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Design Research Conference 2013: Highlights from day 2

October 24, 2013

This October, I attended the Design Research Conference in Chicago with fellow design researcher Amy Lee.

The conference, hosted by the IIT Institute of Design at the Field Museum in Chicago, offered a very thought-provoking few days that challenged attendees to explore opposable forces like ego, empathy, humanity and technology.

Here are some of my highlights from DRC2013:

Deep Design: Reclaiming patience in design research for the social sector
Linda Pulik and Siobhan Gregory

Pulik and Gregory argued that ethnographic research methods of cultural anthropology are applied shorthand in business environments. They neither found flaw with nor gave judgment on this approach, and in fact pointed out that it can be very effective in designing products and experiences. Their talk focused on the ways that this shorthand approach, where patience and time are often unaffordable luxuries, is not well suited for social design. In social design — where the goal of a project is to contribute to the improvement of human wellbeing and livelihood through policies, systems and strategies — a deeper understanding of the reality of people involved is necessary.

Earlier in the conference another speaker, Anne Budick, discussed "productive friction" as a clash of perspectives that leads to contextual critiques, unexpected challenges and new questions. There was definitely a bit of productive friction in the Q&A session after Pulik and Gregory's talk. Some audience members grappled with the notion that doing a short-term project in a struggling community or with a high-risk population might be less effective towards solving root problems in the long term than doing nothing. They wondered how the speakers proposed that anyone could be a design partner without being a neo-colonialist. I thought the speakers handled these questions thoughtfully. They emphasized the importance of language and cautioned against using words that are vague or exclusionary. They discussed the tension of an "aesthetic divide,” where the reality of the look of a place does not align with a designer's aesthetic choices. Finally, they stressed that while designers and researchers need to remember humility, we do not need to apologize for who we are.

The greatest potential for group creativity is present when a group is offered multiple ways to explore a problem or understand an experience.

Collective Innovation
Liz Sanders

As a researcher new to the field of design, this was the presentation at DRC that taught me the most. Sanders gave an overview of the multitude of methodologies available to a design researcher. She also discussed how academic research into creativity, both in individuals and in groups, can help inform decisions on how to structure and conduct design research for the richest resulting data. Sanders discussed how recent research into creativity and strategic thinking has revealed the influence of emotion in group creativity. When positive emotions in a group are high, creativity in the group is high. Additionally, groups consisting of individuals with different backgrounds and strengths have the greatest potential creativity. These statements seem like common sense, but Sanders took the time to back them up with research.

Creating a positive emotional experience for a group with different personality types and interests is a daunting challenge but Sanders laid out a framework that can help a researcher select methods to meet this goal. The greatest potential for group creativity is present when a group is offered multiple ways to explore a problem or understand an experience. Examining a question from three sides with a combination of experiential, generative, and evaluative activities is the ideal. Sanders shared several examples of methods in each of these categories that I expect to refer back to often.

Throughout the conference I was constantly writing notes to self about books, websites, or talks that speakers referenced and I wanted to revisit. Here is my post-conference bibliography:


Organic design, inspired by nature — Ross Lovegrove

The opportunity of adversity — Aimee Mullins

The danger of a single story — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


EteRNA - crowd sourced science —

Powers of ten —

Cooper Hewitt exhibit —

Naked Innovation —


Where good ideas come from — Steven Johnson

Microinteractions — Dan Saffer

Communicating the new — Kim Erwin

Innovating for people — LUMA

Trillions: Thriving in the emerging information ecology — Peter Lucas, Joe Ballay, Mickey McManus

— Written by Leah Ujda