think through my process and problems related to my research-through-design methodology, and to work out what I needed to tell and get feedback on. Honestly, I had. Running through my notes and material, writing up a chronology, pinpointing central ideas and uncertainties. But my presentation was still all over the place. Because now that I finally had the chance to discuss my approach and concerns with someone who could give me critique from within the design research field, I wanted to share everything. And since it’s all interconnected – what I’ve done, why I’ve done it and what I make of it; what I think I know and know I don’t (and think I ought to find out about); inspirations and outcomes – it’s hard to stick to a single narrative. Even when I have actually been following a relatively well-planned process. The mindmap shown above, which I made the day before to try to get an overview and piece together which references and questions belong to which aspect of the research, I guess illustrates my state of mind fairly well (mind you, this is only a representation of the methodological aspects of the project; museology, media and fashion hardly enter into the equation here. So in total it’s even messier. Which I sort of think it should be and sort of think it shouldn’t be at this stage (two years in, one to go), but either way it’s a bit scary).

I’ve come to CoDesign to try to make meaning out of this mess, to find out where to situate my design oriented research within the field, find the right language to describe what I have done and what it means. Because I have been getting a bit lost in considerations about methodology, and how it reflects my own preconceptions and preoccupations, since failing to make a clear case for my approach at the Nordes doctoral consortium  this summer and taking to heart J. Lee’s notions about the necessity of reflexive method making. And I still believe this is both relevant and interesting, and that I must necessarily be able to account for my methodology in my dissertation. But the supposedly-good-but-still-a-little-hard-to-get-my-head-around news coming out of today’s meeting, is that I should stop trying so hard to pin it down, at least for now. Stop trying to work out what my method is – the relevant question is not whether my concept dominos could be described as a form of game, or not, but what this particular approach has shown me. ‘Make the beast talk’ as Thomas BInder put it, and beware that my project does not fall into fragments.

(And yes, I guess that at the end of the day these reflections on a personal process of ‘enlightenment’ are mainly of interest to myself, and should be largely purged from the dissertation. However, as I find it useful to write them out of my system, the blog will still have to stand for a whole heap of confused confessions of this type.)

Referencing Donald Schön’s assertion that ‘one thing is what you do, another is what others make of it’, Thomas addressed the (common?) pitfall in justifying one’s position, and urged me to avoid longwinded meta-level deliberations on method. Rather than speculating about what I’ve done, I should trust it – this notion was seconded by Eva, who acknowledged the designerly takes and sensitivities in my material, and pointed to the richness of the journey taken – and focus instead on understanding how the generated material talks back to me and show what it can say about the world.

It’s still a delicate balance, as my project and process is hermeneutical rather than empirical – again, Thomas emphasised that I should stay true to this outset and consider my material as text rather than data, to look at the readings and writings, and rereadings, a spiralling movement of interactions with the material and the partipants around the designerly material I have written in the process.

(I promptly took out Gadamer’s Truth and Method from the library. Perhaps being in my bag will give it a competitive edge over Foucault’s The Order of Things and Deleuze & Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, not to mention Baumann, Giddens, Latour and all the other seminal works currently sat on my shelf that sadly all to often end up simply collecting dust. So many things I want to read, and so hard, sometimes, to decide what is relevant for the project and what is just an inspiring detour, which I don’t have the time to indulge in. For which aspects will a superficial understanding suffice, and for which is deep knowledge essential?).

So what can I say about the world? I guess I have been hesitant to claim that I can really say anything, given my narrow samples/studies and being conscious of my subjective approach. And perhaps this hesitancy has led me to become too guided by ‘agenda’; my gripe with mobile museum mediation. As Tuuli suggested, I need to consider to what extent I have actually sought to draw out the participants’ viewpoints, and how much I have simply been exploring my own ideas, or mainly been receptive to reflections of my own views. So while it is relevant to reflect on which assumptions about fashion, mobile media and museums I have been working from when designing these tools, I should also be aware of how they have narrowed or skewed my participants’ interpretive space.

Tuuli also commented that while at first she did not see the critical inspiration in the material – which admittedly was not very noir – my description of a process where I retained a strong sense of authorship, rather than staging a truly co-creative process, was indeed indicative of a designer-led approach akin to that taken by critical designers, also working to an agenda as much as exploring the field.

My probes, for instance, combined tasks for self documentation (e.g. mobile photography) with activities that were more akin to prototyping of early designerly guesses (e.g. the Pinterest and Polyvore assignments). Similarly, the dominos were designed to explore later stage guesses. Then again, these tools also served to disprove my guesses – heuristics, hypothesis, if you like – as when the online activities were rejected by the participants. The realisation that even this very digitally literate group were not inclined to engage with museum-related activities via social media sites was thus not so much a confirmation of my scepticism as a source of it. And while my studies are too small to make any results indicative of general patterns, the outcome has definitely informed my thinking. (As well as the other way round, and round, and back into the hermeneutical spiral we go).

One very concrete suggestion coming out of the workshop, from Thomas, was to initiate a collective Interaction Analysis session, and enlist the other researchers here to help me analyse interactions in and outcomes of my workshops from the video material. Until now, I had only kept the videos as documentary backup, whilst transcribing the procedures from the audio recordings. So actually just looking at the videos again feels like a fresh view into my process. And even though the footage is not great (in workshop II the camera shows what goes on on the table, but not the faces, in workshop III the camera is set to show the group, but not the table, and two people have their back to the camera (a result of experimenting with methods I’m not trained in, but at least I’ve got footage, so there)) it will be interesting to see what can be learned from it. Whereas the transcripts have been useful for drawing our central themes and problems regarding (the museum professionals’ perceptions of) mobile mediation, perhaps collective analysis of the visible interactions can uncover perspectives that I have hitherto been blind to.

Jordan & Henderson, in the 1995 article ‘Interaction Analysis: Foundations and Practice’ (in The Journal of the Learning Sciences 4(1), pp. 39-103), imply as much, stating that ‘Collaborative viewing is particularly powerful for neutralizing preconceived notions on the part of researchers and discourages the tendency to see in the interaction what one is conditioned to see or even wants to see’. (44)

I really hope that the researchers here will be able to find a couple of hours to engage in this work, as I am sure I would learn an awful lot from partaking in such a collective session. And even though I intend to turn my attention to the outcome, to what this material tells me about the world, another look at the videos could perhaps also provide some answers as to how to understand my method, and how to describe it, as ‘accounts of methods cannot be separated from accounts of findings and that the best way to talk about method is to show instances of the actual work.’ (ibid. 42).

So it all comes together, getting what I came for, but in a different manner than I could worked out myself.

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