Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Do service design need researchers?

A friend passed on this post from Choosenick to me…

It was Nick March from Engine commenting on a research assisstant position in Lancaster University. In this post he claims two of his concerns about getting university doing 'research' project in service design, which then concerns me, as a researcher myself.

Nick says:

“Firstly, the project is labeled as 'research', but its principally a (service) design project. Design is different from research in that it explicitly seeks to change and improve existing things, whereas research aims to study and understand existing things. Of course the two activities are intimately related, and you can't do good design without good research first, but I believe that if one starts a project with the intent to change practice it's a design project, and as such should be led by designers. Which leads to my second concern about the project - it should be being run by a service design company, with experienced service designers planning and facilitating the 'participatory design workshops', not a university and a project team of academics.
This project is exactly the kind of work that we're doing at Engine, and that others such as livework and Thinkpublic are also pushing hard to develop practice and projects around. Why is a university, supported by taxpayers cash, pitching and running projects that commercial agencies can do (better)? Not to mention that all the approaches (including the founding principle of Design-led public service design) being 'researched' are borrowed from agencies such as ours. They should be researching us, not competing with us.”

The so called service design methodologies/ approaches such as literature review, case studies, interviews, video ethnography and participatory design workshops do NOT particularly belong to anyone, design companies or academia. The statement of claiming that researchers are borrowing approaches from agencies is almost arrogant. I have not yet come across any ethnographer saying that service designers should stop using their camera for observation.

Secondly, the definition of research that Nick is referring to is very narrow in terms of academic research. Using practice-lead research in the field of art and design has now been generally recognised as a way for researchers to gain knowledge as a practicing designer. ‘can't do good design without good research first’, I believe that Nick’s definition of research here refers to one of the preparation/diagnose stage in the designer process. However, research as academic research is a reasoning process that aims at achieving new knowledge and understanding what’s happening in real world at both/either applicable and theoretical levels. University research projects, although often cooperate with design practitioners, should not be simply understood as descriptive reflections on what practitioner do. Instead, researcher has the responsibility of formalising the knowledge generated by their own practices and then feed insights back to practitioners such as consultants to improve their performance. I would rather see this relationship as an evolving development that benefits both sides rather than a competition.

I know many service designers are/were in academia themselves. I hope that this pretty arrogant attitude towards academic research does not represent the general relationship between practitioners and researchers in the field of Service Design.

a little bit more reflection here over the continuing conversation in Nick's (great place!)...
It can be dangerous to put research and practice in a versus. The two are one in their natural, only different perspectives. What I alwasy appraciate about the Service Design community is that close and support relationship between academic and practice. I do want we keep this relationship and move on together for the development of this discipline for good.

Also... an interesting arcticle from this issue of International Journal of Design on 'Why Do We Need Doctoral Study in Design? ' by Meredith Davis. Good arguements there!

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