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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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?

In conference: the Design Research Society, 2014

I had the pleasure last month to present a paper at the Design Research Society Conference in Umea in Sweden. Full papers were double blind reviewed prior to acceptance and so I had high hopes that the event would be of excellent quality and that I would be able to do mine justice. With beer at £8 a pint I was at least confident that a hangover wouldn’t get in the way. It was a little odd that my supervisor’s other paper hadn’t been accepted.

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