Finishing in Small Steps

I applied for the MFA program in 2013 with the intention of writing a book dealing with the changing landscape for design in recent years. In the past year I began to feel that, while writing is a great strategy for constructing my thoughts, a book (as I imagine it) is not the best channel for those thoughts. At least not yet.

Instead I’ve come to believe that presenting and publishing at academic conferences is a better strategy for my development. This is for two reasons:

More Deadlines: There’s nothing like a deadline to propel me past my perfectionist paralysis. Publishing in small pieces prevents me from tinkering too long in isolation. The submission deadlines of these conferences forces agile, iterative deliveries which are better for my development as a researcher and writer.

More Feedback: Interacting with conference themes encourages me to move outside of my own monologue and to enter into dialogues. By shaping an idea to fit a format or theme, my ideas are made more relevant and connective to the larger discourses that are happening.

Here is an update on some of my publishing and presentation initiatives to date:

Winthrop University, Rockhill, South Carolina

Next month I’m presenting to members of Winthrop Universities School for Visual and Performing Arts and College of Business Administration as part of their Innovate, Create, Engage (ICE) series sponsored by the South Carolina Department of Commerce in Rockhill. My program, titled Artists, Activists, and Anthropologists: The Rise of Storytellers in Business, will be reviewing how new consumer empowerment is motivating businesses to infuse their products, services, brands, and even cultures with empathy and understanding.

LearnXDesign Conference, Chicago, Illinois

For the LearnXDesign Conference in Chicago I’ll be submitting a paper and conducting a workshop on using Grounded Theory in design research. I proposed a workshop to introduce transcription coding techniques from Grounded Theory to designers and design educators. Although Grounded Theory is well known Social Science education literature, it is a relatively overlooked method in design education literature, despite the designers growing interest in learning from ethnography and anthropology. Yet, it is one of the tools in the Social Scientist’s toolbox that is most compatible with the designers and educators toolbox, because it places an emphasis on suspending hypothesis and judgement until after learning directly from users about their unique experiences. I’ll be focusing on the practical application of Grounded Theory by helping the participants practice transcription coding* techniques for beginners.  Although I’ve been working on Word and Excel templates, as well as learning commercial coding software, the main focus of the workshop is to guide participants through the process of coding a 10 page transcription using just paper and pencil.

Arts in Society Conference, Imperial College, London

I’ve been accepted to present a paper on my ideas about the connection between cognitive linguistic procedures and design this July for the Arts in Society conference at the Imperial College in London. The basic concern of this paper is that preoccupation with technology is luring this generation of designers away from strategic thinking towards surface concerns. Many young designers are all too satisfied with becoming skilled technicians who will find themselves irrelevant to real problem solving.  Meanwhile business schools, rather then design schools, are redefining the future of design around human factors and strategic concerns. If this redefinition continues, eventually designers won’t be able to contribute to design!

In response, I assert that design doesn’t begin in Photoshop or CAD, but is rooted in the generative processes common to every toddler who acquired language skills to think and communicate. From there I argue that design education needs to be less aligned with the latest design tools, and more aligned with native human creative and critical thinking processes. There is no idea and no project that a human being will ever undertake that doesn’t bubble up through basic epistemological, phenomenological, semantic, syntactical, morphological and phonological transformations. Accordingly we can appoint disciplines that develop and amplify these native abilities. (This is why Design Thinking, and Human Centered Design, have the designer begin with epistemological and phenomenological inquiry before breaking out their favorite software tools.)

Other Initiatives

I’m excited to be working with Johanne Hirsch, the Director of Research Services for AICAD, on creating an institutional review board for membership schools who are incorporating qualitative human centered design research into their curriculum. An IRB specifically tailored to the needs of designers will be a landmark development not only for design education, but also for the design profession itself. A credible review process for designers conducting research into human behavior will be a legitimatizing entity , signifying that design research is emerging as a professional discipline in it’s own right. We are tentatively hoping to present a plan at this summers 2015 AICAD symposium.

On a less defined, but equally exciting note, I’m currently talking with board members of the Global Institute for Arts and Leadership out of Boston about several initiatives. Most interesting to me is the crafting of new language for business leaders who are finding their Industrial Age management models and systems are proving to be unsustainable in the new economy. The Global Institute organizes World Cafe events in New York, Barcelona, Los Angeles, and other cities, to foster these conversations. It’s an audacious conversation to be sure, but I believe we are seeing a horizon event of some import coming our way whether we talk about it or not. In any case, the intersection of organizational development and community development has always been compelling for me personally.

In conclusion, these conferences and conversations are functioning like a lens that focuses my writing energies. By aiming my thoughts through these lenses, my original lines of thought are remaining intact, but go through collimation to become sharper content. Although I aspire to wrestle with lofty ideas, it is always humbling, often intimidating, and occasionally overwhelming to expose those ideas to public forums for peer review. However, in my own case, jumping into the water is the only time I actually care about knowing how to swim.

2 thoughts on “Finishing in Small Steps

  1. Mike-

    Congratulations on those speaking engagements! I like how you said that you’re moving from a monologue to a dialogue. I think that is relevant for myself to think about, as well as all artists and designers really, as I create my work.

    Also, the last line of the post,”jumping into the water is the only time I actually care about knowing how to swim,” is honest and beautiful.

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