The importance of revealing your practices in “practice-led” research
Originally posted to the PhD-Design email discussion list on 20 November 2008
image from Graham Whiteley’s PhD thesis
David Balkwill’s comments (in a previous message to PhD-Design) about students missing the point of their task, which is designing not drawing, is very relevant to research and doctoral studies. One of the key issues to be resolved in any “practice-led” project is how the quality and validity of the methods are to be made clear and we have to work on making explicit how any practical work is part of a process of exploration and reasoning directed towards the research aims.
This does not apply only to what we think of as “practice-led” research* in design. I remember a design management PhD which had the aim of developing a systematic approach to a particular problem. The conclusions of the work were embodied in a complex diagram and the student made a good case for his method which included working through a series of such diagrams to evaluate possible scenarios. Unfortunately the thesis contained only two diagrams – the first tentative proposition and the last, fully resolved operational method.
In the examination, he was asked whether he had a collection of working sketches/diagrams that showed how he had worked through the problem. His reply was that yes he did “but I wanted to show you the best one.”
Luckily he still had all the working material, his revised thesis included a selection of the working diagrams which showed very clearly how he had examined and tested the possibilities, forming a vital part of the validation of the conclusions.
This is not just about “showing your stuff”. Or rather the act of showing your stuff is to do with being aware of your methods, the need to attend to and demonstrate quality of execution (of the research not the drawing etc) and being clear about where your conclusions have come from. In a PhD the conclusions are less important than the process since you are being examined on your ability to conduct research rather than the significance or intrinsic persuasiveness of your contribution. By extension, your conclusions must draw together the story of how your process has worked to deliver that conclusion.
*I use the quotations around “practice-led” because I feel that the term is no longer valid or necessary but I realise that some of us are still attached to it