Transframers – a research tool prototype

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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.

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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.

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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.

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2 thoughts on “Transframers – a research tool prototype

  1. I’m still kind of fuzzy about how this tool works, but would it be at least marginally accurate to describe it as a design research version of De Bono’s Thinking Hats? If this is the case, I think this process prototype would certainly be a useful tool indeed. I would be certain to keep tabs on your work.

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