Research Interests

Research Interests:
-       Design Practice and Design Activity
-       Conventional, Digital & Hybrid Design Tools
-       Design Embodiment, Representation & Communication
-       Design Process

My research explores the industrial designer’s use of digital, conventional and hybrid design tools in support of studio practice. The term ‘design tool’ refers to the media and processes through which the designer embodies and communicates design intent; sketching and drawing, models and prototypes for example. ‘Design activity’ is defined as the purposeful use of tools in the exploration of the design problem through the generation of solution ideas as design embodiments. The designer’s studio practice is the context of design activity as practice itself is influenced by the responsibilities and requirements of the design process.

Research explores the appropriation and use of design tools within education by student designers of difference backgrounds and in industry by practitioners located within different working cultures and disciplines. Research has generated data on the ways in which attitudes towards design activity and tool use are influenced by the designer’s background and working culture. Findings have suggested the ways in which experience of practice informs the designer’s approach to design activity and tool use (Self et al 2009). Results indicate a relationship between limited design experience, design fixation and attachment to concept, compounded through the use of some tools and arising from a limited awareness of a rich context of tool use (Self et al 2011). Implications for the character of design activity and the nature of studio practice have been identified.

Key Research Benefits
-  Through awareness of contextual influences, supports a best practice approach to tool use
-  Outcomes used in teaching to help designers understand and critically analyse tool use
-  Benefit to industry and those responsible for the development of CAD systems
-  Contributes to shift in research from a focus on design tools to consider influence of tool-user

Research Questions
Research questions include but are not limited to:
1.       What is the nature of the influence of working culture and background on approaches to design    activity and tool use?
2.       What common ground and differences exist in approaches to design activity and tool use in education between institutions and industry?
3.       What is the nature of the relationship between design experience and working culture and approaches to design activity and tool use?

Research Aim
The research aims to generate empirical data to contribute to understanding of the underlying issues, narratives and principles that inform designer attitudes towards design activity and the use of design tools. It takes as a starting point the hypothesis:

Designer attitudes towards activity and tool use are influenced by context of tool use and that context is affected by working culture and established norms.

With an increasing variety of emergent and established conventional, digital and hybrid tools available to the design practitioner, the research continues to be a timely contribution to knowledge. Findings contribute to developing a more holistic understanding of the rich and often complex activity of design, mediated through the use of design tools. The research supports students of design by developing a more critical awareness and understanding of the principles and contexts that underpin design activity and tool use. This helps design students and practitioners reflect upon their own approaches to design activity and make more critical, informed decisions when using design tools to support their studio practice.

Literature on design tools often provides anecdotal evidence and case study examples of tool use during design activity (Haller & Cullen 2004, Hudson 2008, Eissen & Steur 2010, Olofsson & Sjolen 2006, Pipes 2007). These examples are useful as a description of how various design tools are used to support design activity in individual design projects. They describe a relationship between tool use and the responsibilities and requirements of the project; from an open and explorative conceptual stage to detail design and specification for manufacture. They are effective in citing individual examples of tool use but are of less use in explaining the underlying principles that exist to inform the character of design activity and tool use (Self et al 2009a): the nature of the tool-in-hand as influence on design activity; the designer’s idiosyncratic approach to design activity and tool use; and contextual influences as they relate to both the design process and established working conventions.
Other work has taken a more holistic approach. Tovey (1997, 2000, 2003) explored the use of sketching and CAD tools during the design process, suggesting CAD systems, used to support concept development, must take account of the effectiveness of sketching as a design tool critical to design activity. Visser (2005) makes a case for the study of design practice by focusing on the construction of design representations. Goldsmitch et al (1992, 1994, 1997, 2004, 2006) explores the ways in which digital CAD technologies have had implications for design practice, discussing CAD’s limitations for design exploration when compared to sketching. Lawson (2006) goes further in his criticism of CAD’s effectiveness in support of a conceptual and explorative design activity. Evoking Schon’s (1983) influential work on design as reflection-in/on-action, Lawson describes the use of CAD as amounting to a, ‘halted conversation’ with the embodiment of design intent (Op cit). Johnson (2005) however, in a study exploring the use of design tools during conceptual design, indicates the use of CAD may be more prevalent than is often supposed.
More recently developments have seen the emergence of hybrid design tools which attempt to allow the kinds of explorative design activity seen during sketching and sketch modelling through a digital medium. Dorta’s et al (2008) prototype Hybrid Ideation Space attempts to support the more intuitive and exploratory design activity of sketching through a digital tablet while providing the user with an immersive representation of design intent via large digital screens. Claytools’ haptic force feedback devices allow the feedback of haptic and tactile interact with 3D digital geometry, although the limitations of this interaction where outlined by Evans et al (2004). The use of Digital graphics tablets have become established in practice. However, Faber (2009) identified the ways in which their use has implications for the character of the design activity that relates to ‘un-do’ and ‘re-do’ functionality.

Less work has been undertaken to explore relationships between the designer, tool-in-hand and the influential contexts of tool use. A notable exception is Stolterman et al’s (2008) ‘Tool-in-Use’ model that locates the designer and design tool within a relationship that informs the embodiment of design intent. Similarly Stella and Melles (2010) take a more holistic approach, through the use of activity theory (Engestrom et al 1999), to explore the factors that underpin tool use and design practice. Likewise, Visser (2006) proposes the more holistic exploration of design through investigating of the ways in which activity is defined by the construction of representations.

Research Methods
The research takes a qualitative approach to the generation of data through interviews, focus groups and survey and protocol analysis (Self 2011, 2009). An adapted model of activity theory is being used as a framework to explore design activity and tool use (Self 2011). From this perspective, activity is defined by co-dependent relationships between the subject (tool-user), the mediating tool and the object of an activity (Engestrom et al 1999). The theory describes activity as located within a social-cultural context that influences these relationships. Research explores design activity through the canon of an adapted model of activity theory (Figure 1), continuing to adapt and develop activity theory as a framework for the exploration of design practice.

The adapted model (Figure 1) illustrates tool mediated design activity within its top half: the relationship between ‘Subject (Practitioner)’, ‘Object (embodiment)’ and ‘Mediating Tool (design tool)’ and how these converge to influence the character of activity at the ‘Point of Design Activity’. The character of activity is described as the extent to which activity may be defined as supporting certain universal characteristics of design activity (Character of Design Activity). The lower half reflects the influential wider contexts within which the design activity locates: cultural norms and working conventions, the responsibilities and requirements of the design process from concept design to designed specification.

Figure 1 Model of industrial design activity and tool use (adapted from activity theory)
Research has identified and synthesised a number of characteristics of design activity, used in the exploration of designer attitudes towards activity and tool use (Self et al 2009b). Design activity may be described in terms of the extent to which it is defined by the following characteristics:

-       More or less ambiguity in the embodiment of design intent
-       Movement from one idea to a variation on the same idea (Vertical Transformation)
-       Movement from one idea to another, new idea (lateral transformation)
-       More or less commitment to design intent
-       More or less detail in design intent
-       The nature of reflection-in/on-action
-       Divergent, explorative, iterative, concept
-       Convergent, focused, detail

The research contributes to a deeper knowledge and understanding of the principles that exist to inform approaches to design activity and tool use.

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