Friday, my AD418 Research Methods for Art and Design students gave their final presentations. The students did an excellent job showcasing the work they did for the class, the variety of their topics, and how it relates to themselves as creative people in the world. They seem geninuely happy with the results of our experiment in anthrodesign education. Here are some of the themes that came out of the experiment:
Design education focuses too much on "practice" and not enough on "research."
What I mean by that controversal statement is that is that design education does not engage students with open-ended processes where there is no clear problem let alone answer. The core text in the class was H. Russell Bernards, Research Methods for Anthropology, Altamira Press 2005. He distinguishes between research and practice in terms of their intentions, outcomes, and expectations. See table in photo.
From my students responses to the class, most of their education is spent solving problems using type, image, materials, form, etc. Even when they were given the opportunity to define their own problem, they initially struggled with the indeterminancy of anthropological research where there are so many ways to approach things. This lack of practice in "indeterminancy" erodes the confidence of designers in terms of being able to say something about the world beyond it should or should not use "dummy quotes."
Skillful and systematic attention to creative conceptualization (through research) produces more innovative creative thinking, because it exposes gaps in people's assumptions.
The narrative arc of many of the students' presentations is how they assumed the problem/issue was X, but the understanding of people showed them that it was really Y. Some examples of X, Y, are:
Sara Bassick's project: X= form and content of personal letters and Y= community building among mail art participants.
Chris Kalis's project: X=typography and childen's reading speed and accuracy and Y=textbook layout and design and children's reading comprehension.
I am really excited about where the students will take the research in terms of crafting solutions to some of these issues.
A deep grounding in anthropological research methods extends beyond ethnography.
The class explored interviewing, observation, and self-documentation techniques, which of course are not particular to anthropology. But the course was specifically framed by anthropological questions regarding art/designs relationship to human attitudes, behaviors, and actions and anthropological assumptions regarding the ethics of presenting human experience from the perspective of the people studied (i.e. ethnography as a philosophical orientation). Yet, the research projects that students explored covered issues of usability (of public transit by elderly, blind, and low vision by student Leilah Rampa, of the uic.edu website by student Elizabeth Salvi, and aforementioned work by Chris Kalis) and participatory design and art (one student, Mary Carideo, had various non-artists paint Cubist paintings) as well ethnographic perspectives, which was exciting to see in terms of common disciplinary research platforms.
These kinds of courses, Research Methods, should be a core element of design education at especially the graduate level.
The feedback that the students' gave in terms of (1) being able to use these methods in their work as they go forward and (2) feeling more confident as they approach their thesis is what I hoped to gain from teaching the class. The fact that they got it and got it well makes me lament the fact that so many other students did not benefit from the class. I do hope that my enrollment is higher next year as it expands to include, hopefully, anthropology students as well as those in Art and Design.