I spoke to some colleagues about my earlier post, The Criterial Knowledge Argument for Research Through Design, who are themselves experts in research through design [EDIT: the researchers in question are Jodi Forlizzi and John Zimmerman]. While these colleagues were generally sympathetic to the claim that art and design can contribute to knowledge in general and even criterial knowledge in particular, they objected that the sorts of knowledge outcomes I describe in that post can be arrived at not intentionally but rather as a by-product of artistic practice, and therefore cannot be characterized as research.
This is a very reasonable objection. In fact, their objection could be stated even more forcefully: the knowledge outcomes I describe in that post are almost always achieved as a by-product of artistic practice and therefore almost never research as such (at least historically). We don’t view the poet Virgil as a “researcher,” even if his literary depiction of Dido has informed Western people’s cultural understanding of the character and qualities of jealousy for two millennia.
Their objection made me realize that I had left certain things tacit in that post that should have been made explicit. And upon further reflection, I developed some of my ideas about these issues further than I had before. So here are some amendments to the earlier post, addressing their objection:
- For a design researcher doing RtD to be able to invoke the Criterial Knowledge Argument for Research through Design in presenting/publishing her own work, she would have to justifiably claim that the processes, methods, and desired inquiry outcomes of the RtD project in question were designed to contribute to criterial knowledge of a given domain, concept, phenomenon, experience, etc., and she would likewise have to demonstrate that she did indeed achieve such knowledge.
- If, on the other hand, she was trying to do something entirely different (e.g., in the hope of contributing to “intermediate concepts” that characterize several successful designs) and as a by-product just so happened to contribute to criterial knowledge about X, then the latter knowledge outcome would obviously exist, but it wouldn’t be research (in the same sense that Virgil wasn’t a researcher when he wrote The Aeneid, even if the latter did result in criterial knowledge of jealousy).
- Let us consider another example, that of a design researcher theorizing a domain/phenomenon/matter of interest, whose methodology includes a critical examination of other individuals’ research through design projects (and sadly there is not enough of this at present, at least in HCI). If this design researcher is able critically and analytically to discover and to explicate that this corpus of designs do contribute to criterial knowledge of X in such-and-such ways, then that would be research, but it would be design criticism research, and also not research through design.
Centuries of critical interpretation and analysis of works of art as well as the theorization of that critical practice has shown that art works contribute to intellectual virtues in incredibly broad and diverse ways (e.g., criterial knowledge, improvement of our capacities of perception, rendering us more empathic and less egoistic, opening our minds to new ideas and values, and much more). In parallel ways, research through design is likely to achieve many of the same intellectual benefits.
My colleagues’ objection has helped me clarify that it is important to distinguish between those knowledge outcomes intentionally “baked into” a given RtD process as central to, even the point of, the research, and those knowledge outcomes that happen externally to such a research project. I’ve identified two categories of the latter: cognitive by-products of a design practice intended for some other purpose (e.g., to produce a good design), and subsequent critical discoveries, often made by third-parties.
I view it as a happy problem that RtD has such high potential to yield “surplus” knowledge outcomes, but less salutary that our theoretical and reporting vocabulary does not yet allow this community to do them justice.