New journal article published

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010 | Design process, General, Theory | No Comments

Some time ago my second journal article was published by the academic journal FORMakademisk. This is an open-access journal, so the article is free for everyone to download as a PDF. In addition, I have made the article available as a webpage in order to embed videos and a Prezi presentation. The article is entitled ‘Connecting motional form to interface actions in web browsing: investigating through motion sketching’, and is based on work done in collaboration with Opera Software. Here is the abstract:

It is now possible to include complex visual movement in screen interfaces, including those that enable web browsing on different media devices. This article investigates the potential for employing movement in web browsing – or more specifically, how motional form may be connected to interface actions. The investigation is carried out through design experimentation. Techniques of ‘motion sketching’ have been developed and utilized in a practice-based research project. The resulting motion sketches are analysed as realizations of complex mediation – by drawing on social semiotics and the concept of action from Leont’ev. The article argues that motional form is made meaningful through connotations and experiential metaphors, and suggests ten provisional principles for how motional form may be used in web browsing. This challenges notions of form and function in current interface design and how social semiotic theory may be produced.

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Fallman on design and design research

Thursday, March 12th, 2009 | Design and research, General, Theory | 1 Comment

The 8 pages long paper ‘Design-oriented Human-Computer Interaction‘ by Daniel Fallman takes on quite a comprehensive task when it addresses what design ‘is’, how design is related to HCI, and what the relation between design and research might be in HCI.

Even if Fallman takes on an impossible task for such a short paper, he offers very interesting concepts and arguments. The paper is written from the perspective of HCI, not design as such. However, he argues that HCI has emerged as a design-oriented field. Many of the arguments and concepts presented should be relevant for design research in general.

3 accounts on what design ‘is’

Fallman presents three accounts from design theory on what design ‘is’. He calls these the conservative, the romantic, and the pragmatic.

  1. The conservative account sees design as a rational process that aims to convert an undesired situation into a desirable one, by going through rational and structured methodological steps. This account assumes that there is a ‘problem’ to be solved. Design is thought of as a scientific or engineering endeavour, and the focus is on normative design methods and generic design principles. For this account, references are given to H. Simon, C. Alexander, J. Löwgren and E. Stolterman.
  2. The romantic account gives prominence to the role of the designer, which is seen as a mastermind or creative genius. Here, imagination and creativity is seen as key abilities rather than abstract reasoning and rational problem solving. Rather then a focus on the process, the focus is on values, taste, quality and aesthetics. Art is the role model here, rather then science. References are given to R. Coyne, E. Stolterman, and P. Louridas
  3. The pragmatic account holds that design always is carried out in a specific situation, where the designers iteratively interpret the effects of their designs on the situation on hand. Design can therefore be seen as a hermeneutic process. This view draws on pragmatism and may see knowing-in-action as a specific and important kind of knowledge. Since every design situation is different, the ability to deal with different situations is more important than theories and methodology for guidance. Reference is given to D. Schön and D. Ihde.

I do not currently have the necessary overview to evaluate these categories, though I wonder if they may be a bit simplified and exaggerated. I do not think many designers (my self included) would position themselves in either one of these categories. In practice, it seems to me that design may sometimes include rational problem solving, sometimes ‘mysterious’ creativity, and most often the specificity of the situation at hand. The emphasis will vary from field to field, from designer to designer, and from project to project. However, such categories provide us with means for discussing what design ‘is’, which is essential in a theoretical inquiry. This understanding may further influence the way design education is conducted, and how the role of design and designers is understood at a general level.

Sketching as design thinking

To get closer to what design ‘is’, Fallman considers the role of sketching as an archetypical design activity. He argues that designers’ thinking is mediated by sketches and prototypes. The materials ‘talk back’ to the designer in an ongoing dialogue between the designer and the sketch.

…design involves the designer in a necessary dialogue with the materials of the design situation, from which the design problem and its solution are worked out simultaneously, as a closely coupled pair. (page 231)

In this unfolding process problem setting and problem solving (Schön) are seen as intertwined activities, in a search for a coherent, well-balanced whole.

[Design] … must not simply be seen either as a question of problem-solving, as an art-form, or as a bustle with reality: it is on the contrary an unfolding activity which demands deep involvement from the designer. ” (page 231-232)

Rather than seeing design as a hybrid discipline between art and science, design should be considered as a tradition guiding action and thought, which spans across many disciplines.

Design-oriented Research vs. Research-oriented Design

Fallman proposes a new way to distinguish research activities in HCI that involve design production.

  • Design-oriented Research has knowledge of some sort as the main contribution. This is the conduct of academic researchers, and should be conducted when the knowledge would not be attainable if design production was not a vital part of the research process. Here, the designed artefact is considered a means to an end, for example for exploring possibilities outside a current paradigm.
  • Research-oriented Design has production of new artefacts as its main motivation, not the production of new knowledge. Nevertheless, this production may relate to research in many ways. I suppose what is normally considered development would fit within this category.

Fallman argues that Design-oriented Research should include problem setting as an important part, while Research-oriented Design most often has problem solving as its main component.

Relating this to my own work, it is clear that doing a PhD entails scholarly and academic research where the aim is to produce new theoretical knowledge. The production of artifacts is subordinate. However, I think the production of artefacts can play an important role not only in informing theory, but also in embedding, presenting and visualising theory. In a social-cultural view on artefacts, the artefact does not in itself have a determined meaning. Nontheless, an artefact may play an important role in the dispersion of knowledge, as long as the theoretical argument is made clear and apparent.

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Workshop: Mieke Bal on case study

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008 | Events, General, Theory | 2 Comments

Monday and Tuesday afternoon this week I attended a two-day workshop at HIO with Mieke Bal, a cultural theorist and critic based in Amsterdam. The theme of the workshop was the case study, and “how to move beyond the particularity of single-object studies”. The problem of the case study is that of generalisation from one single event, as the specific can never be generalized. The case study should not be the only type of study in a discipline. However, it can be used as a tool for polemics: it can challenge the discipline, the repetitive work, and our prejudices and ideas. I suspect this is a rather unconventional view of the case study. Here are some of the core concepts that were discussed:


Abduction is an alternative to generalisation. Mieke described this as “abducting a work for another purpose”. Rather than generalizing from one case, we go back and forth between different cases. Going from the case, the observable fact, we end up with a possible cause, a hypothetical explanation. This is different from deduction (going from cause to consequence) and induction (going from the particular to the general). Abduction is also a space for creative thinking, and knowledge is seen as provisional rather than fixed.

Theoretical object

As an alternative to the notion of the case, Mike proposes the concept of theoretical object. This is an artwork or something else that obliges to do theory. The theoretical object poses theoretical terms, it produces theory through triggering people’s minds, and it necessitates reflection on theory itself. As the work exists in time, it is always in becoming. The theorizing is therefore dynamic and ongoing. The becoming of the work surpasses the moment of making, so that the intentions of the artist or designer are irrelevant. When we look for an object to analyse, we must therefore look for one that raises questions. We should also remember that the theoretical object is another subject to which we are responsible, even though (or precisely because) it doesn’t speak back.

Choosing a theoretical object does not have to mean choosing only one object in isolation. Rather, it is fruitful to dynamically juxtapose different objects in a series, so that they complete each other, and constitute a field for discussing certain general concepts. In research by design, this would mean including the result of my own design production as a work amongst other works, and reflect on how they all relate to the concepts.

The singular vs. the particular

The particular has a one-to-one relationship between the individual and the event. Consequently, it is not necessarily relevant beyond the particular situation. The singular however, has a relation to generality, and can be shared. The particular can be transformed into the singular, and the singular can transform into another singularity. The case study should focus on the singular, not the particular.

Subjectivity vs. intersubjectivity

In research, there is a need to move beyond the subjective, as we need to know that what we do is  relevant not only for ourselves. However, according to Mieke, the opposite of the subjective is not the objective, but the intersubjective. The intersubjective is what is shared by more than one conscious mind, as we are all subjects involved in culture. As culture continuously expands and changes, there is no end to this kind of knowledge.

Performance vs. performativity

According to Mieke Bal, performance and performativity are two distinct concepts, still they are not separate as they are always an aspect of one another. Performance is the act of executing something from memory, as a skilled and thoughtful production, playing a role. Performativity is the unique occurrence of an act in itself, here and now, in the unique present. In her book Travelling Concepts in the Humanities (2002: 183), she writes, “the elements of present and past in memory are what specifically distinguish performance and performativity”.

Bal, Mieke (2002) Travelling Concepts in the Humanities: A Rough Guide. Toronto, Buffalo and London: University of Toronto Press.

Why am I blogging this? The seminar gave me new insights that will be relevant to my work, and I believe some of these concepts could be interesting for others doing design research as well.

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