Distributing Design Collaboration

The collaborative work of designers is rooted in a set of activities that are primarily co-located, focused on material objects and visual in nature. Although designers rely on a range of digital tools in order to expand the boundaries of collaboration and coordinate their work with clients, the material and visual nature of their work has made it difficult for the effective distribution of design collaboration. Based on a two-year study of design collaboration, we have documented some of the specific challenges that designers face when engaged in virtual collaboration. In addition, we outline some emerging areas of design work and give examples of new formats for design pedagogy and practice. Finally, we introduce a new platform for the distribution of design collaboration.

Digital Materiality and Design Practice

This paper the ways in which designers interact with an assemblage of digital and material artifacts throughout the course of their everyday work. For example, emergent technology platforms for collaboration allow digital objects to be “dragged and dropped” onto a physical table using projection technology. Similarly, the world of product and interaction design offers a landscape of material objects embedded with digital information often referred to as the “internet of things.” These novel kinds of artifacts are hybrids that blur traditional dichotomies between discrete categories such as digital and physical and raise important philosophical questions about the relationship between these states of being. Furthermore, in the context of design work, material artifacts such as sticky notes are often rearranged, photographed and disseminated digitally, taking on different kinds of agency in the process. By employing theories about sociomateriality from organizational studies along with actor-network theory, we argue that these digital and material artifacts can be considered to be participating in networks of human and non-human actors that dynamically appear, disappear and reappear over time. As such, these artifacts perform different roles and take on different characteristics and forms, including physical, digital or hybrid, among networks of people, technologies and organizations engaged in design processes. Based on a two-year National Science Foundation funded study of collaboration with designers and design educators in four countries, we argue for a relational understanding of the nature of these artifacts that takes into account the roles that they play in the practice of design collaboration and the ways that they change over time.

Designing Pedagogies of Collaboration

Learning how to collaborate effectively across distances, cultures and disciplines is one of the most important 21st century skills for a wide variety of careers including science, technology, math and engineering, which are considered to be vital to our nation’s economic success.  Collaboration is necessary both due to the global nature of the economy as well as for the purpose of tacking complex, system-level problems such as environmental sustainability.  As our economy is increasingly organized around more holistic services rather than manufacturing and products, the need for the capacity to collaborate across many fields and markets is even more pressing.  Specifically, there is need for well-developed curriculum to teach collaboration literacies such as empathy and listening as well as critique and feedback at all levels of education in both formal and informal settings.  Currently, there is great interest in the field of design, which strongly emphasizes the need for collaboration and teamwork however, while many assignments are expected to be completed in groups, for the most part, design students are never explicitly taught to collaborate.  Based on a two-year National Science Foundation funded study of collaboration with designers and design educators in four countries, this paper presents four models of collaboration in existing design curriculum in the United States and Europe.

Designers as Changemakers

In recent years, designers have begun to take on new professional roles and identities in tandem with the use of digital technologies and the emergence of new categories of design work such as interaction design, service design and strategic and organizational design.  Based on a two-year National Science Foundation funded study of collaboration with designers and design educators in four countries, we describe four common types of design roles that are prevalent today. Specifically, in contrast to earlier models in which individual designers were considered to be creative geniuses that were single-handedly responsible for the success of their studio or practice, today’s designers are more likely to take on roles in which they work collaboratively with their clients in a number of ways. For example, many designers describe themselves as neutral facilitators of a process in which they enable a group to reach a shared understanding of specific problems and appropriate solutions. Others believe that their primary role is as a teacher and/or educator. In this case, they work closely with their clients in order to impart specific design skills, methods and tools, which can then be performed by their clients at a later date without the guidance of the designers. Finally, some designers identify not a facilitators or educator but as activists and change-makers that are charge with steering society in a specific direction with respect to sustainability. Perhaps one of the most important roles of designers is to “design” their own professional identities and firms by coming up with novel language to describe their roles, methods and philosophies. Specifically, one Spanish designer, describes himself as a “metadesigner,” which signifies the move beyond specific products or objects and towards a more holistic and systems-based understanding of the role of design in contemporary life.

Networked Design Practice

Designers place great value on the importance of face-to-face meetings and workshops, especially during the ideation and analysis stages of the design process. At face value, it seems that the work of designers is inextricably bound to the places in which they work. However, the impact of technology on the field of design has dramatically changed the ways in which designers and design firms work. This paper reports on the emergence of a networked design practice, which is less about the ability to do design work virtually and, rather, more about new configurations of people and organizations that would not be possible without technologies. Based on a two-year National Science Foundation funded study of collaboration with designers and design educators in four countries, we describe four typologies of this networked design practice. While, for the most part, designers did not report the use of any novel information technologies to perform their work, the socio-technical arrangements of their work have changed dramatically. Specifically, we outline the following four typologies: design firms networking with other design firms to form alliances, consortiums and collaborations; design firms networking with employees and clients; design educators networking with their peers; and, design educators and activists networking with employees that they mentor and/or supervise for the purpose of time-shifting. One extremely counterintuitive example of these emergent, networked organizational forms in the design field is a company that is deliberately located in a country in which it has no employees and no clients. Information technology has enabled a range of new socio-technical practices across a wide variety of industries. The design field is no different, however, the ways in which these practices have shaped design work is unique and highly contextual.

Critique as Collaboration

This paper argues that critique is an important and powerful form of collaboration that has been significantly overlooked from the perspective of design pedagogy as well as the design of digital platforms. For example, many online collaboration platforms are primarily focused on teams that work closely together on distributed projects rather than enabling a more loosely-coupled community for feedback among those that may not work together at all. Based on a two-year National Science Foundation funded study of collaboration with designers and design educators in four countries, we found that participating in a culture of critique and feedback, a skill that is often learned in art and design school, is a key collaborative practice for practicing designers. By integrating theories about critique from design and the social sciences, we argue that developing a culture of critique as well as digital platforms to support critique as collaboration are necessary in order to advance the field of design as well as its professional practice. Specifically, recent studies from management and organizational behavior have found that especially in global, distributed and multi-cultural teams, it is necessary to create moments of tension that allow alternative viewpoints to be discussed. This is because virtual projects can often go on for a long time without bringing disagreements to light since participants do not have the opportunity to discuss issues in a face-to-face environment. Thus, we believe that this emphasis on critique is vital for both formal and informal settings, online and offline contexts as well as applicable outside the field of design.

User-Driven Social Innovation

This paper integrates theories on user-driven innovation with research on social innovation in order to argue that social innovation is often driven by users. Recent research about innovation suggests that many of the world’s new creations are created by their users. Examples of this range from the invention of snowboarding to the design of a wide range of baby products by new parents. Traditional theories about entrepreneurs believe that it is first necessary to identify a gap in the market before creating a new product, service or system. However, research on user-driven innovation makes clear that sometimes people (or firms) are motivated primarily by solving a problem for their own benefit rather than by the promise of profit. Based on a Rockefeller Foundation funded study of social innovation in North Brooklyn, we found that social innovators are often the “users” of their innovations and that they are motivated by social change rather than by profit. In North Brooklyn, examples of social innovation include cohousing, coworking, urban farming and food cooperatives as well as transportation and water rights activists. What are the limitations of user-driven innovation in this context? How and why might social innovation be different from traditional notions of innovation? How might designers enable and amplify user-driven social innovators?


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