Wrapping up – the end of the PhD

The final stages of a PhD can, it seems, get a bit messy with the various administrative function, the need for examiners to sign off on corrections and the need for your host institution to tick boxes, dot “i”s and cross “t”s. This institutional process is perhaps exacerbated when the internal machinations of higher education, along with the external mechanics of “the world as we know it” are now clearly seen to be running into the ground. Nevertheless, and not wishing to dwell too much on that ground here, my PhD is now formally finished. This stage has been marked quite definitively by the arrival of the certificate through the post. The thesis will surely end up at the British Library eventually but for now is anyway out there somewhere and apparently being downloaded by people interested in how design can be used as a method for studying other things.

In getting to that stage, a number of loose threads have been kicking around and one of these is tied up here. The Design Research Society commissioned some work in 2016 to tie into their 50th anniversary conference which I responded to by following up previous conferences. These were tweeted, as shown in the previous post, but also written up in more narrative fashion, published on the conference website. These posts are linked to here, following the DRS from its founding in 1962 to the apparent anarchy of the 1973 London conference. After 1973 things seemed to fall apart a little and the design of the design conference, as a conflation of circus performer and renaissance man, seemed to be a fitting end point for the study. The problems that design research as a discipline seems to have with this focus on one gender and the sense of being a circus genre continues to recur through, for example, the DRS discussion board.

So here, in part, is a memorialisation of my history of that circus.

Revisiting conference past: an introduction to the project

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Conference on design methods: Three days at Imperial College London in 1962.

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Ephemera: Recording and recalling the past: soundings of the founding.

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TED ’64: Early DRS members take the talks to Scarborough.

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The Design Method: an enduring classic?

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The formation of the Design Research Society: turning over a new page.

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Design Methods in Architecture: a heated debate between behaviour and phenomenon.

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Design Participation: Reyner Banham in Owens Park

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Design Activities: the circus comes to town

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Design Research – historical perspectives

As a distraction from finishing a PhD it’s may or may not be a good thing to be offered money to entice you away from the screen and make you do something else for a while. This inevitably leads back to the screen which in my case this year would lead me to work on a parallel blog for the Design Research Society exploring the history of the organisation which also maps onto the history of design research.

The culmination of this research would be a presentation at the DRS 50th anniversary conference which took place in Brighton at the end of June. From March to June, in between writing up the final chapters and then submitting a thesis, I would spend some distracting, diverting and entertaining moments talking to members of the DRS who were involved in setting it up or in the running of early conferences. This led to the creation of a number of blog posts on the DRS conference website and a twitter feed that would recreate the early conferences as they happened. This feed is embedded below – it’s a bit of a brantub – dig deep and find treasure. The DRS 2016 posts will be added to this blog in due course and the PhD corrections will be completed shortly.

Designing parliament

The UK parliamentary process looks like this:


But this representation is complicated by the fact that the system is bicameral: a piece of proposed legislation can be brought into either house first and must pass through both. The main stages that take place in both houses are:

  • First reading
  • Second Reading
  • Committee
  • Report Stage and Third Reading

This is repeated in the other house and once a Bill has passed a Third Reading in both it is given Royal Assent and becomes law. A couple of questions have arisen, in working through a thesis that endeavours to look at parliamentary debate from the perspective of design: How does this compare to stages in a design process? And what does it matter if it does?

The first of these is a kind of brake to the full on analysis of the debate transcripts which uses design concepts as a set of sensitising terms for reading the interactions between MPs and takes a step back to look at the process in which the debate takes place. This follows on from my earlier post about the design process as described at the 1962 conference on design methods at Imperial College.

The second question is one of those “so what” questions that will haunt me until I get to the end of this post, at which point I will hope to have something erudite to say about it. But first the easy bit…

Drawing on the simple Design Council “double diamond design” model that was superimposed on Ken Norris’ morphological process in that earlier post, the stages of a Bill passing through the house of commons looks a little like this:

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In this view, the underlying principles of the project are converged into the Bill that is presented to Parliament at the first reading. This is then, in the next stage, subjected to scrutiny by a more divergent group of MPs who participate in the debate at the second reading. The MPs converge on a simple, binary vote of yes or no to decide whether the Bill should proceed and the process is repeated through the subsequent stages. The divergent stages do not always contain the same number or scope of participants and the divergent stages might be a vote or a document that contains the state of the Bill as it has been agreed at that point in the process.

Overlaying a Bill with this generic design model provides a simple description of the Parliamentary process from a design perspective. However, it doesn’t account for the specific stages of the Parliamentary process which determine how the Bill progresses from one stage to the next between these different groups of participants. This progression, marked by the dots in between each diamond, can be compared with the stage gate model of the design process which has become an established prescriptive model of design used in various environments to ensure that a product meets specific criteria before progressing to the next stage of development. Where this development involves high levels of investment, such as when moving from a prototype car into production, then these stages are carefully controlled by senior members of the design team.

In the parliamentary context this product is most clearly seen to be the Bill, which as a piece of legislation, must meet the approval of MPs responsible for its scrutiny. As the Bill also represents the approval of a significant amount of investment public funding this process can also be seen as a series of stage gates controlling the development of the railway line that the Bill describes. This view of the process is represented in the diagram below which expands the points between each of the diamonds in the earlier diagram to reflect the mechanism taking place. The votes that are taken at the end of each debate, either in the full house or in committee, are effectively the gates that control the progress from one stage to the next and these votes, like the decision in a design process, are cast by MPs who are the most senior, elected decision makers in the country.

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So, there are some simple comparisons to be made that allow connections to be made between established models of how design works and the formal process of getting a Bill through Parliament. This provides some structural foundations for more detailed comparisons that might be made between what takes place within these stages and how these might then be construed as design activities. It also, beyond any methodological niceties that help to tidy up a sometimes sticky chapter of a thesis, demonstrates how the design of the Parliamentary process appears to be a quite sophisticated series of shifts in perspective that bring different participants together at different times in what might be seen as an attempt to achieve the best possible result in what can be complex, controversial intractable circumstances. Witness Prime Minister’s Question Time to understand why the notion of sophisticated in relation to Parliament is not always an easy claim to make.

And this I think might be part of the answer to that thorny so what question posed above. If looking at Parliament in this way helps us to understand how it works, and helps us to have some faith in the mechanism and those who participate in it then this, in the pursuit of democracy and accountability, is surely a worthy cause. There is also the corollary prospect that, given that the UK Parliamentary process has evolved through numerous reforms and refinements over a number of centuries, there is a possibility that the way this process unfolds might also provide some useful pointers to how design processes in other fields might be improved.


The design of design models

The design process has been described, modelled and designed quite a bit since one of the landmarks in the history of design studies, the 1962 conference at Imperial College on design methods.

Jones, J.C. & Thorney, D.G. (editors) (1963) Conference of design methods. Papers presented at the Conference on Systematic and Intuitive Methods in Engineering, Industrial Design. Architecture and Communications, London, September 1962, Oxford: Pergamon Press

An example of a kind of designing of the design process is quite clearly found in a paper given by Ken Norris (1963) at the Imperial College conference.  Norris cites the morphological method of Fritz Zwicky (1951) to demonstrate “the application of engineering first principles to take a fresh look at some old problems and to establish a novel approach to new ones.” Zwicky’s method was originally published in the Journal of American Rocket Society which suggests that, at the time, a morphological approach to design was something approaching rocket science, a notion underlined by the reputation of Norris’ engineering company who designed rocket powered cars.

Here then, at one of the earliest design conferences, is a world renowned engineer explaining his approach to design and how what he calls the “normal process of designing”, shown here in his Fig 1 (Norris, 1962:118),

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might be enhanced by adopting a methodical approach to the design process that is intended to support a “very conscious way of carrying [it] out” (Norris, 1962:118). His  revised model of the process explicitly recognises a number of additional steps through which the design engineer will pass to reach an acceptable solution that answers all the questions posed by the problem, shown below in his Figure 30 (Norris, 1962:139).

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This model is a single example from any number. Nigel Cross has some more (1989) which he divides into descriptive ones, that show how design is seen to be done, and prescriptive ones, that show how design should be done better. Cross includes a model from 1985 by French (Cross, 1989:21), a 1984 model by Archer (ibid:25), a 1984 model by Pahl and Beitz (ibid:27), VDI2221 (ibid:28) and March (ibid:30). Out of this long and growing pedigree Norris is notable for three reasons.

Firstly, Norris provides the two simple representations of before and after that allow a simple comparison of his own designs on design. The detail of these differences is not so important. Intervening years have produced many refinements as seen already by those outlined by Cross above (at almost exactly the mid-point between 1962 and 2016) and can are further developed, for example, in the pages of most issues of Design Studies, the Journal of the Design Research Society. But if we just take Norris’ two diagrams at face value we can isolate the changes he has introduced. These are two main interventions: the extension of the original specification stage to provide for the generation of more candidate solutions – Norris hopes for “all possible solutions” at this stage; and the extension into a more detailed specification stage that allows for those all of those solutions to reviewed as the most acceptable one is identified. The model turns a simple linear design narrative into one that creates a number of divergent propositions that converge onto a final solution. This model remains current, for example in the Design Council’s ‘double diamond‘ design process model.

doublediamondNorris’ final amendment is to the list of what kind of questions the design process can answer. To the “report” of the original model he adds a number of additional projects that include “drawings” and “prototypes” to suggest an iterative approach to design and an “etc.” that might mean the model could be applied to anything.

Secondly, the model is also notable for being the clearest visual example in the proceedings of the landmark 1962 conference on design methods. This makes it a de facto landmark model of the design process. It should be noted however that at the same conference Christopher Alexander described his method of designing  an Indian village in an early report of his Notes on the Synthesis of Form (Alexander, 1964) and various other speakers were proposing design methods as ways of approaching town planning, education, group communication and, via the connection between design and creativity, the fine art practice of a young Howard Hodgkin. Despite this the conference is generally considered to be the point at which design got scientific (Cross, 2001).

Thirdly is the status of the speaker. Here is an engineer who designed a car that had already set seven world speed records and whose driver was awarded the CBE in recognition of these achievements. At the time of the conference Norris was in the middle of developing Bluebird Proteus CN7,  a contender for the land speed record, that he used as an example in the paper referred to. Does this kind of material, and this kind of speaker, make it onto conference schedules any more?


Alexander, C., (1964) Notes on the Synthesis of Form, London:Harvard

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

Norris, K., (1963) The Morphological Approach to Engineering Design, Conference of design methods, Oxford:Pergamon

Zwicky, F., (1951) Tasks we face. Journal of American Rocket Society, 84 (March 1951)

Visual methods

Some time ago, at the height of what might come to be known as my “Prezi-mania”, I was working on how to turn my continuing use of Prezi as a presentation tool into something that might help me to explore and represent the data that was underpinning the development of my thesis. This led to a series of studies in Prezi that looked at how to use its pan and zoom and overlay facilities in ways that I had not previously considered.

One study brought together a collection of archival documents that were kind of coded. These had themes identified from a reading of the text and laid over the top of the facsimile document as a way of visually pulling out the essence of the document. Most of the documents in question were newspaper reports of meetings from the 1832 London and Birmingham Railway debate and it seemed that these “essences” might be blended together as a series of meetings took place.

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The next study took a more severe retro software aesthetic turn and focussed on more detail in the elements that could be identified in a series of meetings.
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And having finally sourced a copy of the Ken Garland game of “Connect” it was natural that these elements should be traced between meetings by the red, black and blue lines of his surrogate tube map. Let’s say Red for the People, Blue for the Objects, Black for Ideas. Inadvertently, and in the context of recent moves within the Labour party, this scheme seems to also map some kind of political landscape quite well. I’m not attached to this schema as a representation of  the data, a dose of ANT helped to mollify the urge for blunt categories, but we might keep the red (or black?) flag flying here for a while yet.
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But Prezi doesn’t really step up to the mark when it comes to analysis in the way that software like ATLAS.ti or nVivo does. The text handling is poor. It doesn’t like having a 3000 line text object on screen. At all. The search facility is absent. There is no theory builder or codebook.

But there still seems to be something in it that hasn’t quite been exhausted. The wide open canvas, the free panning and zooming and the lack of a constraining conceptual interface is compelling. It’s like something from the sixties.

The interface it does have can be a little fiddly when you’re trying to select and move very long and thin lines around the canvas for example. But these limitations can be worked around and the freedom of movement and thought that it provides is a great way of familiarising yourself with your data.

The full text of the articles can be read at full zoom. And at the other end of the scale, of building up a picture of what this data might mean to your research where a thesis map can be built as an overview that contains the theory, the data and the results. It’s like walking into the hut where Carlos Castaneda sits with an old woman and the perspective lines of the floor shift around and give way to the soaring clouds of a shamanic imagination. Sort of…well, it supports some kind of creativity anyway. It also gives you an online presentation of your work as a free bonus and a collaborative platform if you want to build stuff with colleagues or share with supervisors.

I’m not quite sure I’ve fully explored its potential yet and as thesis writing deadlines creep ever closer (whatever happened to that third year? whatever happened to today?) I’m not sure if I will manage to do so in the next few months.

But I have been invited to present some of these ideas at the International Visual Methods Conference in Brighton next week (September 16-18 2015).
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Could this be a reprieve for temps passe, a swansong for a passing fad or the renaissance of our inner shaman?

Creating a design space

The machinations and refinery of academia can sometimes be overwhelming. This can provoke a paralysis of analysis, but perhaps in a slightly earlier phase than the term’s application to, for example, public policy debate. A strategy, the success of which remains to be seen, is to attempt to engage in other activities alongside that of the PhD life and to use them to help to crash through the self imposed barriers to analytic clarity and academic conclusion. Continue reading

Drinking outside of the box – constructed worlds and designer frames

Kees Dorst’s new book, “Frame Innovation” arrived today [1a]. His first case study refers to how the proposed route Dutch high speed rail project took 15 years to get off the starting blocks due to the limited frames utilised by the politicians involved. So the book seems like a good prospect from this point alone. Also though, and more pertinently, because Dorst’s earlier work [1b] reflects, and is part, of the design canon. Continue reading

Universal education

As I continue to plug together the pieces of my thesis, I am searching sometimes for the right approach to what is sometimes called analysis and for a voice of sorts that will sit comfortably both on my desk and within this discipline of design. I also continue to notice an ill wind blowing through the corridors of knowledge that have now become the corridors of power. This wind rustles up all kinds of uncomfortable questions about the nature of knowledge and the nature of the institutions which are its traditional custodians. Continue reading

Talking about actors

It was time, last week, to crank up a long standing appointment I had with Bruno Latour. As my head was turning towards academic research activity, only and already two years ago now, I kept bumping into him.


As part of my initial scoping of railway history I found Greet De Block’s (2011) work on the development of the Belgian network in the nineteenth century to be a brilliant parallel and precedent to my own exploration of the London and Birmingham Railway and HS2 to follow. She presented a version of this paper at the Design History Society Networks of Design conference where Latour’s keynote speech (Latour, 2008) explicitly drew attention to the potential capability of the design discipline to address matters of concern. Continue reading