20 May 2016

Workshop "How to address Socio-Historical Research-on-Design methodologically?" at the University of Antwerp

On Wednesday 18th of May I participated on this workshop aimed at young researchers in the field.  Seven PhD candidates presented a question related to the topic, while two professors (Alison Clarke and Tom Avermaete) reacted to our presentations.

The call for questions instead of finished work was exciting, and I took the chance to discuss a question that has been in my head for some years already: How can I integrate a design and a humanities approach in my research? I chose to present this mehtodological challenge in a polemic way, because the answer to this question may seem quite simple otherwise. My main points were:

- You cannot research the future (from a humanities perspective)
- You cannot design the past

These arguments already pose a challenge to actually combine both approaches. You can definitely research "visions of the future" from a humanities perspective, and, as one of the researchers in the audience pointed out, you can also design "visions of the past" or history.  However, that doesn't put the arguments above in question. Design research generally has a positivistic, future-oriented  and problem-solving approach, while research in the humanities is usually theoretical and critical, and reflects about issues of the past and the "present" (if that exists at all).

The workshop title suggested that discussion would be about humanities approaches to design, which is actually quite different to the question I posed, and most of the presentations were indeed about that. In this kind of research both design and humanities knowledge are needed and relevant, and it is definitely multidisciplinary research. But still, in my view that is a humanities approach. Similar approaches can be taken to any cultural field such as cinema, visual arts, etc.

A complementary research concept may be design research approaches to humanities-related issues. That is also common. A paper discussed by one of the other PhD candidates (Florencia Fernandez) on gender in product design is one example. In that article, researchers used the design process to explore alternative gendered products by exchanging visual elements between a kitchen blender and a drill. Although in a way multidisciplinary, that is in my view a design research approach.

So, is it really possible to combine both approaches in one research question?  I left the workshop with this second inquiry unresolved... The professors suggested that conceptual, critical design may combine both approaches. I agree. However, this activity is more related to practice that to academic research. I may continue my search for a question that is truly multidisciplinary, that combines both design and humanities approaches to research.