“Design teachers, design practitioners, design students” was the brief. These are the people contributing to our research project. And this is how we had organised the contributors on the website. The consent form, which formally includes someone as a contributor in the project, asked a person to identify as a teacher, a practitioner, or a student of design. These categories were offered as a list of options. It practice, we began separating people accordingly on the “Contributors” page. Underneath the headings “Design teachers”, “Design Practitioners”, and “Design Students”, we placed people’s names and photos.

At first, there was only one person underneath the heading “Design Practitioners”. As we added the second practitioner, it became more difficult to maintain this separation. The practitioner had selected two options on the contributor identification section. Should this person be placed in both categories, in “teachers” and “practitioners”? Should we enforce the category “practitioners” (able to do so as website administrators)? Should we redefine the category “teachers” more closely to include only regular design teachers (able to do so as research leads)? The boundaries that define what categories include and exclude are fuzzy. Categories appear to be fixed at first, but they emerge as dynamic entities. Steven Bowker and Susan Leigh Star (1999) speak about the labour of maintaining categories, and the hidden work required to maintain these as viable categories, making them appear to be “natural”. Categories change as elements do not fit neatly, and as category boundaries require work to be able to include or exclude elements. Category boundaries are negotiated – widened and tightened – during the work of organising elements. Categories are defined by what they are able to include and exclude. Categories do not exist naturally – they are the products of negotiating boundaries.

The boundaries of categories are not only negotiated by people, they can also be enforced by material factors. Bowker & Star write that the original International Classification of Diseases (ICD) defined 200 different diseases. But these 200 diseases were defined “not because of the nature of the human body and its problems but because this was the maximum number that would fit the large census sheets then in use.” (p. 46). What counted as a disease was defined not only what doctors, patients and medical administrators had negotiated, but also how the census sheet was laid out, and how it was usable. In our research the consent form and the contributor identification section participated in the categorising of people.

Earlier we raised the question the categorisation of “who”, and as who someone contributes. And that our form – offering the options “teacher”, “practitioner”, or “student” should enable the conversation around how roles are defined in projects. The form and its three identity options has facilitated a first challenge. The “practitioner” refusing the singular identification as a practitioner, and identifying as a teacher as well, made us rethink the categories. We have now changed the categorisation of contributors on the website, and there are now two sections remaining – “teachers” and “students”.

Maintaining categorisations of contributors maintains not only separations between people, but also asserts hierarchies between groups. It is the university teachers who lead the research project, who are responsible, who have the contact with the students, who invited the practitioners to work with their students. Therefore, the teachers are always at the top of the list of contributors, as the leaders and the enablers enabling the research. The form assists this separation. It asks people to identify as one of three: teacher, practitioner, or student. A person checking two options (teacher and practitioner) thus reframed this identity exercise by not seeing these identity options as exclusive. This reframing enforced a rethinking of categories. It made us change the web page “Contributors”. It made the university teachers give up a litte bit of the space at the top of the page.

Design research helps us rethink in what ways hierarchies are maintained at the sites of knowledge production. This research project makes inquiries into who gets to count as someone who “knows” knowledge, and who “learns” knowledge or who “applies” knowledge. Practice-based research questions the view that practitioners only “apply” knowledge they once acquired by “learning” at university by people who “taught” them. Design practitioners are seen as those who produce design knowledge at their sites of work.

By including everyone as a researcher – “practitioners”, “students”, and “teachers”, we deliberately blur these boundaries of who knows design. A boundary changed – that between university teachers and design practitioners. On the “Contributors” page they are both now in the category “teachers”. The research consent form reinforced this boundary initially, but then it was complicit in allowing a change by one person’s creative use of it.

 

References

Bowker, Geoffrey C., & Star, Susan Leigh. (1999). Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. London: The MIT Press.