Note #1: This is adapted from a post I submitted to the PhDDesign distribution list’s thread on “Research through design.”
Note #2: This is a preliminary attempt to formulate the perspective I am developing in my sabbatical monograph, Design As Inquiry. If you like what I’m doing, or if you think I’m nuts and want to argue with me, please contact me!
It is well known that in spite of considerable excitement about research through design (and constructive design, speculative design, etc.), that many questions remain about its status as “research,” including whether/how it conforms to our conceptions of research, how its impacts are to assessed, and how to distinguish good from bad design projects aspiring to one of these contribution types. This has major implications, e.g., for funding, publication, tenure, and indeed whether Design can justifiably award Ph.D. degrees.
One reason for the present difficulties is that it seems difficult to ask how design does “research” without becoming bewitched by scientific research norms or foundationalist attempts to find powerful arguments in Frayling that frankly aren’t there to be found. As someone trained in the humanities, I have been wondering–sort of an elaborate thought experiment–what RtD looks like if we imagine it in relation to a more humanistic conception of inquiry.
One common argument views design inquiry as a form of “exploration.” I think such a view, unless carefully qualified, understates the rigor and knowledge contributions at stake. The novels of Henry James do not merely “explore” moral life–they systematically interrogate it, situated in a complex world of particulars, of events, of emotional resonance, in a way that rivals Kant’s and Rawls’ moral philosophy (Nussbaum, 1990). Warhol’s Brillo Box does not merely explore popular culture–it interrogates the very theories by which we are able to recognize art as art (Danto, 1981). The Aliens films do not merely explore personhood–they interrogate different formulations of it, working through the consequences of diverse positions, and clarify for us what is at stake in these formulations in our increasingly biotechnical world of the proximal future (Mulhall, 2002). The tragedies of Shakespeare do not merely explore skepticism; they interrogate its arguments, work through its psychological motivations and behavioral consequences, and reveal how disowning knowledge leads to the un-acknowledgment of our human relatedness and mutual obligations (Cavell, 1969). Is not the systematic consideration and critique of different positions and their consequences knowledge work?