Tuesday, May 17, 2005


art as design research

I finished John Thackara's In the Bubble over the weekend. If you are familiar with the Doors conferences, you know Thackara is a fan of the role artists can play in redefining design. He notes in his book:
Too many design methods can indeed limit innovation. Someone also has to provide aesthetic stimulus -- to throw wild ideas into the ring -- to provoke fresh thinking. Social critics and artists are good candidates for this role. Avant-garde media artists, in particular, intervene on issues of networks, the body, identity, and collaboration. Many of their ideas are exciting and insightful in a way that methods-driven solutions are not.

What is exciting for one person is wacky to another. I found many of the examples of artist-lead research Thackara cited in his book a bit under-whelming -- such as tracing the motions of pigeons in St. Mark's Square in Venice -- even when I could see, with some self-generated imagination, that some meaningfully beneficial results might someday be realized. That is the issue with any research done out of pure curiosity instead of need: seeing the benefits can be difficult, unless one has an intrinsic interest in the subject of the research.

For art to be useful as design research, it needs to go beyond personal expression. It must enable reflection about something with which a wide range of people can identify with personally. What can lose me are the numerous projects in the "design noir" vain, or "provocations" that aren't meant to improve anything, merely call attention to something the designer believes is distressing.

Utimately the value of art as a design tool rests in what we can say we have learned from a project that we didn't know previously, and what that knowledge suggests we might do differently that can positively improve the experience of people. The value of art to design is not that it is novel, it is that it is useful. Art does not need to be useful, but if isn't, it shouldn't be called an exciting source of design research.

We should also remember that art can sometimes offer benefits to design without pretending to be research. I am fascinated how the hobby of origami has triggered many insights into how to design solar panels and collapsible containers.

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