In this month’s Interactions magazine, there is an article I feel ambivalent about. It is Gaver and Höök’s “In Search of the Elusive CHI Design Paper“. I am ambivalent because there is much that I agree with and support, but at the same time some of its language–and practices it seems to support that I have seen and experienced–marginalizes research that I believe in and that I believe contributes to design.
The Article’s Argument
Gaver and Höök’s primary purpose is to address the problem that that not a lot of design papers are submitted to or get through the Design subcommittee of ACM SIGCHI. I think the authors’ desire to get more design papers (which I understand in the sense of reflecting the practices of design as a well established discipline) in CHI is one I share with the authors, so I have no objection to the primary purpose of this short article.
The authors further argue (1) that what is submitted to the design subcommittee reflects an over-broad understanding of design and (2) that design subcommittee submissions suffer from inappropriate reviewing standards applied to design.
Here is a key passage about (1):
We worry that Design is becoming something of a catch-all category at CHI. In many ways, it’s a good thing we provide a home for submissions that don’t fit easily into other categories, particularly papers that are risky, transdisciplinary, or unconventional. But all too often we encountered submissions that seemed better suited to one of the other subcommittees at CHI: Understanding Users, for example, or Interaction Techniques, Devices and Modalities. Why do these get sent to Design?
Of course, design has always been a difficult discipline to define. After all, we talk about interaction design, but also user interface design, or the design of computer architectures, or the design of data structures. For that matter, it is not unusual to hear that everybody is a designer—though we tend to agree with Bill Buxton’s rejoinder that if everybody who chooses their own clothes is a designer, then anybody who can count change is a mathematician.
Scoping design so broadly doesn’t seem useful to us. Instead, we think of design as involving certain skills and practices, including, for instance, planning and making finished artifacts, creative processes for reframing problems and developing design spaces, engagement with settings, material explorations, and an attention to aesthetics that seeks not just to make things beautiful but also to convey cultural identity, guide expectations, and shape a dynamic gestalt. Design in this sense may be pursued by individuals, teams, or collaborative groups; design work is increasingly distributed, outsourced, or left open for completion by end users. Nonetheless there is a family resemblance to design practices that Nigel Cross characterized as a way of thinking, involving synthetic, proactive approaches to understanding and shaping the world through artifacts. These are the sorts of practices developed through specialist courses and educational institutions, and though they can be pursued independently, it is important that they speak to those communities: Not everybody who makes something is a designer, and not all studies with relevance to design are design research.
[Full disclosure: As its authors note, the Interactions article reflects a discussion held in one of the design subcommittee’s groups; I was at that meeting where this was discussed.]