So what's design then?

This is a (rather long) post I wrote as a draft for my proposal (hence it’s a bit drier than my normal tone). It's a meander through what design actually means, as it's a huge discipline with so many ways of working, and the name is all things to all people.

When I started this PhD project, I was clear: I am a designer! Despite a few wobbles where I’ve felt like I was ‘pretending’ to be a social scientist, I definitely feel design is a strong disciplinary vehicle for my science communication research. Design as a discipline has had multifaceted relationships with science and science communication (or with society more generally), and I see opportunities for utilising different modes for different parts of my project. At one end of the spectrum, design can act as a ‘translator’ (design as an ‘explanatory medium’ (Malpass, 2016)), using design principles to make information easier to consume, understand, or orientate within. At the other, design can be deployed as an affective medium, ‘challenging hegemonies and dominant ideologies in contexts of science and technology, social inequality, and unchallenged disciplinary norms’ (Malpass, 2017, p.6). In between, participatory or codesign places emphasis on involving stakeholders directly in the design process of the products, services or technologies they use (an approach used in healthcare and increasingly public service design, and crossing over considerably with some social science disciplines):

A spectrum of design, from explanatory to affective, informed by Malpass (2016) and Dunne & Raby (2009)

I am cognisant that design at the affective, provocative end of the spectrum (a practice broadly termed ‘critical design’) frames itself as a means to examine the relations between science and technology, working in the ‘ambivalent zone between emerging science and material culture…questioning potential applications and implications of scientific research being carried out today’ (Malpass, 2016, p.447). In this sense, it seems to pose similar questions to science communication disciplines, which are not ‘simply about making difficult things more simple…it is something more than the exchange of scientific knowledge from those who know to those who do not. It is an integral part of society which has huge impacts on welfare, democracy and culture’ (Davies & Horst, 2016, p.2). I am interested to explore the disciplinary intersections, locate overlapping practices, and produce research as a hybrid model drawing on approaches from design (itself a broad church), PEST (Public Engagement with Science and Technology), STS (Science and Technology Studies), and elsewhere.

As a practitioner rooted in print and digital visual communication, I am increasingly feeling the limits of my conventional, somewhat commodified discipline-based design education, and subsequent commercial practice. As part of my own reflexive journey, I am starting to appreciate that design’s roots – being fully integrated into the neoliberal model of capitalism (Dunne & Raby, 2013) – obscure an unencumbered perspective on the extant power structures that affect it. So just as design offers an alternative lens on science communication, the social sciences and humanities will perhaps offer me an alternative lens on design, and a way for my design practice to re-orientate and redefine away from ‘the functionalist, rationalistic, and industrial traditions from which it emerged’ (Escobar, 2018, p.xi).

What is Design? a category beyond categories

Design is far from a homogeneous, easily defined area. For a start, it can refer to both process and product, ‘ranging from the abstract conception of something to the actual plans and processes required to achieve it’ (Giacomin, 2014, p.607). Design is also ubiquitous: ‘we all live within a design cluster, that is, immersed in designs of all kinds, which means that design becomes ‘a category beyond categories’’ (Lunenfeld, 2003, p.10). In addition, design has changed over time, becoming increasingly professionalised, and there are multiple ‘types’ of design and designer, so umbrella descriptions (such as Chris Jones’ ‘to initiate change in man-made things’ (Lawson, 2004, p.33)) are necessarily abstract to the point of arguable meaninglessness.  

A commonality is a process. Not necessarily the same, and certainly not as uniform as neat diagrams from business schools would have you believe (the ‘Design Squiggle’ is probably more representative), but there is always a catalyst (often a client brief, sometimes a problem or need or want), and a series of analysis, synthesis, appraisal (rinse and repeat) before some kind of outcome is produced. This process applies if the project sits within a more conventional object or service orientated mode offering a solutions to identifiable problems, or in a speculative, provocative project.

The Design Squiggle. Based on: Sanders & Stappers (2008) and Damien Newman, Central Office of Design – CC 2004

There are two specific approaches that I seek to position my research in relation to, and together they will be combined to cover both aspects of design. These are design thinking (including codesign) and critical design.

The rise of design thinking

The recent history of design has seen a reorientation away from its strong association with the object and from the ‘designer as expert’ towards a ‘conception of design as user-centered, situated, interactive, and participatory, focused significantly on the production of ­human experience and life itself’ (Escobar, 2018, p. 48). A focus on human-centred design and participatory design or codesign (both intrinsically linked with ‘design thinking’ approaches) have shifted the focus of design from product to experience. Many of these ideas are not new, though recent history (especially the last decade) has seen them ‘packaged’ and commodified, most notably by design firm IDEO, and also through Stanford University’s D.School, both of whom have been instrumental in expanding the interest of design process into applications beyond their traditional remit, for instance business process contexts, and working on ‘wicked’ problems.

So what is design thinking? Put simply, it describes a user-centred, experiment-orientated iterative cycle of design. It places emphasis on building empathy with users, and has a mindset of rapid prototyping to generate momentum and maximise opportunities to test and refine. It has been described as an ‘analytic and creative process that engages a person in opportunities to experiment, create and prototype models, gather feedback, and redesign’ (Razzouk & Shute, 2012, p.330).

Tim Brown from IDEO articulates design thinking as the design community being challenged to ‘think beyond both the omnipotent designer and the obsession with products, objects, and things’ (Bjögvinsson, Pelle, & Hillgren, 2012, p.101). His tenets of design thinking include:

  1. that designers should be more involved in the big picture of socially innovative design, beyond the economic bottom line;
  2. that design is a collaborative effort where the design process is spread among diverse participating stakeholders and competences;
  3. and that ideas have to be envisioned, “prototyped,” and explored in a hands-on way, tried out early in the design process in ways characterized by human-centeredness, empathy, and optimism. 

(Bjögvinsson, et al., 2012, p.101)

 So how does this pan out in a project? Below is a standard design process model (one of many) based on the UK Design Council’s Double Diamond. It entails entering the process without a predetermined idea of the outcome or solution, and requires stages of broad divergent thinking, and synthesis. This can allow for iterative approaches to solution-building and hands-on testing. I intend on applying this process to both the overarching research project level, and within individual intervention designs:


A tweaked version of The “Double Diamond” by the Design Council (UK)

The key advantage of this approach is that by using a specific process to fully define the problem (the first diamond), there is a reduced chance of solving the wrong problem, or refining the wrong solution.

Despite the focus on people, collaboration and problem solving, design thinking can be seen as an approach that remains largely uncritical of the political and power contexts in which it operates, and it is still focused on servicing the needs of clients and capitalism (especially the US variant (Escobar, 2018, p.48)). As such, a reflexive approach integrated into a design thinking process offers an opportunity to consider the visibility of these power structures, and the possibility to reorientate away from them, or at least make them overtly visible. I will also use critical design as a counterbalance to design thinking, partly to help me maintain a ‘reflexive incredulity’ – a way to ensure that I’m considering bigger issues of science and society interactions as well as problem-solving at a zoomed in scale.

Before I go on to consider critical design as an alternative or complementary mode, I will briefly give some context to participatory and codesign and user- (or human) centred design as approaches that are extant within design thinking:

Human-centred design

I’ll start here with some disambiguation of two related terms: Human-centred and user-centred design (HCD and UCD) are very closely related, and are in fact synonymous in many cases. User-centred design has its roots in ergonomics and HCI (human computer interaction), and is closely tied to digital UX (user experience) contexts where the person performing a task is known and the process therefore tends to focus on optimising the characteristics of the product, system or service based on preconceived plans. In the context of software or hardware, the person may also consider themselves to be a user, whereas in other cases, for instance, physical objects like door knobs or light switches, ‘user’ feels like a bit of a stretch. Technically accurate, just a little clinical and detached. Human-centred design is broader, in that in many contexts, a design outcome may have multiple different types of user (or stakeholder), so focussing on one may ignore the needs of others (Bowen, 2009, p.27). (In addition, where a lightswitch user would sound a bit odd, to call someone viewing a poster ‘a user’ would be nonsensical). Hence, HCD covers a broader group (and UCD may be considered as a subset of it). HCD also suggests a shift towards techniques which communicate, interact, empathise and stimulate the people involved (Giacomin, 2014), obtaining an understanding of requirements (needs, wants, experiences) which often transcends that which the people themselves would have been able to articulate prior (Giacomin, 2014). So far, so product-focussed. But, HCD has also been considered more than this too: Richard Buchanan (2001) argues ‘that its primary purpose is in supporting human dignity’ (Bowen, 2009, p.27). In my project, HCD will be employed as part of a design thinking approach to the problem(s) and question(s) that arise. Rough prototyping, testing, reflecting and iterating will be undertaken in as many situations as possible. Ideally, ‘users’ will be identified to participate in the process (which may necessitate finding representatives of ‘publics’ that are the targets of research). Using UCD tools such as the development of personas (composite people based on research developed to represent a target group) might help target science communication, or act as a reflexive tool for scientist-communicators to ‘design’ their engagement activities for.

Participatory or codesign

The terms participatory design, codesign and cocreation describe the practice of collective creativity of designers and people not trained in design, applied across the whole span of a design process (Sanders & Stappers, 2008). It directly involves ‘people in the codesign of artefacts, processes and environments that shape their lives’ (Simonsen & Robertson, 2013, p.2). Though some researchers have indicated subtle differences (for instance Bowen (2009, p.56) suggests codesign has less of a political underpinning and is more product focussed), participatory and codesign are generally used synonymously.


Cocreation refers to any act of collective creativity, i.e. creativity that is shared by two or more people.

Codesign (synonym: participatory design)
(accepted by Sanders & Stappers)

Codesign (alternative understanding)

Collective creativity as it is applied across the whole span of a design process. Thus, co-design is a specific instance of co-creation and refers to refer to the creativity of designers and people not trained in design working together in the design development process.

The collective creativity of collaborating designers.

Definitions of cocreation and codesign, adapted from Sanders & Stappers (2008, p.6)

Participatory design has its roots in Scandinavian workplaces in the 1970s, where a concern about technology (notably computers) devaluing and deskilling workers (Bowen, 2009) led to an attempt to enable workers to have more influence on these systems to promote the quality of working environments. This genesis led to two hallmarks of participatory design:

  • stakeholders have a democratic right to be included in its design and will benefit as a result;
  • including stakeholders in design activities results in better technical systems (for example more efficient, more usable, more profitable).

In turn, this approach should produce ‘happier’ (empowered, enabled, fulfilled) stakeholders and better products/productivity.

(Bowen, 2009, p. 53).

There was a parallel participatory design developing at the same time as in Scandinavia ((Sanders & Stappers, 2008; Kerridge, 2015) via the Design Research Society in the UK, who in 1971 held a conference called Design Participation. Contributors came from the fields of economics, design, architecture, planning, building science, design research, and mechanical engineering, and in the proceedings, Nigel Cross stated:

…professional designers in every field have failed in their assumed responsibility to predict and to design-out the adverse effects of their projects. These harmful side effects can no longer be tolerated and regarded as inevitable if we are to survive the future … There is certainly a need for new approaches to design if we are to arrest the escalating problems of the man-made world and citizen participation in decision making could possibly provide a necessary reorientation. Hence this conference theme of ‘user participation in design’.

(Cross, 1972 in Sanders & Stappers, 2008, p.7)


Participatory design differentiates itself from other traditions by seeking ‘genuine participation’ (Kensing & Greenbaum, 2012, p.27), placing less value on techniques such as interviews or focus groups, which can be construed as one-way approaches. Though all of these data gathering exercises may be employed within my project, participatory design approaches may offer a framework for the development of workshops, especially during planning engagement activities for Te Pūnaha Matatini. In addition, participatory design has been seen as a mechanism for disrupting existing power structures (Sanders & Stappers, 2008, p.9) because power needs to be relinquished by companies or institutions (or perhaps in this context by ‘science’) as publics (users, stakeholders, customers…) are given a genuine say. Sanders & Stappers (2008, p.9) state that this makes ‘participatory thinking…antithetical to consumerism’. Perhaps it could be employed in a situation where there was a genuine desire to know how the public feel about science and technology.

Critical design

Critical design is one of a growing number of approaches that aim to ‘present and define interrogative, discursive, and experimental approaches in design practice and research’ (Malpass, 2016, p.4). It is located outside normal models of design, in that it is generally undertaken ‘for exhibit rather than sale’ (Malpass, 2009, p.1). It is socially and politically engaged, and can be considered a kind of creative activism which seeks to provoke reflection on pertinent societal issues (Malpass, 2016, p.6), and can ‘serve as a resource for supplementing STS conceptualisations of, and practices toward, public, engagement, and science’ (Michael, 2012, p.528).

In opposition to ‘regular’ design (which Malpass (2016) terms ‘explanatory’), critical design is ‘affective’. That is, rather than offering solutions to design problems, it poses questions and ‘opens lines of enquiry’ (Malpass, 2016, p.41). Or, as Ramia Mazé (2009) puts it, it is ‘less concerned with problem-solving than with problem-finding’. Like STS, critical design has a particular interest in considering the implications of new areas of science and technology, which is particularly pertinent to the subset of critical design termed ‘speculative design’. Speculative design uses future scenarios to pose ‘“what if” questions that are intended to open debate and discussion about the kind of future people want (and do not want)’ (Dunne & Raby, 2013), posing questions that explore ethical and societal implications of new science, and the technology that enables or distributes it.

Critical design can mesh with other related practices and disciplines and borrow methodologies as appropriate, for instance ‘combining anthropological-­style observation and speculation on emergent social practices’ (Gunn, Otto, & Smith, 2013) to develop a distinct style of knowledge. It ‘legitimately uses tools, techniques, instruments, methods, genres and concepts such as fictional narratives, film language, screenplay, storyboard, user testing, interviews/questionnaires, games, but also media and pop culture phenomena…Anything considered suitable at a given moment is legitimate’ (Mitrović, n.d.).

An example of an interdisciplinary codesign and speculative design approach is Energy and Co-Designing Communities (ECDC), a collaboration between Design and Sociology departments at Goldsmiths University of London (Wilkie, 2015). It blurred the lines between ethnographic research and speculation (Malpass, 2016, p.73), and through an iterative design approach (including codesign workshops and ethnographic research, and a two year process of design, testing and fabrication) produced a ‘domestic appliance’ product. This was Energy Babble, a device placed in thirty homes around the UK. It was a machine that broadcasted ‘babbles’, ‘Synthesised voices, punctuated by occasional jingles, [that] recount energy policy announcements, remarks about energy conservation made on social media, information about current energy demand and production, and comments entered by other Babble users’ (Boucher et al., 2018). Funded by the Research Councils UK (RCUK) Energy Programme, it was a playful provocation to prompt discussion around the target to reduce UK energy consumption by 80% before 2050 (Malpass, 2016, p.73). The research project also worked with the participants to gain an understanding of their energy-demand reduction practices and how their practices and communities had been shaped through the intervention of the device (Wilkie, 2015).

The Energy Babble and associated design process material (Wilkie, 2015) 

Critical design has largely been experienced within a gallery context. There are few examples of critical design practice being employed specifically in relation to public engagement. However, the PhD of Tobbie Kerridge from Goldsmiths (London): Designing Debate: The Entanglement of Speculative Design and Upstream Engagement (Kerridge, 2015) identifies several projects where articles in the popular press were generated, and public workshops with ‘unfinished’ artefacts were instigated. These activities he considers to be ‘engagement’ in a PEST sense.

In his Hybrids and Biojewellery projects there was what he determined to be a ‘clear move from versions of debate rooted in disciplinary notions of criticality, to versions of public engagement responsive to the interests of science educators and funding councils, and which also invite the vicarious demands of individuals’ (Kerridge, 2015, p46). This, he contends, removes the designer from a position where they are an ‘isolated critic of technology in society’ into a position where the agenda for debate is mediated amongst public(s), scientists and policy makers – design becomes a catalyst to enable these discussions and a builder of ‘formats through which the outcomes of these encounters coalesce’ (Kerridge, 2015, p.46).

Practice-led research: research through design

Here I've documented several design approaches that I might utilise during my PhD journey. It's also worth noting that research through design is a recognised type of scholarly enquiry where design as a practice is used as a methodological approach to research. It is value-based and is concerned with ways to negotiate the improvement of real-world situations (Jonas, Morelli & Munch, 2009).  

If one views design as the development of products, it might not be immediately apparent that doing research (to create knowledge) and design have parallels. But Stappers & Giaccardi (2013) state:

…design and research activities can be surprisingly similar – both aim to create something new, building on what was known before. Both contain parts of the other. Analysis and evaluation are research activities in a design process … And research projects also involve the development (including design) of apparatus, stimuli, and creative new directions (but are less visible in the academic publishing culture than results, proof, and statement of theory).

A recognition of disciplinary complementary differences was summarised neatly in 1982 by Nigel Cross, where he described design as a 'third culture' (alongside science and the humanities) (Cross, 1982)In the paper, he describes appropriate methods and values for each culture:


  • in the sciences: controlled experiment, classification, analysis
  • in the humanities: analogy, metaphor, criticism, evaluation
  • in design: modelling, pattern-formation, synthesis 


  • in the sciences: objectivity, rationality, neutrality, and a concern for ‘truth’
  • in the humanities: subjectivity, imagination, commitment, and a concern for ‘justice’
  • in design: practicality, ingenuity, empathy, and a concern for ‘appropriateness’

(Cross, 1982)

His purpose is a call for design in general education, but it makes clear that, as Stappers (2007) says, The designing act … is in itself a potential generator of knowledge’.

Cross calls for a recognition that:

design practice does indeed have its own strong and appropriate intellectual culture, and that we must avoid swamping our design research with different cultures imported either from the sciences or the arts. 
(Cross, 2001)

I take this as a reminder that design is a legitimate disciplinary context for this research. Science communication deals with messy complexity. As Cross (1982) says, Design develops innate abilities in solving real-world, ill-defined problems’. I am interested to see how disciplines can cross-pollinate. I am also intrigued to be part of the ongoing shift in design, from an identity tied to the designed object, and the ‘individual design hero’ to an ‘acknowledgement of the complexity of the role of the designer in a contemporary social research context’ (Gothe, 2015, p.28). Even if, on occasion, I freak out and feel like I need to fake being a social scientist!


Boucher, A., Gaver, B., Kerridge, T., Michael, M., Ovalle, L., Plummer-Fernandez, M., & Wilkie, A. (2018). Energy Babble. Manchester, UK: Mattering Press. Retrieved from

Bowen, S. J. (2009). A critical artefact methodology: using provocative conceptual designs to foster human-centred innovation. (Doctoral thesis). Sheffield Hallam University. Retrieved from

Cross, N. (1982). Designerly ways of knowing. Design Studies, 3(4), 221–227.

Cross, N. (2001). Designerly Ways of Knowing: Design Discipline versus Design Science. Design Issues, 17(3), 49–55.

Davies, S. R., & Horst, M. (2016). Science Communication as Culture. In Science Communication (pp. 1–27). Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Dunne, A., & Raby, F. (2009). a/b manifesto [Portfolio and research]. Retrieved from

Dunne, A., & Raby, F. (2013). Speculative everything: design, fiction, and social dreaming. Cambridge, Massachusetts ; London: The MIT Press.

Escobar, A. (2018). Designs for the pluriverse : radical interdependence, autonomy, and the making of worlds. Durham : Duke University Press, 2018.

Giacomin, J. (2014). What Is Human Centred Design? The Design Journal, 17(4), 606–623.

Gothe, J. (2015). Tracing Country: Visual Communication Design and Chorography. Towards a critical practice in visual communication design. University of Wollongong Thesis Collection 1954-2016. Retrieved from

Gunn, W., Otto, T., & Smith, R. C. (2013). Design anthropology: theory and practice. London : Bloomsbury, 2013.

Jonas, W., Morelli, N., & Munch, J. (2009). Designing a product service system in a social framework: methodological and ethical considerations. Proceedings of the Design Research Society Conference 2008. Retrieved from

Kensing, F., & Greenbaum, J. (2013). Heritage: Having a say. In J. Simonsen & T. Robertson (Eds.), Routledge International Handbook of Participatory Design. Routledge.

Lawson, B. (2004). What designers know. Amsterdam: Elsevier/Architectural Press.

Lunenfeld, P. (2003). The Design Cluster. In Design Research: methods and perspectives. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Malpass, Matt. (2009). Contextualising critical design: a classification of critical design practices. In Design Connexity: Proceedings of the 8th European Academy of Design International Conference. Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland.

Malpass, Matt. (2016). Critical Design Practice: Theoretical Perspectives and Methods of Engagement. The Design Journal, 19(3), 473–489.

Malpass, Matthew. (2017). Critical design in context: history, theory, and practices. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Michael, M. (2012). “What Are We Busy Doing?”: Engaging the Idiot. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 37(5), 528–554.

Mitrović, I. (n.d.). Introduction to Speculative Design Practice. Retrieved 15 October 2018, from

Razzouk, R., & Shute, V. (2012). What Is Design Thinking and Why Is It Important? Review of Educational Research, 82(3), 330–348.

Sanders, E. B.-N., & Stappers, P. J. (2008). Co-creation and the new landscapes of design. CoDesign, 4(1), 5–18.

Simonsen, J., & Robertson, T. (Eds.). (2013). Routledge International Handbook of Participatory Design. New York: Routledge. Retrieved from

Wilkie, A. (2011). Regimes of Design, Logics of Users. Athenea Digital, 11, 317–334.



Thoughts > PhD Part 08: What is science communication?


Thoughts > Work in progress July 2018