Design, culture, craft, crime and research

digital tools

Transframers – a research tool prototype


Transframers is a tool to support the design research process. It helps you to understand your changing role as a design researcher. It is applicable from research students to large research teams. It helps you position yourself and your practice.

This tool was the outcome of a two day DFG Roundtable on Design Research held in March 2013 at the Design Research Lab, University of Arts, Berlin. The organisers invited a combination of German and international design researchers to meet and explore four key themes that lie at the heart of design research.

I was part of team that included Cameron Tonkinwise, Rachel Cooper, Chris Rust, Klaus Krippendorff, Michael Hohl, Sabine Foraita, Tom Bieling, and others. We explored the relationship between design and other academic disciplines. Early on in our discussions we considered it important to focus on an ‘end product’ – a concrete outcome that we could adapt and explore further. In that sense we tried to incorporate the best elements of design jams into this academic discourse. One of the issues that emerged was that of the variety of roles that the design researcher (or indeed the design practioner) can take on during the research process. We wanted to develop a tool that helps define these roles, provide alternatives and act as a diagnostic.

Transframers was proposed as a highly rough prototype. In the spirit of prototypes we invite you to explore it and use it, and help us refine it. We are laying out the basic idea and some suggestion on how it can be used.

So, how did we get to this? Well, we comprised a group of around 12 people (the composition of which slightly shifted over the two days) looking at the theme of translation.  Our interest was how design research worked at the interface with other disciplines. Rachel Cooper and I joined the group after it had already met for an hour or so. To begin with we explored and tried to define the principles of knowledge translation. These were:

  • Find and work with the best
  • Respect their knowledge
  • Become informed (informed by their knowledge, but you will never be an expert in it)
  • Understand where knowledge comes from and goes to
  • Understand the system you’re working in (systems thinking)
  • Find the way to work at the nexus
  • Value the unique value of the design approach
  • Reframe questions
  • Champion the design lens

As for the value of the design approach we saw it as this:

  • An insatiable sense of curiosity
  • An ability to use prototyping as a means of framing problems and defining questions
  • Visualising
  • Analysis and synthesising
  • Being opportunistic (finding the design opportunity)

The initial ‘napkin’ version of this is below.


At various points in the two days we would report back to the larger group of people. Below Cameron Tonkinwise is presenting our work. Clive Dilnot from Parsons in NYC looks on.


Discussions over dinner and outside the formal sessions fired us up to accelerate our process of discussion and link it to REAL research, rather than discuss in the abstract. The Berlin PhD students shared their work with us and provided a great focus for exploring how design researchers applied the principles we had defined the previous day. We also began to define some personas (as we initially described them) of how researchers behave in a research context. This evolved into a set of roles. The idea is that the role taken on by a researcher (whether a PhD student or a project director at the head of a large team) constantly shifts. It is important to be aware of how these shifts occur as this reframes our relationships with others and determines how we see the subject of our research.

We decided to move towards creating a real tool, a concrete outcome of the two days that we and others could go off and use and adapt further. The tool is about translation, but it is also about framing questions, and framing our own practices in research (and creative practice), hence transframers. I took on the task of creating a website in the final hour of our discussion, leading up to a public presentation of all the deliberations coming out of the two day event. That accounts for its very rough character.

We presented Transframers to an audience of 150 or so people as a drama, with Cameron as the sagely professor and Rachel and I as two very difficult and problematic PhD students. And we are all rather hoping that evidence of this never finds its way onto YouTube.

Crafting our future


An opportunity for Labour?

It’s hard work being a Labour Party supporter. I suspect Obama supporters feel the same. Indeed, the failure of the left and the centre left (or in the US case, the liberals) to advance any credible progressive alternative is dispiriting in the extreme. What is all the more curious is that there IS the starting point of a progressive alternative staring them all in the face – but since it has not emerged from the increasingly insular world that party politics is now conducted in, then it has simply not been noticed.

The makings of an alternative are to be found in maker culture and active consumerism: in craft cafes, hacker spaces and especially in IKEA. It addresses some profound issues concerning how we innovate, how we create sustainable enterprise, and how we link this to a social agenda. It provides solutions for educational underachievement, models for urban and rural regeneration, and strategies to address critical skills shortages in fields as diverse as plumbing and programming. It demands that we rethink our conception of work, in order to make better use of the one vital resource that humans are provided with: our creativity. It connects with something very deep within us all: an inherent desire to make things for ourselves. And it requires that we ditch the one thing that ties us to redundant notions of our future: our labour. Perhaps that is the left’s problem.

What is interesting and significant is that this ‘new alternative’ has in recent weeks been the subject of coverage in UK and US business media, national media in the US, New Scientist, together with the technology and eco-activist blogosphere – but aside from one or two pieces in The Guardian, the Left’s media appears far more interested in the Occupy movement. Sorry, but I’ve spent time at St Paul’s and all I see is yet another marginal protest that the Left is so fond of.

Below is a summarised commentary on some of this recent coverage, prior to working it up into a more resolved piece of writing. I have emphasised recent writing rather than more extensive academic literature, such as David Gauntlett’s recent excellent book. The argument threading through it is that the emergent maker economy is of critical significance in the development of an alternative economic model that is capable of addressing economic regeneration, social renewal and individual fulfilment. While we have in the past been defined by our labours, in the future we will be defined by our works.

The indie capitalist revolution

In December 2011, The Economist reported on the significance of the maker movement under the headline “more than just digital quilting”. It recognised that its roots lie in digital culture at the confluence of the open source movement and the new technologies such as Arduino and MakerBot’s 3D printers. Setting its scene at the New York Maker Faire, The Economist explained how “this show and an even bigger one in Silicon Valley, held every May, are the most visible manifestations of what has come to be called the “maker” movement. It started on America’s West Coast but is spreading around the globe: a Maker Faire was held in Cairo in October.”

Physical spaces and tools are part of the maker movement’s landscape, along with online communities. There is a rich pluralism as hackers and corporates coexist alongside business startups, social enterprises, hobbyists and venture capitalists. In its conclusion, The Economist draws a pertinent parallel:

 “The parallel with the hobbyist computer movement of the 1970s is striking. In both cases enthusiastic tinkerers, many on America’s West Coast, began playing with new technologies that had huge potential to disrupt business and society. Back then the machines manipulated bits; now the action is in atoms. This has prompted predictions of a new industrial revolution, in which more manufacturing is done by small firms or even by individuals. “The tools of factory production, from electronics assembly to 3D printing, are now available to individuals, in batches as small as a single unit,” writes Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine.

“It is easy to laugh at the idea that hobbyists with 3D printers will change the world. But the original industrial revolution grew out of piecework done at home, and look what became of the clunky computers of the 1970s. The maker movement is worth watching.”

Also writing in December, Bruce Nussbaum – a former editor of Business Week – presents four reasons why the future of capitalism is homegrown, small scale, and independent. Indie capitalism, Nussbaum argues, is “a maker system of economics based on creating new value, not trading old value. It embraces all the strains of maker culture–food, indie music, DIY, craft, 3-D digital fabrication, bio-hacking, app enabling, CAD modeling, robotics, tinkering. Making is not a rare act performed by a few but a routine happening in which just about everyone participates.”

In contrast to The Economist, Nussbaum differentiates the culture of this new movement from the West Coast start up scene of the 70s that spawned Apple and Microsoft. He favours the term indie capitalism “because it captures more of the social context and values of this new economy. I think it is sufficiently different from the entrepreneurial, startup culture of Stanford/Silicon Valley to warrant its own name. The term feels more 21st century, while ‘startup’ sounds, well, 20th century. It’s socially focused, not technology focused, more designer/artist-centric than engineering-centric. I especially like ‘indie’ because the indie music scene reflects many of the distributive and social structures of this emergent form of capitalism. It’s no accident that Portland and New York have vibrant indie music scenes and are the centers of a rising new indie capitalism.” In Nussbaum’s, view, the time is right for this indie capitalism to usher in an indie economics and indie politics given that – from Occupy to the Tea Party – finance or ‘predatory’ capitalism is under attack. And so is high street retail capitalism.

In a blogpost entitled why 2012 will be year of the artist-entrepreneur, Michael Wolf argues that with distribution chains collapsing vertically across video, music and books, as online storefronts become the entire distribution chain, so this expands the role of the artist-entrepreneur who distributes themselves. “No doubt, the vast majority of economic wealth is still distributed through large corporate media, but as new technologies enable artists to reach consumers directly through push-button creation and distribution, there is a movement afoot. Expect this movement to expand in 2012 as more artists take control of their own economic destinies and become part of the artist-entrepreneur generation.”

Writing recently in the New York Times, William Deresiewicz frames this development even more profoundly: “The small business is the idealized social form of our time. Our culture hero is not the artist or reformer, not the saint or scientist, but the entrepreneur. (Think of Steve Jobs, our new deity.) Autonomy, adventure, imagination: entrepreneurship comprehends all this and more for us. The characteristic art form of our age may be the business plan.”

The Left almost certainly has a problem with the maker movement because it is bound up with entrepreneurialism. Which is strange, because many of the new entrepreneurs seemingly have no problems with politically progressive concerns and ideals. Yes, this is is the age of the business plan and the start up. Young people especially are doing it for themselves in terms of employment creation. Now, in part this is because many have no other choice; around 30 percent of new entrepreneurs in the US go into business because there is no other option for work. But whether reluctant or willing, increasing numbers of entrepreneurs are doing it less for the money and more to make a difference.

Danny Alexander, a design entrepreneur writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, takes issue with those who see entrepreneurship as purely in terms of wealth creation: “For many of us, entrepreneurship is our anger, our edge, and our ego. It is our social movement… I’m an entrepreneur because I see fundamental problems with society and want to be active in creating solutions.” Closer to home, there are dynamic new enterprises such as Snook which are pursuing a new politics and social vision through entrepreneurial action.

Labour isn’t working – the value of doing it yourself

Throughout the world, there is a generation of highly educated, aspirational young people with a strong sense of a social vision who have been failed by both labour markets and labour parties. Put simply, there are no jobs and no political vision about how to change the world in a progressive direction. The only solution to both problems is to do it yourself. Entrepreneurialism also addresses a third problem: most jobs suck.

In a piece entitled How British workers are losing the power to think, Guardian correspondent Aditya Chakrabortty has drawn on research that strongly suggests an erosion of autonomy in many occupations. “Since the mid-80s, academics have been carrying out regular skills surveys, asking detailed questions of thousands of employees. In 1986… 72% of professionals felt they had a great deal of independence in doing their jobs. By 2006, that had plummeted to just 38%.” Some researchers are suggesting a future workforce in which only 10-15% will have permission to think. “The rest of us will merely carry out their decisions; what the academics call ‘digital Taylorism’, in which graduates will end up on the white-collar equivalent of a factory line.” The options appear to be useful work (through creative entrepreneurialism) versus useless toil (by selling our increasingly devalued labour power). Put simply, whether creating a livelihood or building bookcases, people value doing it themselves. If you want proof – go to IKEA.

The IKEA effect has been documented and argued by behavioural economist Michael Norton of the Harvard Business School. In this month’s New Scientist, an article entitled The hard way: Our odd desire to do it ourselves explained how Norton and his colleagues set up experiments in which people were asked to assemble IKEA furniture or fold origami or build Lego sets. “The participants then had to bid small sums for the products of their labour, or for a custom- or expert-made equivalent. The results were impressive. People bid considerably more for their own creations, even when they were plain old IKEA boxes. When it came to origami, they stumped up nearly as much for their own forlorn frog or bird as for the same animal folded by an expert – even though other participants subsequently rated their efforts as ‘nearly worthless crumpled paper’”. The New Scientist piece describes other research that cumulatively demonstrates that the things we make we value far more – regardless of how well we make them.

Crafting the creative society

One of New Labour’s many problems was the incredibly narrow way that it viewed creativity, reducing it to the questionable notion of creative industries. The whole point was that the UK was to build up a particular set of consumer industries that required specific skills and knowledge that would be supplied through the labour market. Built on a theoretical bedrock that drew heavily from Richard Florida’s Creative Class thesis, this drove policy at both national and local government. There are three central problems with the creative industry emphasis. First, it is highly centralised: necessarily London will act as the key focus for such industries. Second, it is very fragile: the experience of the computer games industry in Dundee is evidence of that. Third, it is culturally defined by Florida’s Creative Class: DIY culture in north Wales or knitting in Shetland does not feature in its metropolitan landscape. As such, the creative economy as defined is exclusive.

Crafting an inclusive creative society demands a wholescale rethinking of education, work and the processes of civic society. Libby Brooks, writing in The Guardian, makes the following case:

“A recession invites fundamental reassessment of the place of work – and leisure – in our lives. Practically, this means recognising that teaching a tradable, portable skill is one of the best ways to lift people out of poverty. Philosophically, it invites an acceptance that a trade-off between hamster-wheel presenteeism and mollifying consumption has never been good for us and is not feasible in this economic climate. Crucially, craft is egalitarian. While some in the Labour party appear bent on resuscitating the canard of meritocracy, which divides the gifted few from the unexceptional mass, craft reminds us of the significance of equality of outcome, rather than of opportunity. Everyone shares the capacity to develop a skill, based on decent teaching, application and time – not raw talent.”

The question is, can Labour (or indeed The Left) envisage an egalitarian future in which people craft their own lives?

The iPad as a research tool

This is a reworked version (April 2011) of an earlier post, which benefits from further dedicated time of trying hard to justify the iPad as a serious work tool for the jobbing academic.

So, you’re a research student or academic who has just laid their hands on a new iPad. How useful is it as a research tool? What advantages does it have over a laptop? Is it just a clever shiny gadget for watching movies on long train rides? Having been given one ten months ago, my initial impression was that it would prove more useful as a leisure device than as an essential work tool, but now it has found a unique and valuable role in my work flow as a jobbing academic researcher. This post sets out my observations in the hope that they will prove useful to others. I have downloaded all kinds of research and writing related apps, and tried them out. What this focuses on are either the ones that work for me – or which I know work for others, but for whatever reason do not quite fit my own way of working. My reflections are, of course, based on the original iPad, rather than the iPad 2. But if anyone would like to give me one of those, then I’d be more than happy to evaluate it.

Let us start with its key advantages over the laptop. Clearly, it’s smaller, lighter and with a longer battery life. For researchers these are important assets, particularly in research gathering settings where you want to be less obtrusive. Taking notes behind the dramatic sweep of a MacBook Pro’s 17″ lid does tend to draw attention to one’s self. So whether doing research in the field, or simply writing stuff up on the train, the iPad has certain physical advantages. The keypad takes some getting used to, but as a note taking tool it is very useful. However, the optional Apple iPad keyboard transforms the device into a serious writing machine for which there are some very good apps. A recent research trip to Africa made heavy use of the iPad and convinced me of its value.

Below I focus on four research uses for an iPad – as a research gathering tool, an idea development tool, a reading and browsing tool and as a research dissemination tool.

The iPad as a research gathering tool

Let us say that you’re doing research in the field. No, more specific: you’re doing research in a field. Unlikely, I know, but if you’re doing an ethnographic study of farm workers, or a survey of urban gardening, or surveying your locality for a Green Map, then this is possible. A laptop would work, although a bit clunky. Now let’s introduce an extra dimension: rain. At this point the laptop becomes a potentially disastrous liability – but not your iPad in a waterproof bag. A number of companies provide waterproof covers that enable the iPad to continue being operated. TrendyDigital is one such supplier, and there are others. So, we can safely gather data in all weather conditions, or just have the option of operating the iPad with our tongue.

I have used the iPad for note taking in meetings (inside, rather than in rain drenched fields), and have found the main key advantage is that the iPad is relatively unobtrusive. Well, that’s not strictly true. For the first ten minutes everyone gathers around and demands turns playing with it, but that’s just new gadgets for you. Eventually the novelty wears off and people forget that it’s an iPad. For note taking you have a considerable number of apps available, and I’ve tried many of them. Two, however, stand out.

SoundPaper gives you the option of taking a sound recording as you type your notes. Afterwards, when you click at a particular point in your notes, so it will play back from that same point in the recording. As the developers claim: “SoundPaper is perfect for students. If you ever fall asleep in class, don’t worry — SoundPaper’s got your back. Just tap what you wrote while you were awake, and SoundPaper will play the audio to help you fill in the blanks.” This does not apply to students here at Duncan of Jordanstone College, given the highly engaging quality of our lecturing staff, and on the odd occasion that students do nod off, we throw hard objects at them. As my colleague Catriona Macaulay, who runs our MSc Design Ethnography programme suggests, SoundPaper has great potential in design ethnography research. Having used it in several different settings, I find it one of the most useful and distinctive apps for the iPad. The only downside is its reliance on email as the sole method of transferring your notes to your Mac.

Notebooks is much more a research and writing tool than merely a note taking tool, and is an essential app if you are going to do any serious work. There is a detailed review here, but I will add a few observations of my own. You can integrate it with Safari, organise your notes in various ways, import and export in a range of formats, and do this wirelessly if you wish. You can use it to set up to-do lists, which can also be integrated with OmniFocus and other applications. Hugely well featured and very well designed. In short, an essential app for research and writing. I have found it much more useful than Apple’s own Pages for iPad, which I cannot really see the point of. A good iPad app should work to the distinctiveness of the iPad, and overcome some of its inherent shortcomings. Pages, which you have to sync via iTunes, just makes the whole process clunky.

Evernote is another research tool for the iPad. To be honest, I never really took to Evernote on the Mac, so I have not used it on the iPad. Hoever, some people I know have done, and swear by it. So, in the interests of balance, here is a review that sets out many of Evernote’s positive qualities.

Note Taker HD lets you take handwritten notes and sketch. It is a well designed app, and could work for people who prefer writing to typing. I’m not one of them. The interesting thing about it is that it is developed by Dan Bricklin, who 30 years ago designed VisiCalc, the ground-breaking spreadsheet programme. The thing that really really didn’t work for me was writing with my finger. It just feels wrong. So, I made my own stylus for the iPad based on this DIY design. Instead of adapting a biro, I found that a paintbrush that has a metal casing for the bristles works better for holding the conductive foam. If all this means nothing to you, then watching the video in the last link will make all things crystal like. The interface is cumbersome and complicated, as the screengrab below demonstrates.

MUJI Notebook is a very recently launched app that, like Note Taker HD, allows you to write on screen. However it also incorporates handwriting recognition – although to be honest either the software is a little wanting, or my handwriting is somewhat illegible: I’ve yet to get it to work well. It has some advantages over Note Taker in that you can import PDFs and photos and annotate them, and the interface is very intuitive.

The iPad as an idea development tool

The iPad has great potential as a tool to capture visual thinking – ie: the visualisation of complex ideas, and the relationship between them. But I have yet to find an app that really hits this potential. Notebooks is great for playing with ideas as text, but there is no visual dimension. On the Mac I use Mind Node alongside the brilliant Scrivener, which has a corkboard for restructuring the main elements of a writing project.

It was my desire to find some Scrivener-like thinking environment on the iPad that drew me to Corkulous.

As the image above shows, Corkulous provides a corkboard for tasks, notes and images, and the flexibility to move them around freely and have boards nested within other boards. As a basic idea it holds promise, but is not yet fully featured sufficiently to do much more than plan a shopping trip. But what the app does suggest is the potential for visual thinking on the iPad.

Popplet builds on this in a more visually useful way, incorporating aspects of mindmapping. Like Corkulous, it is a promising app, but it falls down in terms of export options – which are limited – and not fully using the distinctive interface of the iPad. It is also overpriced.

iThoughtsHD is by far the best visual thinking tool for the iPad. Unlike Corkulous and Popplet, it recognises that the user will, at some point, want to transfer the ideas developed into another application and work on them further. The export options are comprehensive, and overall the app has a real sense of quality to it.

I use writing as a way of developing ideas, so a good writing app is essential. Right now there is only one serious contender – Writer. Steven Fry loves it, which may or may not persuade you, but as a former Rector of the University of Dundee it should! A beautiful writing environment, uncluttered, simple, focussed.

The iPad for reading and browsing

This is where the iPad excels, and proves itself as far more usable than a laptop. It is, simply, a brilliant device for reading and navigating. So, I’m off to a conference in London. All the files I need – PDFs, DOCs, Pages and image files, etc. – I transfer onto the iPad with GoodReader. It’s a very simple but effective document reader, keeping everything accessible in one place, such as conference agenda, maps, hotel bookings, etc. Any file I think I’ll need to edit, such as speaking notes, I transfer into Notebooks. On the way down on the train, I use the time to read some articles and academic papers.

Papers is an application for the Mac, iPad and iPhone by Mekentosj that describes itself as “your personal library of research”. As I written elsewhere, it is an outstanding application that lets you find, download, file and tag research papers. The parts of your library you want to transfer to the iPad are then accessible for reading. You can also search online and download them from the iPad version of Papers, although – to be honest – it’s easier to do this from the Mac version. And the iPad is just great for reading. Other tools I use on on the Mac, such as Instapaper, are also available as iPad apps.

As for an RSS feed reader, Pulse is easily the best. It was designed in five weeks by two graduate students and has a beautiful mosaic type interface to browse items in your feeds. It has such a well considered design which many other apps could usefully learn from. It costs around two pounds, and is worth every penny.

Flipboard – like Pulse – is one of the few apps so far that really ‘gets’ the iPad. It’s a twitter and facebook reader that turns the content into a magazine style output that totally enhances readability. Just use it – you’ll see how it makes a difference to your use of twitter.

The iPad as a research dissemination tool

Let’s begin with micro-dissemination via twitter. On the Mac I use TweetDeck, and had tried with the iPad version, but it kept crashing and appears fairly buggy. I’ll try it again if another version is released, but in the meantime I’ve become a fan of Osfoora HD. Like Pulse, it has a beautiful, elegant design with great usability and all the functionality that you need. Next, blogging – and given the location of my blog – WordPress for iPad – is a useful app that works well.

Overall the iPad is good for informal presentations of work. All singing and dancing Keynote presentations do not work – so little of the Mac’s Keynote functionality transfers over to the iPad – but I have found that slideshows of images, or playing videos works very well, with people gathered around to see. It provides more informality to ‘presenting your work’.

In summary….

The great thing about the iPad is getting away from bloated, over specified software that simply gets in the way of doing things. The apps above, especially the outstanding ones, do only one thing, but do it spectacularly well, making full use of the iPad’s interface.

And who am I to write all this? Well, I do research and writing for a living, so I’ve some justification for sharing my views. Also, I have a bit of experience using such devices. Back in 1985, when computers were small on memory and functionality, and their users were big on hair and shoulder pads, I bought a Tandy TRS-80 – a little laptop with 32K memory and a tiny text only screen. But it was mobile and had a built in modem, and I thought it was magic. It synced with my Amstrad PCW. Well, I say “sync”. Back then “sync” was just a fancy way of describing an avocado coloured washbasin. I actually wrote part of a book chapter on it, and remember sitting in Hyde Park on a sunny day with the Tandy on my lap thinking that this was the way to go. Of course, the 32K of memory filled pretty quickly so after an hour’s work in the park, all I could do was feed the ducks. It’s taken 25 years, but now it really is the way to go. Does anyone know of a virtual duck feeding app?


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