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PHD-DESIGN  2000

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Subject:

Returning to the Cannon

From:

David Sless <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

David Sless <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 10 Oct 2000 02:57:40 +1000

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The questions raised by Rosan about the cannon deserve some further
discussion. I have been pondering how we might move forward. Here are some
thoughts that might help.

I'm going to use an example which has been on my mind a lot recently because
our Institute was contracted by a government regulatory agency a few months
ago to do a literature review on labelling design and neither we nor the
agency that commissioned us were particularly happy with the outcome, though
for different reasons. The agency were unhappy because after month of work,
way over the original deadline, we failed to come up with the type of
information or arguments they wanted or thought they might get from such a
review: information and arguments that would justify a particular regulatory
policy. We too were unhappy for two reasons that were quite different.
First, much of the research we read was of poor quality or of little value
to labelling design. It failed to meet quite straight forward and widely
agreed text book standards of good research design. For example, many
studies used surveys to collect data but the survey instruments‹-the
questionaires‹-were developed without proper pilot testing and refinement
prior to the survey proper. Other methodlogical weaknesses abounded. Really
quite depressing, particularly as many of the research papers we looked at
were published in peer reviewed journals. Moreover, the studies that were
left‹‹the handfull of studies that followed rigorous
methodologies‹‹contributed only some marginal insights into the topic of
labelling design. This then brought us to the second reason for our
unhappiness. Through our research we had discovered that there was no
substantial evidence from any source that could be used as a sound basis for
developing the regulation of label design in this particular area. This, of
course, did not prevent many people with strong interests in the area having
equally strong views on how labels should be designed.

Why is this relevant to the question of a cannon? Well, in a sense what we
had done was to discover that there was no cannon in the field in which we
were asked to investigate. This is not an unusual experience in advanced
research work. This has happened to me and to many other researchers many
times over. And I am quite excited about this 'discovery'. But the first
time it happened to me was quite scary and disorientating. I think I felt
much like Rosan when she said:
>While I was listening to the discussion, I felt like
>I was standing on a crossroad. But if I want to get somewhere, I need a point
>of a departure. I fee l a need to make a decision into which ideas I should
>buy, without a decision I can never find out if I am right or wrong, or worse,
>I can't change my mind. I need a canon!
My frighting experience and nervousness came when, as part of my Masters, I
finished a comprehensive review of all the research on symbol design and
found nothing that touched on the kind of questions I was asking. I remember
coming out of the main University Library in Birmingham having just finished
goingthrough, yet again,  the full set of Psychological Abstracts and
feeling frustrated, guilty and uneasy. Surely, I thought, someone must have
asked these questions before. It's just that I'm probably stupid or worse,
not diligent enough to have found the right references. I've been looking in
the wron place! It was many years later that I discovered a small and
scattered community of people who were asking the same questions as I was,
and who had found no cannon to guide them. It was only then that I realised
that our little community had actually done something quite original and
important. We had asked a new question. This, I believe, is the nature of
research.

Now design as an formalised area of research is, relatively speaking, quite
new. This does not mean that design itself is new nor that many of the
questions designers and design researchers ask are in themselves new. But
there is no organised corpus of 'knowledge' of any agreed kind because
we--the community of designers and design researchers--haven't created it
yet.

Returning briefly to my labelling research. One of the things we had to do
as we went through the many studies was to sort them into two piles: those
that we rejected and those that we kept. But every time we rejected a study
we forced ourselves to ask why? What were our reasons for the rejection. As
we went through this process we gradually began to articulate the criteria
we were using so that by the end of the process we had created a set of
criteria that we could apply not only to studies in this area of information
design but to many other areas. In other words we had not found a cannon but
we had defined the criteria that would enable us to select a cannon if such
a work arose. This is not to suggest that we have come up with the
definitive answer for all times. Rather, we have created a set of
intellectual tools that we can use in our limited little corner of the
world, for our limited little purposes. To hopelessly mix metaphors and
puns, I am suggesting that no cannon should extend further than you can
shoot it!

So, in a round about way to return to the cannon question Rosan, I would
suggest that you pick a limited number of design texts. Include some you
agree with, some you disagree with, and some you just feel uneasy about.
Work your way through them and note what you agree or disagree with and ask
yourself why? Then comes that hard, but extremely enjoyable work of
articulating the why and looking for support and precdents for your point of
view. You will, of course change your views as you progress, and you will
ask questions and look for answers. In the end what matters is your
articulated point of view and the evidence and argumants you offer in
support. You will look at design from a unique point of view, that is not
only unavoidable but the most important contribution you make to the field.
Articulating your point of view will help the rest of us by providing us
with some new perspectives on our own limited points of view. That's part of
what doing a PhD or any kind of original research is all about. Welcome to
the community of confused and occasionally frightened people who also get
excited when we discover our collective ignorance.

David   

  
-- 
Professor David Sless
Director
Communication Research Institute of Australia
** helping people communicate with people **

PO Box 398 Hawker
ACT 2614 Australia

Mobile: 0412 356 795

phone: +61 (0)262 598 671
fax:   +61 (0)262 598 672
web:   http://www.communication.org.au





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