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PHD-DESIGN  March 2013

PHD-DESIGN March 2013


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Re: Writing Research Requires Words (or 'Let the Teapot Speak')


Lubomir Savov Popov <[log in to unmask]>


PhD-Design - This list is for discussion of PhD studies and related research in Design <[log in to unmask]>


Tue, 12 Mar 2013 15:22:45 -0400





text/plain (148 lines)

Dear colleagues,

The current thread exemplifies typical tensions between artists and critics/historians/theorists. Artists are the ones who can, and do it, the critics are the people who cannot do it and that is why they get verbal. That is a very old story. I have experienced it myself in several institutions, working as a designer or working as a researcher. I know both communities and their mentality. No problem. This is the real world and that is how it functions. In addition to this, contemporary universities with their tenure policies have put too much stress on the disciplines in-between the fine arts and the sciences. While artists can get a tenure with a dozen of national exhibitions, designers get into the gray area between art and science and often have to publish. That is why we periodically revive this issue on the discussion list.

I don't see a problem in doing research by design as long as the research part is inscribed within one of the contemporary paradigms. If you don't like positivism, there are a number of softer paradigms that we can use. Several paradigms accommodate very well "researching by doing" projects. However, this requires a lot of investment in appropriating a particular paradigmatic way of thinking. Many designers consider it a waste of time. I have heard that very often. 

For a long time I am sending messages that design and research are two different social institutions. Usually people do not like that. However, that is the reality and any attempt to subvert it might subvert both design and research. 

When I function as a researcher, I am on the "words" side. When we do research, even research by/through design, at some point of the process, we start reflecting and using abstractions. After this point of time, it is about abstract thinking, and naturally -- words.

Best wishes,

Lubomir Popov, Ph.D., FDRS
Interior Design Program
Bowling Green State University, Ohio, U.S.A.

-----Original Message-----
From: PhD-Design - This list is for discussion of PhD studies and related research in Design [mailto:[log in to unmask]] On Behalf Of Salisbury, Martin
Sent: Monday, March 11, 2013 2:17 PM
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Writing Research Requires Words (or 'Let the Teapot Speak')

Dear Ken,

Your typically erudite and lengthy manifesto is written very much along the lines of 'this is how it is' rather than 'here are my views' (I guess we are slipping back into the 'I am right, you are wrong' mode). The things that you disagree with or dispute, you generally refer to as 'mistakes'. You reassert eloquently opinions that you have asserted many times before.

As, I suspect, is the case with many subscribers, I wouldn't dare to challenge your authority. But I do wish to humbly put forward a few thoughts and questionsaround the many assumptions you appear to make about the primacy of the word in conveying knowledge. I was particularly conscious of this during recent discussions on this list which trawled around possible definitions of 'design' before going on to descend into debate around definitions of the word 'definition'. I appreciate that you are here referring specifically to 'research communications' and 'communicating research to the research field'. However, my views and observations are in the general context of the evolution of the PhD in the field of Art & Design and the growing focus on the nature of knowledge and 'knowing'.

Some time ago on this list, you elucidated on the subject of practice-led research:

"The terms "studio research," "artistic research," and "practice as research" also appear in this context, but these terms generally refer to work that avoidsarticulating or theorizing what emerges from the design activity or practice. Instead, the position associated with these terms suggests that activity or practice is itself a form of research and the resulting artifact is a research output. This is instantiated, for example, in the claim that a teapot, a toaster, or a piece of software might count as research. This also leads to the occasional claim that it should be possible to get a PhD for making a teapot, a toaster, or a piece of software, presenting the artifacttogether with a short essay incorrectly labeled as an exegesis."

As I see it, one great advantage of words over images and artifacts is that they can be used so easily and effectively to obscure as well as reveal truths (and in the case of some contributors to this list, to demand 'evidence' to support anything that they disagree with, whilst repeatedly failing to supply any to those who ask for the same). On the surface, it is difficult to dispute the factual correctness of the above statement. But by using examples such as teapots or toasters it is possible to suggest something slight or insubstantial and we can also generalise about 'short essays' as if to suggest that this is what is usually submitted in the case of a creative, practice-led PhD. We can also give theimpression that an artifact or design (or perhaps a very large body of working drawings and storyboards?) 'avoids articulating or theorizing'.

A few months back, during a periodic return to denouncement of Chris Frayling's early text on the possibilities of research into/ through/ for/ Art & Design, you were taken to task by another contributor for describing Frayling's document as a 'pamphlet'. Of course you were able to explain quite accurately that the publication was indeed a pamphlet by any definition of that word. The unsaid bit is of course that we will associate'pamphlet' once again with something slight or insubstantial. We can only speculate as to whether a similar sized publication which contained words that you thoroughly agreed with and approved of would also be referred to as a 'pamphlet'. Similarly, Frayling was described as an expert on spaghetti westerns, which indeed he is, among other things. But choosing this particular aspect of his work in order to tell us 'who Frayling is' allows us to infer that his ideas should not be taken seriously.

I am not suggesting that all of this smoke and mirrors is necessarily deliberate or conscious. But it tends to leave me confused as to why there should be such faith in the 'privileging' (I've been dying to use that word) of words over artifacts as reliable conveyors of knowledge.

In your recent post, you explain to Mattias Arvola that he has made a 'mistake' in describing the discussion around verbal and visual language as an age-old debate.

"The debate began when people with no research background and no publications found themselves required to deal with research issues. Those people did not understand the kinds of questions involved in research. Rather than learn about research, some decided to assert what research meant based on personal preferences or sheer ignorance. In that context, a significant number of people did not know the difference between communicating design outcomes and communicating research outcomes."

Is the unthinkable possible here, in that it may be you who has made a mistake and this debate does precede the merging of Art & Design institutions and polytechnics with universities? It may go back to and beyond Ben Shahn's exploration of the subject in his Charles Elliot Norton lectures given to students at Harvard in the late 1950s (in particular 'Artists in Colleges' and 'The Shape of Content'):

"For it is just such inexact knowing that is implicit in the arts. And actually I believe that it is toward this kind ofknowing that the classifications of the classroom reach, if sometimes unsuccessfully."
(Shahn, 1957)

An alternative interpretation of the issue of languages of design to that which you expound in your paragraph above mightperhaps go something like this?-

"The debate began when people with no practical art and design experience saw a tempting career opportunity at the time of the absorption of Art & Design institutions and polytechnics into universities. Those people did not understand the kinds of questions that are inherent in creative, practice-led thinking. Rather than learn about thinking and knowing through practice, and how best to disseminate that knowing, they took the easy career option and gained traditional academic PhDs, rather than seeking to establish clearly what 'research' and the PhD might mean in the context of creative practice."

You state (dare I say it, somewhat dogmatically):

"But images and objects alone cannot communicate the mental acts of research because they cannot describe the metanarrative of research."

Once again, is it possible that you have made a 'mistake'? Is it possible that detailed working drawings and storyboards may be able in certain contexts to communicate research outcomes far more effectively than words?

In the field of picturebooks, words and pictures are interdependent. In a successful picturebook, neither would normally make any sense when experienced without the other. In picturebook research, the term 'visual text' has become commonplace in relation to this multimodal form. Research through practice is, in my humble opinion, badly needed to offset some of the skewed research of those generating theory 'from outside'.

Another version of your paragraph in the context of the above might be:

"But words alone cannot communicate the mental acts of research because they cannot describe the metanarrative of research."

You say:

"Many research reports require images and illustrations."

Well of course they do! But it is important to distinguish between 'illustrations' that are designed to clarify the words and illustrations that are part of the research itself.

It's time to listen to the teapot, Ken!

Professor Martin Salisbury
Director, The Centre for Children's Book studies Course Leader, MA Children's Book Illustration Cambridge School of Art
0845 196 2351



The Twelve Dancing Princesses, illustrated by Sheila Robinson- now available from our online store:



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