Theory, Analysis and Effective Research Communication for Design

By Poggenpohl, Sharon Helmer | Visible Language, January 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

Theory, Analysis and Effective Research Communication for Design


Poggenpohl, Sharon Helmer, Visible Language


Research in Communication Design, part 2, departs from the usual reporting of research to dig deeper into issues of importance to research and its development by design. The need for a change in relationship between education, practice and research is discussed along with the practical need for better research dissemination. Theory, method and tool are discussed as possible frames for research activity. The articles in this special issue are introduced in terms of theory, post analysis and conceptual development in relation to research. The issue concludes with a practical argument for the need for research.

CONNECTING EDUCATION AND PRACTICE THROUGH RESEARCH

It may seem strange in a special issue on Research in Communication Design to reflect on the relationship between design education, design practice and research, but it is a necessary musing. Education and practice in design have long been estranged, due in no small part to its craft basis and the self-taught nature of many of the now retiring or just retired design professionals. For them the idea of an academic degree in design was foolish. However, since the middle of the twentieth century, design programs at universities have grown resulting in designers who have at least a bachelor degree. While a college education has become commonplace for those entering the practice of design, the relationship between education and practice has not become substantially more cordial. Educational programs today tend to be more diligent in preparing students for the technology that comprises the tools of their trade-employers demand this. Some more progressive practitioners value student experience with team work, multidisciplinary projects, user studies, even speculative thinking about not ready for primetime technology. Understanding something of human perception, aesthetics and communication strategy remains the price of admission to the field. Nevertheless the gulf between education and practice while somewhat diminished remains.

The communication context in which we now live is more complex as information is not scarce. It is unfiltered on the worldwide web, strains for our attention with annoying media tricks, evades our earnest search through engines now perverted by ratings derived from popular access and paid positioning of information. It is not only the physical format for information that has changed, it is also the institutional support and infrastructures that have changed.

The change in communication context opens new questions to which there are no easy answers. The transfer of information from one media to another has never been automatic. Different media afford different structures and opportunities, privilege information delivery and processing using different senses and codes. Altering information to take advantage of changed media affordance is an issue, while the largely untheorized and unstructured configuration of new media raises many questions. Practitioners are typically unable to address these questions as they require time and money that go beyond a quick, focused clinical research that is designed for actionable results. Such research, when done, is not shared as there is no time or incentive for writing papers, even if the limited research is not proprietary. These very practical studies reveal the problems practice is addressing and this can lead to research, questions that open the way to rigorous research, if these problems are communicated.

Educational institutions are just now waking up to their potential to do research as graduate programs begin to develop that are not remedial, not developed for those who failed to comprehend and develop design skill in their undergraduate programs. With the development of doctoral programs in design, the potential for communication design research expands and accelerates, but only if these programs understand research in a rigorous way.

A culture of design research needs to develop. …

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