Design as an agent for change.
Design is evolving with new theories, practices, and technologies that shift the landscape of visual communication—what it is, what it can do, how it is achieved, and what it affects within the larger cultural landscape. Design can make a difference in our communities, and the implications of design in our society can be instrumental in solving complex problems and creating better experiences for people in diverse contexts. Design can challenge the visual and cultural landscape, disrupting the status quo and fostering new ways of thinking. With emerging technologies and processes, design can lead to unexpected outcomes, speculating on alternative solutions and expanding the design discourse as a whole. As a researcher, I expand this dialogue of the discipline with four key approaches—interdisciplinary tactics, collaboration and participation, experimental processes, and systemic thinking.
Through interdisciplinary tactics, I approach design with a broad range of knowledge and perspectives, which expands on the methods, processes, and outcomes that I use to create designed artifacts and experiences. My work overlaps neighboring disciplines of design such as industrial design, interior design, architecture, motion design, user-interface design, user-experience design, interactive design, and social design, and I refer to the humanities, social sciences, arts, and technology areas often. I collaborate and participate with researchers, practitioners, and stakeholders to enable a better understanding of the problem at hand and create a stronger framework of purpose and goals. I exercise an open design process across most facets of my work. I believe that design should be inclusive and accessible, and collaboration and engagement are vital components for achieving this. I incorporate experimental processes throughout my work, and consider design a tool for critical thinking and speculation, shifting expectations of design processes and artifacts. The results offer new ways of thinking about design’s purpose and goals, often challenging assumptions to discover alternative solutions to complex problems. The more interdisciplinary, collaborative, and experimental my research work becomes, the more I rely on systemic thinking in the design process. Recognizing that the artifacts we create are often part of a more complex designed experience, I think holistically about the goals, outcomes, and evaluation of my work. My work ranges from the physical to the digital, from the static to the dynamic, from the 2-dimensional to the 3-dimensional, and from the small to the large. My primary means of disseminating work is through written, peer-reviewed publications, and I often write in response to making as part of my process.
Much of my work focuses on design for social impact, specifically regarding community development. I investigate how design can foster a stronger sense of place for citizens in underserved neighborhoods, by creating better experiences and interactions between residents—a research topic that emerged from my graduate studies at Georgia State University. My thesis work explored how a guerrilla campaign might challenge abandoned, neglected, and forgotten areas of the city by shining a light on first-hand testimonials of residents in the form of DOT street signage. The project brought awareness to the plight of the community by providing a platform for residents to speak out about their concerns. The project won an AIGA Environmental Graphics Award and was published in The Overlapping of Popular and Contemporary Cultures Journal. In 2013, I developed a stewardship campaign, Make Memphis, for community residents in South Memphis. This campaign was based on a participatory model, where residents in the community created painted signage via pre-designed stencils that were made available at community events. The work from these events was then installed directly on abandoned residential properties.
Recent inquiries of how to measure social impact concerning design activism have led me to present work at the AIGA Design Educators conference, 2015, to share an evaluation tool for assessing social design projects. Currently, I’m working on a paper, “Activism & Impact: Assessing social design in graphic design curricula,” which investigates various assessment strategies from other disciplines to introduce a unique evaluation method for social impact as a deliverable in design education. The paper discusses the importance of altering the design process to include phases such as forecasting outcomes, defining measurable items, collecting data, and evaluating outcomes. In the paper, I refer to a public service announcement project, Fight [Gun] Violence, which I introduced to students in the Advertising Design class at Memphis College of Art. Students designed “conflict resolution” wearable posters and engaged with the community to discuss issues of gun violence in the city. When appropriate, I overlap teaching opportunities with my research agenda.
I have facilitated many civic-minded projects in the community since 2013, primarily spatial interventions, to help residents realize community development projects in their neighborhoods. Interested in the sustainability and management of these endeavors, I developed a “citizen-inclusive” design framework that applies an open, participatory model to engage the community, introducing the designer as a strategist, while the resident takes on the role of participant and maker. Last year, I presented a paper, “Design as process, artistic interventions and civic-minded improvements as artifacts: applying an open model of community engagement in social contexts,” at the Cumulus Open-Design for E-very-thing Conference, 2016, in Hong Kong. Inspired by DIY and open-source culture, I have also researched “citizen-driven” endeavors, which I define as an unsolicited or unsanctioned interventions where residents take ownership of abandoned, forgotten, or inauthentic space and repurpose it for their benefit. These unique types of community development projects empower citizens to be critical makers in their communities. Investigating this phenomenon from a global perspective, I co-wrote a paper with colleague, Cotter Christian, Interior Design Professor at Parsons, The New School, “A Catalyst for Change: Understanding Characteristics of Citizen-driven Placemaking Endeavors Across Diverse Communities,” which examined the concept of place and four citizen-driven category types for understanding the range and intent of these practices. The paper was chosen for publication to the 10th volume of Design Principles and Practices: An International Journal—Annual Review and won the International Award for Excellence, Volume 10, Design Principles and Practices Collection, 2016.
Interested in how digital experiences can foster a sense of place in communities and emerging technologies can act as catalysts for inclusivity, I presented research at the Design Inquiry Residency, Stations, June 2013 that investigates many forms of digital environments like application design for mobile devices and kiosks, as well as large-scale installations and interventions in the form of video, motion, and interactive that augment physical environments. The research, prepared in collaboration with Cotter Christian, discusses how digital experiences in the context of place can either enhance or distract from the user experience, changing the visual landscape of one’s surroundings and potentially the activities and interactions that take place within. The first publication that emerged from this research was the paper, “Rethinking the Interior Design User Experience Journey: How Instagram is Changing User Perception of Interior Environments,” presented at Designing Experiences: The Ballerina on the Elephant, Nov 2014. The paper discussed the effects of social media, Instagram, on designed interior environments, specifically branded environments for mall shoppers in Hong Kong. This past year, we worked on the chapter, “Motion Design in the Context of Place,” that will appear in the book, The Theory and Practice of Motion Design: Critical Perspectives and Professional Practice, Routledge, 2018, edited by Brian Stone and Leah Wahlin. The chapter reviews select examples of large-scale digital installations and interventions, citing types of use such as commercial advertising and branding, motion sensor and interactive data-visualizations, artistic and performative experiences, and digital information systems, and their affects on place. I am currently experimenting with digital design applications such as generative art, motion, interactive, and UI/UX, and am interested in exploring design uses for virtual reality platforms, to explore how digital environments may augment user experiences while exploring concepts of usability, inclusion/exclusion, accessibility, and place.
Shifts in design technologies expand the mediums where designers can work. It can be a tool for making, but it can also be a tool for collaboration and speculation, ultimately shifting design processes. I began exploring this topic with a collaborative group called Margin, and participated in a handful of open-platform salons and workshops. Following these experimental collaborations, I co-wrote an essay, “Issues of Technology,” with Rebecca Tegtmeyer, Assistant Professor of Graphic Design, Michigan State University, which was published in Margin: A Journal of Design, Collaboration and Experimentation, 2013. Interested in the role of technology in collaboration and speculation, we examine the use of present technologies to speculate future possibilities for remote design collaboration, where interactions and exchanges are limited to those mediated by technological devices. We have built and tested multiple collaborative drawing robots that work across remote interfaces to make physical artifacts off the screen. Last year, we presented this work at the Design Inquiry Residency, Wild_ _ness // Weird_ness, Aug 2016, in West Bamfield on Vancouver Island. The residency helped shape our most recent publication, “Speculating the Possibilities for Remote Collaborative Design Research: The Experimentations of a Drawing Robot,” which was presented at the European Academy of Design Conference in Rome, April 2017, and published in The Design Journal’s supplement issue of the conference proceedings. Additionally, select drawings and videos from the project were on display at the Inside/outside: Working our way out of the damaged now Exhibition held at San Francisco State Design Gallery, curated by Joshua Singer, Feb-Mar 2017. To date, we have developed five drawing robots; each robot employs different technologies to experiment with a range of features for movement and drawing. Next steps include improving and expanding the robot tools and the driver interface, ultimately exploring new ways of making on and off the screen in remote scenarios. We are also considering how to streamline the build and sever setup system to design a robot kit that we can share with new collaborators, opening the design process to others, and encouraging technical literacy.
As my research develops, I will continue to think about design as an agent for change in my work. Designed artifacts and experiences, and the technologies and processes that we use to make them, shift the way we perceive information and view the world around us, having a crucial impact on solving complex issues, speculating on new possibilities, and improving user experiences within diverse contexts.