Workshop "Research Through Design in Situ" at the DIS 2020 More Than Human Centred Design

We have participated at the DIS 2020 Conference which had the topic "More than human centred design". In the workshop "Research Through Design in Situ: Discussing the Domains and Impact of Design Research" we presented the theoretical framework of 'Reconfiguring Artefacts'.

With the title "This is a design imaginary" the extended abstract sought to provoke a discussion on the research foundations of design. It was a lively debate and we enjoyed the exchange.


I propose to research design as the object of research. We may as well start with researching ourselves, the designers and our practices, as we acknowledge that methods and research objects constitute each other, just as material worlds and our imaginations reconfigure each other. I draw on 15 years of design practice to argue that the thorny issues of the world can be tackled by a design (research) that is an epistemological device, sensitive to itself changing in practice alongside the issues it is tackling.

Read the extended abstract: This is a design imaginary - DIS Extended abstract

Design as a speculative process

We spent a day with Marianne Pührerfellner exploring design fiction (Bleeker, 2009) and how it might help us in the design process.

Using fiction to think about the future sounds more unusual than it is. Fiction is present in everyday life: We see the example of NASA taking carefully curated human data records to space (on gold plated disks) with the vision that they might be picked up by life in another dimension of time or space (1). Also, in film and TV the future is a common trope, with examples such as video phoning in Metropolis (2), gesture-based interactions in Minority Report (3), or artificially intelligent cars in Night Rider (4).

Design fiction is a tool that offers a new perspective on the future, giving us the space to generate awareness, raise concerns or challenge values about social or technological developments (Pührerfellner, 2020). The Globes, 2019, is a project by Dunne and Raby, showing all the possible and impossible shapes of the Earth as a planet, reminding us, and illustrating that there is more than one concept to explain our world. It reveals design as a tool to inquire and open up our views on the world. (5)
In contrast to traditional ways of analysing and projecting futures, design fiction offers a broader context. Through developing speculative objects, we are able to enlarge the space of alternative contexts and possible futures enormously.

In our workshop, we used the tool “The Thing from the Future” to explore this way of designing (Candy and Watson, 2015). The Thing from the Future is an imagination game, which guides designers by setting certain parameters towards coming up with their alternative futures. The parameters are set out to give constraints about the ARC of trajectories of the future (will it grow, collapse, be ordered and disciplined, or transformed), a TERRAIN describing the contextual landscape, a particular OBJECT the designer should focus on, and the MOOD that describes the experience of that future.

Design fiction was a fantastic instrument to explore design and its capacities.


Bleeker, J. (2009). Design fiction: A short essay on design, science, fact and fiction. Near future laboratory, 29.
Candy, Stuart and Watson, Jeff. (2015). The thing from the future. Accessed at
Pührerfellner, Marianne. (2020). Design fiction, Workshop MxD @ New Design University.


Possibilities for creativity in ambiguous plans

"Shared understanding" is one of the key elements that design projects reference as the device enabling innovation and progress (Patton, 2014). This week, in our design project, we seem to have temporarily lost this helpful device. So we would like to reflect hier briefly on the understanding that allows us to progress in a design project, and the roles that course leaders and students take in producing and maintaining this understanding.

"Shared understanding" may even be a tautology (Doppelaussage). Knowledge does not rely on one person alone, but knowledge is always a social process which is already defined through the relationship between the person knowing and their surrounding community (Gherardi & Nicolini, 2006). Rather than describing understanding – knowing – as a linear process of a person – a teacher – imparting knowledge on another person – a student – it is possible to conceptualise understanding as an image, held together by the people who produced it. Knowledge is not the product of a transmission of a substance from actor A to actor B. Much rather, we are interested in looking at knowledge as a relationship that exists between actors. Therefore, we view knowing as a thing that is coproduced between people.

We run this research project on the basis of several student projects around innovation. For one design project (on sustainable clothing), we pooled the hours of two courses together. We (the course leaders) wanted to increase the hours available for the project, and we also had a particular concept in mind, when defining this format. Our aim was to use the first course, "Service Design", for defining and learning the method, and to use the second course, "MxD Studio", for the actual design work. This was in line with the curricula of both courses. We had arranged the time tables accordingly, so developing the method would take place during the first half of the semester, and the design work would take place in the second half. As the leaders of these courses, it made absolute sense for us, to run the student project in this way. Our devices - the initial planning at the beginning of the year, the time tables, and the brief catch up conversations in between, were enough to assure us of our plan and how we would follow it. It was not until a month into the course had passed, that we realised that we had not done our best in sharing this understanding with the students. We realised that things were moving a little slower than usual, and we heard students complain about the lack of time for the project and how frustrating that was. A little alarmed, we were glad when the students approached us for a talk.

It became obvious that, what we had taken for granted - the vision we had for the project, and the amalgamating of two courses - was not what the view from the side of the students. They had worried that they would run out of time designing a useful solution in the "Service design" course, and then having to begin designing the next thing in the "MxD Studio" (this was the understanding they had built amongst themselves). The students have their own communication channels, such as WhatsApp, and it was on these - for us course leaders inaccessible - channels that they had built this understanding. We realised how we had mis-communicated; as the course leaders not making our pooled-hours concept accessible; at the same time as the students keeping their worry about time-waste to themselves. We had each built an understanding which was not accessible to the other.

When we finally spoke about this miscommunication, one of the authors had the following metaphor from basketball to share: When a basketball pass fails, then it was neither the thrower, nor that catcher, who is responsible alone for the failed pass, but both are responsible together. To equate successful course communication with a basketball pass, course leading does not mean to be responsible for throwing the ball well, while students are merely responsible for catching the ball. But course progress / a pass happens in the relationship between the thrower/leader and the catcher/student. Knowledge creation, learning, and course progress happen in the relationship between leaders and students.

Being offered a concept of how the project is going to be run - the leader's concept of pooling hours, and of doing 'method first' and 'design after' - does not need to be received by the students in a passive fashion, especially when it is represented in an ambiguous way.

Ambiguity in plans may not be a liability - it may be an opportunity that allows for creativity.

A plan, where not all elements are defined, can be appropriated and turned into a thing one shares ownership in. A concept that is offered up as an insufficiently defined plan can be used as an unfinished item waiting to be completed, and one's own elements can be added into this plan. The power to decide how a project will be run is relational between people and the devices of negotiation. Elements in the plan are negotiable in the enactment of the plan. It is within this negotiation that the possibilities lie for one's own ideas. To conceive of understanding as relational (between actors) instead of located with individuals, allows greater contributions to outcomes of proposed actions. There is an important space between conformity and freedom in which one's own ideas can become a crucial and defining part of a project (Harman & Bohemia, 2007).

Just as the successful basketball pass exists in the relationship between the thrower and the catcher, so lives the successful project progress in the interaction between the course leaders and the students. Important are the artefacts of communication: the communication channels, and the representations of the project progress plan. A leader's version of a plan may be offered by the leaders, but an ambiguous representation can, instead of allowing it to be the source of frustration, be appropriated by students to be made their own.


Gherardi, Silvia, & Nicolini, Davide. (2006). Organizational knowledge: The texture of workplace learning. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Harman, Kerry, & Bohemia, Erik. (2007). Another way of thinking: Creativity and Conformity. Paper presented at the Creativity or Conformity? Building Cultures of Creativity in Higher Education, Cardiff.

Patton, Jeff. (2014). User story mapping: discover the whole story, build the right product. Cambridge: O'Reilly.

"You are here" as the creation of shared understanding

In a map, you know where you are. “You are here” is the confirmation of your position in the landscape within which you and others are moving. Knowing your current position is crucial if you want to map a path to a particular place. This is the case in a design project, because you want to get from “here” (the now) to “there” (a desired future state) where you will have made your innovation. Successful collaborative design teams are described to be aligned in their viewpoints, so they are able to operate in a “truly interdisciplinary” fashion (Brown, 2009).

The “you are here” metaphor first appeared in a phone conversation with Danny Hope in consultation for our project. He used the metaphor of “landscape”, and we discussed the workability of this image. Landscape as a metaphor, as an image, as an artefact shaping design activity.

For our project, we are exploring mapping as a tool to facilitate our collaboration. Creating a user journey map or a user story map is based on the collecting of data about a use practice. Use practices are represented as activities, tasks, ideas, emotions, and materials/technologies used. The method we explored in detail is "User Story Mapping", which Jeff Patton explains in a video (1). In user story mapping there is usually a chronological order (from left to right), and a hierarchy from larger activities to smaller tasks and resources needed (from top to bottom). The data feeding the map is made up of interviews, observations, own experiences and ideas, as well as technical details and business goals. The mapping activity is an arranging and ordering of data. This activity is done by the team in collaboration. The map is an artefact that ensures the representation of all data collected. Furthermore, the map enables the creation of a “here” position for the team within the landscape they are seeking to change.

The “here” is a form of validation within the team of where to begin a project. In science, the validity of data is commonly enriched by triangulation through capturing “different dimensions of the same phenomenon.” (2) These different dimensions can be understood as the different viewpoints of team members. The map is a design tool to aid the process of amalgamating these different viewpoints. People have different ideas and different understandings of things. Jeff Patton (2014) visualises these different ideas as differently shaped forms. Ideas begin to form at the beginning of a project. The ordering activity begins even before user data is collected. Each team member’s ideas are already the products of ordering processes. The map facilitates the alignment of these ordering processes that already take place. 

The mapping activity facilitates the creation of a shared understanding, through aligning individually shaped ideas. Jeff Patton theorises that through team members visualising their individual ideas in the map, the amalgamation of these individual ideas can be negotiated. The negotiation takes place through agreeing how elements on the map are arranged and ordered. Through conversations that challenge each others’ ideas mutual understandings are formed and visualised. He further describes that the conversations are experienced as a moment in time and space, and therefore last as a shared memory. The map aligns individually shaped ideas into one shared idea. Shared understanding within a project can be a useful resource for working together on a project successfully. The mapping activity facilitates the negotiation of a “here” that can be the beginning of the track towards the future.






Brown, Tim. (2009). Change by design: how design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Patton, Jeff. (2014). User story mapping: discover the whole story, build the right product. Cambridge: O'Reilly.

The double life of design imaginaries

In design, futures do not happen, they are made. Or at least this is how design likes to think about itself.

Design processes are invented and applied in order to solve the gaps in production processes. We center the user in order to bridge production and use. We think about technology and experience through a holistic view on the tangible and the intangible. We seek to closely tie together thinking and doing in rapid iterations. Within the design process we integrate different expert knowledges located with individuals and their practices. Design processes are very good at pointing out unnecessary gaps in the work around creating products and services, and the issues that might follow. Design processes suggest new orders in organising this work, so these issues can be overcome. Design processes therefore serve important goals and principles in changing realities and creating futures.

However, one aspect in design has not received the attention it deserves. Design processes, as they are conceived and used in organisations, are based on the tradition of knowing in design. But this particular treatment of knowledge - as designers use it - has largely been ignored. Design practices appreciate the dual nature of knowledge. Designers work in reflective conversation with the materials (Schön, 1983). When designers change worlds from what exists now to future realities, they do not do this alone. This work is mediated by material artefacts, such as sketches, models, and forms of making. Knowledge does not exist within the designer alone, it is located within the conversation with the materials. Design knowledge is entangled in both, materials and ideas. This is an integral part of how design works. It is often left aside, when thinking about design processes, but it is an important aspect to consider when trying to make design processes work better.

Finke, Ward, and Smith (1992) used the concept of "preinventive structures" in order to describe material representations of creative processes, serving the visibility of the current state of thinking and evoke collaborative creativity. In the words of Ball, Linden, and Christensen (2020), "preinventive structures are like partial solution insights or fragmentary solution ideas that have the potential to form full-blown solutions for the creative task at hand. The properties of preinventive structures can be exploited during the exploratory phase, during which one seeks to interpret them in meaningful ways" (p. 27).

I propose to go one step further, and to treat these preinventive structures not only as material representations of collaborative creativity, but also as material collaborators. According to the traditions of design, design knowledge is located in the collaboration between the designers and the materials. Therefore, close attention needs to be paid to the materials and the ideas that bundle into material artefacts, which are then used to negotiate projects.

Such artefacts can be informal plans and intentions, or formal plans such as design processes, user journey maps, experience maps, ...  Many ideas are floated and voiced. Some ideas disappear, and some ideas bundle as a plan. These plans are "imaginaries", and products of temporary alignment in creative collaboration. Imaginaries collaborate in design. They evoke a possible future to come true.

It is the making of plans in design, which is interesting, and I propose to view these plans both as representations and as collaborators (according to the traditions of design). These plans – imaginaries – are made and deployed into collaboration, where they exist as both, an idea and material artefact.

An imaginary is the material deployment of an idea. It participates thus in collaboration. In the ongoing negotiation around the future, an imaginary stepwise helps change material worlds. Material reality changes, and the imaginary changes with it.

When collaborative design work is viewed like this, design can be reformulated as an approach to collaborative innovation.

Question that emerge for this research, are the formulation of this approach, and the concept and visualisation of an ideal imaginary. How does an imaginary participate in collaboration? How do we need to work with it? What do various formats and properties afford?


Ball, Linden J., & Christensen, Bo T. (2020). How sticky notes support cognitive and socio-cognitive processes in the generation and exploration of creative ideas. In Sticky Creativity (pp. 19-51). London: Academic Press.
Finke, Ronald A., Thomas B. Ward, and Steven M. Smith. "Creative cognition: Theory, research, and applications." (1992).
Hutchins, Edwin. (2005). Material anchors for conceptual blends. Journal of Pragmatics, 37, 1555-1577.
Schön, Donald A. (1983). The reflective practitioner how professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.

As who are you contributing to this research?

In a previous short paper I suggested that it might be useful in a collaborative design process for a person to have not only the opportunity to define in what activities she/he wants to participate, but also as who (Neubauer, 2019). Knowledge and expertise is ascribed to professional roles and positions. Through the ascribing of job roles to activities, and through the ordering of activities in chronological design processes, relations are put into place between people which may effect constraints and possibilities for them. As an example I have previously described how when designers deal with the human aspect of a task before handing the task to a software engineer for technical consideration, there is a constraint in executing the task for the engineer, while there are many possibilities in interpreting user needs for the designer (ibid). The designer is here related to the human aspect (as the designer's knowledge is understood to be human-centred) and the engineer is related to the technical aspect (as the engineer's knowledge is understood to be technical). When the human aspect is defined to take priority over the technical aspect in the design process, a constraint is introduced for the engineer.

For this research, we have defined roles in the research plan:

  • Design educators and researchers
  • Design practitioner novices
  • Expert design practitioners

The roles ascribed to individual people participating cannot be assumed to naturally 'be' as they are viewed by the lead researchers writing the research plan. In the consent form detailing the participation in this research, we therefore ask in what role the person wants to contribute. However, it can be assumed that roles manifest through more than only forms that are filled out, and research plans. Therefore, a 'freedom' in choosing the role of contribution is surely never fully given. But a reflection on roles is necessary, and through this, shifts may become a possibility.

Ruth Neubauer (2019): Design Thinking: From Individual Thinking Towards a Technohuman Reconfiguration. In: Proceedings of the 17th European Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work: The International Venue on Practice-centred Computing and the Design of Cooperation Technologies - Demos and Posters, Reports of the European Society for Socially Embedded Technologies (ISSN 2510-2591), DOI: 10.18420/ecscw2019_p06

Activities of this research

The following activities are planned to be carried out during the research process:

  1. Development of the practice-based design research framework
    • For building the theoretical foundation for the research project we develop a research framework which bridges design processes from design practice, with the theorising of the concept of reconfiguration from design practice, which can be found in Ambiguity (Gaver, Beaver, & Benford, 2003), Boundary objects (Carlile, 2004; Star & Griesemer, 1989), und Affordances (Gibson, 2015). This research framework will guide the study.
  2. Exploration and design of design methods through practice-based workshops.
    • Based on the (in the framework development) identified design process approaches in design practice, we invite design practitioners to work with design students and to explore and design the collaborative methods with them.
  3. Exploration and design of design methods through reflective conversation with design practitioners, design researchers, and design educators
    • Through reflective conversations with design practitioners, design researchers, and design educators are adding additional viewpoints and input from other sites of practice, research, and education.
  4. Live research platform and dissemination
    • This website functions as a live research lab and dissemination platform. It will contain a description of the research study, its theoretical framework, and it will be updated with new content in an ongoing manner through all contributors.


Management by Design: Studying designerly ways of knowing

Design as a method is an approach that extends the ability to "give shape” to innovative technologies and services, and constitutes design as the shaping of relationships and organisational structures that inspire innovation. Collaborative creativity should be harnessed for innovation and change. In an increasingly complex world design becomes a strategy in organising societal and organisational needs, desires, and goals in human-centred ways.

The underlying theory is that design is a particular form of knowledge which cannot be studied and taught in scientific and humanistic subjects of education. The design theorist Nigel Cross proposes design as a “'third area' of education” defining this area "by contrasting it with the other two – sciences and humanities” (1982, p. 221). And Tim Brown calls a “third way” and an “integrated approach” between the two pillars of “feeling, intuition, and inspiration” and “the rational and the analytical” (2009, p. 4). Design therefore poses an important alternative dimension in knowledge production, scholarship and training.

Management by design (MxD) is a university course which equips students with design as a method of managing organisations, innovation, and change processes. It is an alternative approach to organising and leadership, following the principles of design thinking. The novelty of this management approach, and this application of design evokes many questions, still. “It is difficult to explain to others what I am studying”, as one student put it. Explaining what MxD is, may be challenging to students amid traditional understandings of design and of management. However, the current openness of the concept of MxD bears the opportunity to define it, design it, and create it as something we want and need it to be, and it allows us to shape MxD as the thing that we think is best. The research project coming forward is a design project in which we explore MxD with students and with experienced designers as an approach to innovation, and in which we aspire to designing the ways we use this approach.

We are taking as our starting point the famous postulation that designers have particular ways of thinking and knowing in “designerly” ways (Cross, 1982, 2001). It is designers' ways of thinking that can be used to tackle "ill-defined, ill-structured, or 'wicked'” problems (Cross, 1982, p. 224, quoting Rittel and Webber, 1973). The nature of designers' ways of thinking is illustrated as "solution-focused", “constructive", and able to use particular codes or “object languages” (Cross, 1982, p. 226).


Cross describes designers as being “solution-focused” and “problem-solve by synthesis" in contrast to scientists who “problem-solve by analysis” (pp. 223–226). It is less important to understand a problem analytically. It is more important to practically try out solutions that might fit. “A central feature of design activity […] is a process of 'satisficing' rather than optimizing; producing any one of what might well be a large range of satisfactory solutions rather than attempting to generate the one hypothetically-optimum solution.” (p. 224)


Designers apply a “constructive” process of "pattern synthesis, rather than pattern recognition” (p. 224). By “pattern synthesis", Cross means “a pattern (or some other ordering principle) [that] seemingly has to be imposed in order to make a solution possible” (p. 224). Designers therefore, instead of waiting for a solution to arise in contemplation, become active in constructing patterns (ordering principles) that are tentatively applied and tested for being a possible solution.

Codes, ordering principles and object languages

This process of constructing patterns can be compared to constructing and “learning an artificial ‘language’, a kind of code which transforms ’thoughts’ into ‘words’”. Cross describes designerly knowing as “embodied” in this code, difficult to “externalise”, and present as a “tacit knowledge – ie they know it in the same way that a skilled person 'knows' how to perform that skill” (p. 224).
Designers use "'codes' that translate abstract requirements into concrete objects”. Codes and ordering principles are also “the knowledge that resides in objects” (p. 225). 'To know’ as a designer, means to be able to “read” and “write” codes (ordering principles) from and into objects. Designers are able to "understand what messages objects communicate, and they can create new objects which embody new messages.” In their dual function, Cross calls these codes and orders “object languages” (p. 226).

Designerly ways of knowing are described as the solution-focused construction of dual reading-writing codes that order and are ordered simultaneously.

Design as a dual reading-writing, ordering-ordered methodology

The ‘reading’ and ‘writing’ of codes, the simultaneous application of ordering principles, and being ordered by ordering principles, is the focus of our research project coming forward. We will be exploring and developing our approach to design. The objects, or artefacts, of design, which form into a methodology of language, are the object of our design project. There is a circular meaning here on purpose: As we use and explore design as a method, we reshape design as a method. As we use and explore the artefacts of design and how they configure things, we reconfigure design itself – our method of MxD.

The theoretical foundations of design thinking describe the tacit knowledge present in the thinking of the designer. Therefore it is important to investigate design thinking at these sites of designerly thinking and doing. Designerly thinking and doing needs to be explored in design practice (Zimmermann, Forlizzi and Shelley, 2007). Our sites of exploration will be design projects with design students, enhanced through the knowledge of experienced designers who work in innovation practice. This form of inquiry uses the research format of practice-based design research (Vaughan, 2017). The innovation of design, including any theory we derive from it, can only take place in and through the practice of design.


Brown, Tim. (2009). Change by design: how design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Cross, Nigel. (1982). Designerly ways of knowing. Design Studies, 3(4), 221–227.
Cross, Nigel. (2001). Designerly Ways of Knowing: Design Discipline Versus Design Science. Design Issues, 17(3), 49–55.
Rittel, Horst W. J., & Webber, Melvin M. (1973). Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences, 4(1), 155–169.
Zimmerman, John, Forlizzi, Jodi, & Evenson, Shelley. (2007). Research through design as a method for interaction design research in HCI. Paper presented at the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems, San Jose, CA, USA.
Vaughan, Laurene (Ed.) (2017). Practice-based design research: Bloomsbury Publishing.