Design Researchers Need a Shared Program, Not a Divorce

In a 2017 paper, Forlizzi, Koskinen, Hekkert, and Zimmerman called for a “divorce” between “pragmatic” and “critical” threads of “constructive design research” or CDR. At DIS 2018, they have a workshop around the theme of the paper. (Full disclosure: they invited me and my frequent coauthor Shaowen Bardzell to co-organize it, which we would have gladly done, but for a schedule conflict. This blog post represents what I at least might have brought to the workshop. Also: I personally know and am on good terms with three of that paper’s authors; the fourth–Paul Hekkert–I have not had the opportunity to meet, but I admire and teach his work. This commentary is appreciative of the authors’ goals but constructively critical of some of the individual arguments.)

Summary: Forlizzi et al.’s “Divorce” Paper

Forlizzi et al.’s argument in the original paper is that these two forms of constructive design research have different epistemic stances and purposes, and that the research community confuses them. Much of the basis of their proposal comes from assertions about problems in peer reviewing. Specifically, they argue that critical researchers reject pragmatic papers because they feel these papers “are too applied and don’t take intellectual risks,” while pragmatic design researchers reject critical design research because they “look for pragmatic relevance from work that should be judged based on the quality of polemic it produces.”

Much of the paper is devoted to an account of the differences between pragmatic and critical approaches to CDR, characterized in both historical and epistemic terms. Pragmatic approaches include design research in the Lab and Field models spelled out in an earlier book by two of the same authors of this paper. Common to this work is that pragmatic design researchers “attempt to make a specific and explicit change in the world by producing knowledge researchers and practitioners can apply in future work.” Pragmatic design often works closely with social science and engineering to pursue its ends.

Critical Design (CD) in contrast is “avant-gardest” and emphasizes “political critique.” It “uses strategies such as hyperbole or irony to communicate a point that is disconnected from the artifact that has been designed.” CD “rejects science and prioritizes artistic expression” and “devalues interpretative social science in design.”

The authors’ primary recommendation is a little bit counter-intuitive:

We feel the time has come to ask for a divorce between pragmatic CDR and CD. Conflict is counterproductive for any research community. Developing two sets of objectives, goals, and knowledge outcomes for each approach should reduce the number of inappropriately rejected papers.

I say “counter-intuitive” because invoking the language of “divorce” is an unusual approach to conflict resolution–more on that in a moment.

Reactions: I’m a Stranger Here, Myself

I take the authors to be suggesting with some hyperbole (i.e., the “divorce” metaphor) that the design community needs to make better distinctions between different sorts of research. I can certainly go along with that. Such an agenda could be extremely beneficial for the community, and I was happy to see this group make the effort. Even so, there are several aspects of this paper that undercut its intended ability to mitigate conflict in the community.

Above all, I find the language of “divorce” unhelpful. I understand that it is deliberately provocative. Even so, the language of “divorce” suggests irreconcilable differences and an attempt to permanently sever ties. It goes far beyond saying “let’s try to build some consensus about some meaningful distinctions.” It tacitly seems to deny the epistemological commitments, practices, and goals shared across design research. It foregrounds the pain that we sometimes inflict on each other and invites us to turn away from each other. Like a Freudian slip, this figure of speech says more than it means to.

My second concern is that the paper’s characterization of critical design is at times ungenerous. The claim that CD rejects science is simply wrong. The Menstruation Machine was partly the result of Sputniko!’s long-term collaboration with a medical researcher, for example. The claim that CD devalues interpretative social science also makes no sense to me, given, say, the roles of interpretative social science within design deployments, the interpretation of cultural probes, or the extensive use of the likes of Foucault and Shusterman throughout the community. That CD allegedly seeks to “communicate a point” separate from design artifacts makes little sense given the difficulty of paraphrasing any CD, and given the attention to artifacts and their presentation that Dunne and Raby and many others have emphasized.

Further, the paper’s structural assertion of an opposition between critical design and “pragmatic” design seems to exclude CD from pragmatic outcomes, which is a pretty damning characterization of any design practice. The idea that “producing knowledge researchers and practitioners can apply in future work” is a distinguishing feature of pragmatic design implies that CD either doesn’t produce knowledge or that no one can apply that knowledge in the future. This makes no sense to me: if many of us didn’t apply what we learned from Dunne and Raby’s early work into our own design research, there would be no need for the divorce paper in the first place. I’d be fine with a more nuanced argument to the effect that CD pursues different forms of practicality than other design approaches (and then to specify what they are), but to set criticality and pragmatism in opposition seems to deny the profound inseparability of critical thinking and pragmatic pursuits. I’d add that I see criticality throughout Hekkert and van Dijk’s Vision in Design (VID), in Koskinen’s subtle and intelligent use of interpretivist theory, and in Forlizzi and Zimmerman’s extensive body of design work in research through design, so I think separation along a critical/pragmatic divide doesn’t help anyone.

The view of CD offered in the paper is also painted with too broad a brush. The authors lump Dunne and Raby, design fictions, Shaowen and my work, Gaver’s oeuvre, and much more into a single category, and they let (early) Dunne and Raby speak for that whole category. One problem is that many of us have actually been critiquing Dunne and Raby’s earlier formulation of CD (and to be fair, Dunne and Raby have evolved quite a bit from that as well). Shaowen and I do not, for example, view CD as about polemics and debates; we argue instead for critical appreciation. In fact our overriding goal in our research on critical design was to argue that “criticality” is a much wider and richer concept in general than it is in Dunne and Raby’s practice, especially in the Design Noir era. Blythe’s work on design fictions is playful and at times intentionally absurdist; with them, he creates surprising openings to possible futures, introducing both diegetic prototypes and also the new embodied performances (including the performance of research) that they imply. Gaver’s work has a much more overt research emphasis than Dunne and Raby’s does, features empirical methods via design deployments, and for Gaver the artifact actually is the point (otherwise annotated portfolios make no sense). Further, Gaver has been very clear for years that he does not want his work to be seen as critical design at all. His reasons for saying so are important and interesting, even if one sees affinities between his practice and (some construal of) CD. In sum, I don’t recognize myself in this account of critical design, nor do I recognize many others grouped in this article as doing CD.

In metaphorical divorce as in real life divorce, the first move is to turn our partners into strangers.

One last point: Assertions to the effect that “peer reviewers reject papers because X” and that reviewers use “the wrong lens” should be treated with skepticism. At the present time, and for whatever reasons, our community does not allow sharing of reviews. There is therefore no evidentiary basis to talk about what goes on in reviews in our community. Given how biased we all are at characterizing why our work is rejected (whether by ourselves or via subcommittee groupthink), I think we should just avoid basing any research or theory work on such characterizations altogether.

Recommendation: Let’s Build on What We Share

Getting papers accepted is not the goal of design research. I agree as a community we have problems and needless conflicts, but I view paper acceptance issues as a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself.  I’d propose reframing the problem as follows:

We all believe in the importance of design research and yet we recognize that we are failing to build well on each other’s work; we are bogging ourselves down in needless conflicts; we are thereby failing to achieve the potential of design research; and in the end we are failing to to help the wider community see the excellence in what we are doing.

From such a framing, it is still easy to agree with quite a bit of what Forlizzi et al. are arguing. Of course I think it is worthwhile to develop theory that proposes meaningful distinctions between different design practices. Of course I don’t think that everything should be critical design (however defined) or judged on its terms. Of course I think there needs to be space for design research that is about, say, the development of new design concepts for LED lighting, without needing to offer an ironically dystopian take on late capitalism. Of course I think the melodrama in the design research community–the conflicts and fights–is counterproductive.

Above all, I agree that we need to develop the right distinctions and the right reviewing criteria for different strands of design research. But I think we should do so by working together in a project of mutual sympathy based on what we share, which is quite a lot. A child can easily distinguish a sonnet from a haiku, but she can also see that both are poetry. Researchers using activity theory and others using distributed cognition might have wildly different theoretical and methodological commitments, but they can both contribute to the CSCW project.

Design researchers, too, share a project. We have much in common that is not equally shared by other subcommunities under the HCI umbrella:

  • We believe that designing can be a form of research, that design artifacts can be knowledge-bearing, and that verbal discourse can help us develop, disseminate, and apply that knowledge
  • We share a sense of what constitutes design history (e.g., Arts and Crafts, Bauhaus,  streamline design, conceptual design, participatory design, etc.) and that informs our work
  • We share a sense of design professions (e.g., architecture, product design, industrial design, fashion, communications design) as well as a commitment to learn from them
  • We share design practices, methods, and foci (e.g., meaning and form, design materials, aesthetic craftsmanship, design crits, etc.)
  • We share an intellectual and theoretical vocabulary (e.g., wicked problems, problem framing vs. solving, back-talk, reflective practice)

Perhaps if we situate different design research practices in this shared history, rather than in opposition to each other without any context, we can better understand as a community where the most important distinctions and overlaps are. Rather than competing groups of researchers asserting by fiat that there are two types of design research, we could instead collectively construct an account that offers more nuance; it could provide everyone with a language in which to legitimate their stances, methods, and goals; and it holds out the promise of high buy-in throughout the community.

But we can only pursue such a project together.


  1. Erik Stolterman

    Thanks Jeff for a very thoughtful post. This opens up to dialog and conversation in the meaning of the words.

  2. Erik Stolterman Bergqvist

    Hi Jeff Great text. I can not agree more with your approach and your arguments for how these types of scholarly discussions should be. A filed like ours can not afford internal “divorces”, it is pointless and unproductive. This morning I wrote a small comment about our field on my blog too. Not related to this.

    Thanks Erik

    *—————————————————Erik Stolterman Bergqvist*

    On Wed, Apr 11, 2018 at 9:40 AM, Interaction Culture wrote:

    > jeffreybardzell posted: “In a 2017 paper, Forlizzi, Koskinen, Hekkert, and > Zimmerman called for a “divorce” between “pragmatic” and “critical” threads > of “constructive design research” or CDR. At DIS 2018, they have a workshop > around the theme of the paper. (Full disclosure: they” >

  3. Marc Hassenzahl

    I fully agree that the picture of a “divorce” is unhelpful here. Full disclosure: Luckily, I am not cited by the paper as proponent of one or the other side (to most I am still the bloody reductionist) and I wasn’t asked to join in. Division would result in homogenous subcultures, admiring each other and the work of some alleged stars of the field and would amplify the trouble for people that try to get the best out of the available approaches. The reviews we (my group) get are already riddled with this. For example, I wrote a paper with a rather poetic, critical, introduction followed by a quantitative experimental evaluation of our proposal. Half of the reviewers found the data good but the introduction unscientific, the other half loved the introduction but found the number unpoetic. “Divorcing” approaches is doing this, and we need to reconcile rather than create ever smaller, homogenous boxes of blue-print approaches populated by only a few. In a way the 2×2-ANOVA-experiments bemoaned by Greenberg and Buxton a while ago on CHI are an example of this “give-me-a-box-and-let-me-live”-approach. There is also a political reason to object. At the end, I hope the colleagues will forgive me if they stumble across this, it is all a quite unhealthy power game. Of course, we all want to define what REAL design-oriented research is – imagine you become the center of a tribe, how good would that feel. This is a very old game. I remember times, when I had to quote Don Norman’s Emotional Design whenever I started a paper, which was about emotions and experience. Later it became Wright and McCarthy when it was about experiences. Gaver when it is about design in our community. And imagine, you don’t mention the Dutch colleagues when it is about Aesthetics of Interaction. You know, at the end of the day, research has impact if it is clear, providing something helpful – be it good examples, reasonable models, tools to structure and help along, good summaries, clear arguments. Creating homogenous echo rooms is not helpful.

    • jeffreybardzell

      You write, “research has impact if it is clear, providing something helpful – be it good examples, reasonable models, tools to structure and help along, good summaries, clear arguments.”

      But papers are only clear and helpful if there is a community that finds them so; they cannot be clear and helpful in an abstract or universal way. As was evident in our spring experience together, our broader community has microcommunities that do not see these epistemic virtues the same way. This is probably why you appear as a “bloody reductionist” to some, why one half or the other of a poetic and quantitative paper was incomprehensible to reviewers (there are feminist quantitative social scientists who face the same problem), and why our community still seems collectively unable to find consensus about ethnographic design papers.

      And what you’re calling a “power game” I read more generously as people working in good faith but constrained/empowered by their own epistemic commitments, yearning for but falling short of a common ground.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s