How I learned Design Research and How I Teach it (Part 1)

There are countless articles and mailing lists debates about what is design and what is design research out there. This will not summarize these debates, nor is it an attempt to reconcile these views. It is a couple of observations on how I turned to ethnography, preparing a design research course at University of Sussex, my experiences as a designer turned academic and as committee member of a support and networking group for French design PhD students. I have read and taken part to many epistemological, etymological, historical and methodological debates about design research, but I am simply hoping this can provide some insights on design research as people and practices, a world, in reference to Howard Becker, as I have experienced it.

Part 1: A path from designer to academic;
Part 2: Becoming an ethnographer;
Part 3: A network for French Design PhD students: sticking together through diverse PhD program requirements;
Part 4: Establishing a design research course at University of Sussex.

It all started during two recent exchanges, one with Dr Shannon Mattern on Twitter, another with Dr Bess Williamson. Dr Mattern was inquiring about the differences between ethnography and design ethnography, given how many ethnographers are interested by the material, designed, world. Dr Williamson was asking me about how we do design research at University of Sussex, and how and where I managed to fit. It is also rooted in my first introduction to design research, by Dr Jean-Baptiste Labrune, at EnsadLab. Instead of trying to define it from scratch, he had us (Louis Eveillard, Dr Pauline Gourlet, Dr Jeremy Boy, soon-to-be-Dr Max Mollon, Ferdinand Dervieux and Jérémie Lasnier) researching who says they are doing design research, what they do and who supports them. This approach, I think, has the additional benefit to demystify design research, and widen its access. From my point of view, these endless debates about whether design research can be based on a shared set of methods and the differences in organisation around the world has a very concrete consequence: it makes it harder to understand and enter the field. So here is the path I took from design to academia.

Part 1: A path from designer to academic

I graduated from a master in typographic and editorial design in Brussels in 2012. This master had no course on design methods or on writing. I did write very bad essays, but did not, for instance, engaged with any academic literature beyond Art as Experience by Dewey, and The Cyborg Manifesto by Haraway, which I turned into a book for my graduate project (see above). I was working as a web designer and developer (which would nowadays be called UX/UI design and front-end engineering) since 2010, dabbling in brand design (another way of saying that I asked way too little money for the work I was doing and the skillset I had). In 2012, I did my last internship with Dr Clarisse Bardiot at Subjectile. Dr Bardiot is an Associate Professor, and it seemed like a cool job, with lots of freedom and requiring to keep learning.

In 2013, I moved to Paris to attend the post-graduate design program of the National School of Decorative Arts (Ensad), a branch called EnsadLab. I had no idea what the program or design research entailed but Louis Eveillard and Etienne Mineur were participating in the program and doing some really cool stuff (they still do). Paris seemed to be a lot more interesting place for designers than Brussels. I remember in particular wanting to attend the *Di*/zain events and to understand what was this User Experience thing everyone seemed to be talking about over there. Hackathons were also booming, and it felt frustrating not being able to join this community, to feel like Brussels was so far on the margins. I am not claiming this was objective. Brussels had and has a thriving digital arts community, many graphic design studios, and Belgium has funded many design programs (such as Wallonie Design and the Kikk Festival).

In late 2013, as I was contemplating doing a PhD in design, the advice I received from my (then future) PhD supervisor, Dr Annie Gentès, was to move either to the UK or to the US. Here is a first thing about design research: French researchers feel like it is not well-established there or in other French-speaking countries (see also the first paragraph of the eponym wikipedia article). Indeed scholarship on design in France comes from a network of individuals with weak or medium links, not from a well-identified discipline with a department in each (or at least many) university. The explanation I was given then is that design and arts schools largely depending from the Minister of Culture (and not of Higher Education), but arts and design schools are often independent from Universities in the UK and the US as well. Anyway, I digress.

So, with the idea of doing a PhD., and the will to stay in France to do so, I started searching for funding early 2014. I knew one thing for certain, I did not want to do a PhD. without a fellowship, which is far too common in France, especially in social and human sciences. Many dropout without a degree and the desired skillset. I wanted to work on health trackers and wearables, and how this might affect bodily perceptions (I did end up studying this on the side). The first PhD. proposal I wrote for an open-call for PhD. project on technologies and society was considered unrealistic in terms of methods, which was an accurate assessment. I then applied to do a PhD. on two research projects, one in partnership with a company, another funded by the French State: Accessimap, which focuses on making maps accessible to visually impaired students.

Starting in October 2014, I was a PhD. student in Information and Communication Sciences at Télécom ParisTech Télécom Paris, Institut Polytechnique de Paris. This is a well-established discipline in France, but I had not studied it. Now, I had built new products while working as a designer, using some UX research methods picked up here and there (but mostly doing what felt right). But when I was asked how I would do « observations » or « interviews, » in late 2014, I had no good answer to offer. So I decided to become an ethnographer.

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