Dr Alice Twemlow is Lector (research professor) of Design/Research at KABK. With her lectorate, ‘Design and the Deep Future’ she aims to stimulate research around the particular theme of design’s fraught relationship to climate crisis but also, more generally, ‘to nurture a robust design-centred research culture’ throughout the academy. As an associate professor in Leiden University’s Academy of Creative and Performing Arts, Alice supervises some of the PhDArts candidates in artistic research.

From 2016 to 2018, Alice was the head of the Design Curating & Writing Master at Design Academy Eindhoven, and prior to this in 2008, she cofounded and directed the MFA in Design Criticism (D-Crit) and the MA in Design Research, Writing & Criticism, at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Alice has an MA and PhD in History of Design from the Royal College of Art and the V&A Museum in London.

In this conversation we discuss distinctions between research for design, research into design, and research through design, which were first introduced by Christopher Frayling, professor of Cultural History at the Royal College of Art in his 1993 article ‘Research in Art and Design’. His influential, yet somewhat obscure categorisations, were inspired by art philosopher Herbert Read’s distinction between ‘teaching through art’ and ‘teaching to art’.[1]

Rosa te Velde: Some time ago, when you visited the Master Industrial Design department at KABK, I recall you said there is a clear distinction between design research and artistic research. How come and what is specific about design research?

Alice Twemlow : When I first arrived in the Netherlands, fresh from New York, where I perceived art and design to be quite separate, I was ready to defend a corner for design—I felt that it needed time to grow as a field distinct from artistic research. By now I feel they actually cohabit nicely. What I see at the PhDArts programme in Leiden is that, while applications of research might differ within different specialisms, in fact artists, designers, choreographers, dancers, and sonologists can still establish a common frame of reference through discussion of theory and methods. Plus there’s often confusion around the term 'design research' because of the way it has been co-opted by industry and by market research. The archetypal example of this is IDEO, who have turned it into a bit of a formula, the iconic image of which is a wall full of post-it notes.

RtV: What does that kind of design research entail exactly?

AT: You can call it research for design. It deploys a lot of ethnographic and anthropological methods and techniques, things like participant observation and mapping of behavioural routes and patterns. The crudest way of putting it, is that it’s a bit of a recipe for how to go about designing stuff, and how to bring users and participants into the process of design. The design process sometimes is very invisible, and difficult for clients to put their fingers on, but if they're involved in the process, which is defined then as ‘design research’, their participation seems even more important as they are then considered not only consumers but also participants or even co-producers.

When I titled my masters in New York ‘Design Research’, people thought that we would be teaching the IDEO kind of stuff, and some of our students did end up working there. What I meant by ‘design research’, however, was something else. My students and I were doing research into design, reading into how, and trying to understand why, design (from its products, environments and infrastructures to its culture and its values) is shaped the way it is. The research techniques I was teaching my students there were pretty much derived from investigative journalism, however, and so in fact we spent more time reading out beyond design, using design as a lens for interpreting some of the many political and social issues that it intersects.

What I am focused on now, here in the Netherlands, and in the context of artistic research, is more about how research might be conducted through design. Through the methods, sensibilities and approaches of the design practice itself.

RtV: Could we say that that research for design tends to exclude research from larger cultural, economic, historical discourses, as it happens in a setting where questions about who and for whom we can design are driven by commercial interests and participant observations and behavioural studies?

AT: Yes, and this can also happen in education where design sometimes ends up being considered and taught only in terms of it being a profession or a vocation, rather than as a broader aspect of our culture, as one of the humanities or a liberal art, for example.

RtV: Would you say that ‘theory’ is more important in research through design as opposed to research for design?

AT: Possibly. Because in an educational or academic research setting, or in a practice that is funded by creative arts grants, you have very different commercial and time pressures than you do when working in a governmental or corporate sphere. But that doesn’t mean it’s always necessary for every research through design project. Some people are just fundamentally empirical in what they do and don’t engage deeply with theory.

For those who do get into theory there can be a magical moment when they’re able to relate or juxtapose ideas with one another in a way that illuminates their work and allows them to understand its significance in new ways. How they situate themselves in relationship to design, suddenly becomes part of a much longer history. What theory helps you to understand is that you're not alone and you're not the first; the concepts have been marinating for a long time!

RtV: How is the kind of research that feeds into the design process different from design research?

AT: There is a kind of research that feeds into the design process that you might call the experimenting or the ‘gathering inspiration’ phase (the Pinterest mode). This kind of research is done in an intuitive way and in a very present way. You make something, you experiment with a material, or you collect a group of images, and respond very directly to the results that you're seeing and you proceed by means of iteration. Often it’s best if the verbal brain is involved as little as possible.

Most definitions of research include variations on the following: it’s a systematic approach to an inquiry, and that through it you aim to make an original contribution to knowledge, and make it available for debate and discussion with your publics. Part of this systematic approach is having a plan—where you frame a research question and determine a specific set of methods. It’s also about having a plan for how you will share the results of your research. But what also distinguishes ‘scholarly’ research from the kind where you are gathering input for process, is that you have an intensified self-consciousness—an awareness of yourself preparing for, or being in the act of doing, research. And this awareness allows for documentation and reflection on that act of doing research which can feed back in to your project or can become available for others to engage with.

RtV: I like what you said about the importance of sharing. Do you think there is greater potential in the field of design for sharing research, since designers are inclined to deal with larger issues and with users, or a public?

AT: Unfortunately, often, there’s a sort of fear that they’ll be judged and that research, just like a designed product, has to be perfect, complete and blackboxed before you show anyone. If you look at Industrial Design, since Modernism and the post-war drive for professionalisation (in the US and Western Europe anyway), the cultural norm has been not to share, but rather to guard one’s intellectual property through copyrights and patents. Similarly, design research tends to be presented only at the end of a journey, as a paper, an article, a video or artefact. What I’m searching for are ways to make research public while it is in progress so there is room for others to contribute and as a way of making it more accessible and useful in an educational context.

RtV: Can you think of pedagogical formats to cultivate this culture?

AT: The culture of, and trust in a safe space for, sharing can be built up in all the aspects of a department or throughout the academy. But in terms of research specifically, some of the things I recommend are: collective editing, peer-critiquing, regular sharing of works-in-progress, open-source archives of work and recipes. You could also create your own code of conduct within a course or department. For example; you could stipulate that whenever you provide commentary on a peer’s work, you start with five positive things or things that stay with you, things that surprised you, and then you move on to five tips for improvement.

RtV: The ways in which education is structured now is still focused on the student and their individual trajectory. What is the importance of collaboration for research?

AT: Generally, we could say we’re heading to a more collaborative world where work is done in less individualistic ways. Of course there are many approaches to that. You could say, well, I’m an individual designer and I want to know a bit about a lot of different disciplines and integrate them into my work. Or you might say, I want to situate myself at an intersection of different disciplines and see how that shapes what I do. Or you say, I want to be collaborative where I totally and utterly respect the expertise of my neighbour and the participants in my community—we’re all equal— and we work together towards a common solution. I think the nuances that differentiate these approaches to collaboration need to be taught. And if collaborations of different kinds are indeed valued, then they need to be rewarded as such, meaning students might not be able to graduate individually but collectively. You might not be assessed by tutors, but rather by peers and by your community—your collaborators.

RtV: Can you say something about specific design research methods?

AT: Some are imported from a different field and possibly tweaked and adapted for the purpose of design: interviewing or field research are examples of that. Other methods are native to design. An example could be material research. At KABK many of the design students are interested in biopolymers. It’s a mix of science, cooking and textile experimentation, but I feel the research is guided by a design sensibility.

Then there is a whole set of digital methods; working with the internet as a kind of resource, archive, material, medium; as something to be scraped and filtered and sorted, clustered, categorised. There are many layers to it, because it’s about setting the parameters for gathering but also about analysing and interpreting and outputting. These kinds of methods are being used in the Non Linear Narrative department for example. Their tutors include Lizzie Malcolm and Dan Powers of Rectangle who are real experts in this kind of research. I am overwhelmed by the scale of the data that they’re working with—civilian casualties of international military actions or their album-cover-colour browsing tool that uses the whole of the iTunes database.

I think the probe, the prototype or the prop, is a nice example of a designerly research method. You might build something that is a bit weird or suggestive of a future value system, and put it in an existing situation. And what you gather are reactions. It’s a way of surfacing insights. You could also make a scenario, build a whole world of context for your props.

Can I talk about what I’ve been working on lately?

RtV: Sure!

AT: I’ve been working on the method of walking, and how it is used in different ways by artists and designers in their research practices.[2] You might wonder, what is the difference between just walking around and walking as research. What I’ve learned is that when it’s used in a self-aware way, to gather insights, or to gather data, in a sensory capacity, it becomes research. You might be gathering that data from around you, from the environment. For example, one IA&FD student during a workshop with KCCM (Krijn Christiaansen and Cathelijne Montens) tried to walk along a river but he found he kept encountering obstacles. His project became about enumerating and trying to understand his obstacles, what they were and what they meant, and then using that as data to feed into his project. Others use walking to heighten a focus on what’s going on inside them. It’s about how you are thinking and feeling and seeing as a result of where, and the way in which you have chosen to, walk. Walking can be seen as a research laboratory. I’ve always been an advocate of putting your body into the research; it often yields more unexpected and exciting results than if you stay behind your computer or your books. Lots of students are interested in using it and I’ve noticed it helps them to use the first-person mode of address, when describing their research.

RtV: Final question: what, according to you, are urgent or important research topics or themes for industrial design?

AT: My main one is looking at design’s complicity in planetary degradation, climate change and the loss of biodiversity. And when I say complicity, I mean developing a more nuanced understanding, and not doing this kind of quick blame game or quick demand for circularity or recycling, which I find very limiting. But this is evolving for me into something I’m more comfortable calling ‘climate justice’ or ‘environmental justice’, to underline that these issues are completely inseparable from the social issues that we face today. Industrial design has a long, long way to go, in repairing damages from its glory years. There’s plenty of work to be done there, and it’s not all just doom and gloom; this work can be exciting, generative. For this work, and for other topics, I hope Industrial Design will continue to use an industrial process or industrial material or technique or object to root itself, but I hope it won’t be constrained by old measures of value such as form and function and that it gives itself permission and time to explore and intervene in contemporary social issues. To me, one interesting way forward for Industrial Design would be to undo or unlearn the kind of professionalism that has been its defining identity so far. To embrace provisionality, ad-hoc approaches and iteration—to consider its products less as final entities and more as probes and props that can provoke discourse, elicit more knowledge, invite participation, and remain in a state of collective becoming.

[1] Christopher Frayling ‘Research in Art and Design’, in: Royal College of Art Research Papers 1:1, 1993. Accessed through: https://researchonline.rca.ac.uk/384/3/frayling_research_in_art_and_design_1993.pdf. See also Herbert Read, Education Through Art, 1944. See also: Ken Friedman, Research into, by and for design, in: Journal of Visual Arts Practice 7:2, 2008.

[2] KABK, Design Lectorate, ‘Walking as a Research Method in Art and Design’, See: https://www.kabk.nl/en/lectorates/design/kabinets-walking-as-a-method.