Design, academia, design academia: interfaces and intelligibilities

It’s striking how few of the names identified with academic writing about design — people who speak at academic conferences, write peer-reviewed papers for journals destined for libraries able to pay expensive subscriptions, and publish learned books with publishers like Berg — make any effort to seek and address wider audiences.

If academics are (or are supposed to be) first-rate thinkers, then their participation in public discussions is vital. Naturally, this requires a willingness to exchange ideas, as well as the versatility to engage in commentary, analysis and speculation outside the immediate area of one’s specialist research.


(The flipside of this empire of closely monitored, university-level research is the failure of professional, non-academic design publications and organizations to build more bridges to academia and to try to prize open its knowledge-bank. The tenacious habit of design-hero navel-gazing at international design conferences does the field no credit. Why aren’t there more presentations by researchers with penetrating ideas and new findings?)

via The Closed Shop of Design Academia: Observatory: Design Observer.


I am really interested in this idea of design academia as a “closed shop” because my own work tries to take objects of study that are often exclusive to design academia, such as design processes, design thinking, and designed spaces and products, and to apply methods from my training in the humanities to think about design within broader histories of science and technology. The project actually materialized (and continues to do so) through a series of encounters I had as a non-design academic with the design process itself (during a summer training program I did at the Harvard GSD) and then later with other design academics in the course of my research and attending conferences.

What I discovered as I was learning to do design, and through observing how designers thought and worked, was that a lot of areas that have received significant conceptual development in fields with which I am most familiar, including critical theory, anthropology, and gender studies, were being explored through design work. However, because there was not an awareness of this outside conceptualization, the development of ideas within the designs themselves was not very rigorous. At the same time, the design process and design education engaged in a multimodal and iterative development of ideas about spatiality and interface that were sorely needed in the humanities and social sciences, even after the so-called “spatial turn.”

One of the consequences of the “closed shops” of design academia, non-design academia, and maybe even the design world itself more broadly, is that we are all always reinventing the wheel. We write about objects of study across disciplines but we do not do much to develop methodologies and epistemologies. More importantly, we miss out on building these together. Interdisciplinarity in the sense of, for example, applying ethnographic methods to study something and then applying this knowledge to design is one such missed opportunity. In the course of applying a method to an non-traditional object of study, researchers also develop ideas about what counts as evidence, who is important to include in the study, and what the stakes of such knowledge production are. Very rarely does this get elaborated in a way that is recognized as contributing to a separate and specific field of research. Instead, it is one discipline instrumentalizing the other.

I have been really interested in my encounters with design academia, which seems to derive its interests and standards of rigor from the design world. We read many of the same theorists, though with a different focus and different ideas of what is even an important area to explore. But how many humanities scholars, trained in disciplines like history, literature, or philosophy, actually teach in design academia? How many design students learn about issues like social justice or privilege from academics whose training has focused on the developments in areas like gender studies, critical race theory, or historical materialism? On the other side of this is that in the humanities, it would be truly rare (and perhaps even illegible) to have a design academic teaching these subjects, even though design and spatiality are so central to the materialization of social inequality in our world.

There are, of course, some successful exceptions. For instance, Leslie Kanes Weisman, a pioneer in feminist architectural theory, taught a class on the social history of housing in women’s studies at MIT. Weisman is an interesting figure for me because her work is rooted in the intersection between social justice and the built environment, thinking broadly about how the design of space is an agent of segregation or inclusion. She not only is well read in feminist theory, but also acts as a major contributor to this theoretical frame through her work and scholarship (see, for example, her book, Discrimination by Design: A Feminist Critique of the Man-Made Environment). I am struck by how easily Weisman’s work fits into the grids of intelligibility of both the design world and my corner of academia. Her work is an elegant example of the accessible bridges between design academia and its “outside” called for by Rick Poynor in the article quoted above.

Another example is my own work and teaching, which, as I describe in my teaching philosophy, is based on methods I learned in design training and pedagogy. These methods are very much needed in any kind of accessible humanities classroom if we are to teach students to be critical thinkers who can engage with the world outside of the classroom and develop capacity for modes of interaction beyond the textual. Incorporating actual design projects into teaching traditional gender studies concepts, such as feminist critiques of the public/private dichotomy, unpaid domestic labor, intersectionality, and social segregation does not just expose students to another way of doing things. It is a cognitive process of engaging with materials and ideas iteratively and through collective theory building. This is kind of what I envision for future collaborations between design academia and non-design academia.

These are difficult bridges to build. In the classroom, my students are not entrenched designers or really even academics in the same sense that I am, as most of them are in their first year of college. It is easy to frame things in such a course in this interdisciplinary way. It is more difficult to do this with those of us who are rooted in our disciplinary practices (or even interdisciplinary ones–interdisciplinarity between the humanities and social sciences is still very different than interdisciplinarity between the humanities and design studies).

These differences have to do with academic cultures and epistemological practices. For example, citational practices and the status of evidence are different across these disciplinary grids. I have heard architects and architecture students, even those who are not academics, name-drop Derrida, Foucault, and Deleuze as if these figures have central theses that are easily identifiable and synonymous with their names, or that these theses do not need to be addressed critically or evaluated in any way. I get this — the development of ideas around the work of these figures is outsourced to the fields – such as philosophy or critical theory – that are most focused on such developments. At the same time, there is significant theory-building based on these figures in applied humanities disciplines, like literature, in interdisciplinary fields of study, such as women’s and gender studies, and in social sciences like anthropology. In these fields and disciplines, the citational norm is not to just invoke figures like Derrida, Foucault, and Deleuze as deliverers of nuggets of truth, but also to engage with them, read them critically, provide evidence of the rigor of certain readings, etc.

I am in no way suggesting that design academia is lacking in rigor in any way. In fact, in my experience, it has elegantly rigorous methods for developing ideas that are no doubt influenced on the design profession’s practices of iteration and problem solving through interactions with materiality, diagrammatics, and technology. What I do worry about, though, is that the outsourcing of ideas development to other fields, and perhaps also the re-invention of the wheel with certain methods of engaging with theoretical texts, leaves missed opportunities for the mutual development of ideas about the contributions to theory that are made by design itself. This is where it gets difficult–if architecture students, for example, only ever read Foucault’s architecturally-relevant work but not his work on genealogy and historical epistemology, or the histories of madness, criminality, and medical knowledge, they can only have a lop-sided understanding of his oeuvre, leaving out methodological possibilities for thinking about history. I identify the converse of this as true in the humanities. We do not talk about Foucault and space much beyond the Panopticon and heterotopias. We do not often have the architectural and geographic language and skills – tools we would develop through education in design practice and design academia – to even critically engage with these concepts.

My project looks at Universal Design, disability access, and assistive technology within milieus that become intelligible through the frame of the history and philosophy of science as a way of addressing the difficulties of cross-disciplinary discourse. I am interested in this at two levels. First, what can my study, using a science studies framework, illuminate for scholars interested in UD (in design studies or in fields like disability studies)? Second, within the phenomenon of UD itself, how did the development of a scientific research paradigm, through environmental design research and user-centered design, make intelligible concerns like disability, embodiment, and aging that were previously in the domains of perception of medicine and gerontology rather than design?

It really is turtles all the way down when it comes to intelligibility. The first thing we can do to bring our separate academic spheres out from behind closed doors is to recognize one another through a peep hole, no matter how distorted this may make our images. It seems the task is not only that initial moment of viewing, however, but also finding one another relevant — worthy of serving as evidence of broader phenomenon and equally worthy of serving as methodological models for studies that cross borders between design academia and the humanities.

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