The Measurement of Design (and Other Squishy Concepts), or, Why Designers Need Scholars

What do academics do that designers don’t? And why should designers care?Hanging rulers, taken by Unhindered by Talent  (Flickr)

These were some of the challenging questions asked at the Design & the Creative Industries: Working Together with Universities conference last Friday in Brighton. As a scholar and teacher, I was feeling rather unappreciated (and frankly over-valued by society, relative to all of Those Who Can Do so Don’t Teach I was surrounded by in the audience).

I was forced to grapple with the value of my own line of work. This is what I came up with: Scholars are good at certain things that designers and artists need, and vice versa.

1. The first is measurement.

Designers often need to measure the value of their work, or measure the impact of their new design solutions on a particular problem. As management scholars, my peers and I attempt to defensibly quantify such squishy variables as “performance,” “effectiveness,” “leadership,” and “cooperation.”

Personally my research focuses on creativity, design and innovation. Here are a few ways I’ve measured creativity in a product design setting.

Measuring is difficult but serious business – without measurement
we can easily fool ourselves into believing whatever is most convenient from our point of view! Measurement helps you learn by being shocked by reality, which is often so much more interesting than the simplistic realities we often imagine.

2. The second is abstraction.

Designers are experts at extracting insights from observation. They create value by embodying that new knowledge (about latent user needs, social context, emotional meaning, etc.) into solutions to real problems. Scholars could help designers learn to abstract more generalizable lessons – principles – from their work, so that what’s learned in the design of one solution could be applied to many others in vastly different contexts.

Yes, scholars have a lot to learn from design. A LOT!!

But design also has a lot it can learn from scholars. Higher education institutions can be a resource for designers in more ways than we’re probably leveraging right now.

For instance, designers could help make university research more useful by designing solutions to important problems based on insights derived from research findings. Scholars could also learn to do better research design (such as finding clever new experimental manipulations, designing survey and interview interactions and instruments, and so on).

Photo 2In these images from my Open Notebook you’ll see I have a few other ideas about What Academics are Good For, including:

3. Evaluating Knowledge
4. Sharing Knowledge & Making it Digestible
5. Specialization
6. Building on Knowns & Identifying Unknowns (“specifying ignorance”)

7. Structuring Learning

Any other ideas?  What skills do scholars, researchers, and academics have that may be valuable to designers, artists, and others in the creative industries? Please share your ideas in the comments below.  (Oh btw, dignity and professional self worth restored!  Sometimes you just have to think by writing to chase those blues away…)

One Reply to “The Measurement of Design (and Other Squishy Concepts), or, Why Designers Need Scholars”

Comments are closed.