Showing Your Stuff

The importance of revealing your practices in “practice-led” research

Originally posted to the PhD-Design email discussion list on 20 November 2008

whiteley joint

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*I use the quotations around “practice-led” because I feel that the term is no longer valid or necessary but I realise that some of us are still attached to it

2 Responses to “Showing Your Stuff”

  1. Simon Ellis Says:

    Hi Chris

    It’s great following these posts.

    I am curious about why you see the quote marks around ‘practice-led’ as no longer being valid or necessary (these are two quite dramatic and different reasons). Is this because practice is such an inherent part of the design world in academia? In performance/arts questions of practice as a research method still seem very current and also quite problematic for many more ‘conventional’ researchers.

    The other thing that is perhaps relevant to your post is about issues of readability. I was very careful during my PaR PhD to avoid exposing too much of the working/practice-based strategies simply because I didn’t think I could sustain the interest of the reader/user. I was thinking, “Who really wants to read or see that in April 2000 I spent 3 hours in a studio focusing on memory in dance improvisations?”! But again, perhaps this is because of the reletively strong artefact (utility) oriented practices in design as compared with the more ‘poetic’ terrain of performance??


    Simon Ellis

  2. chrisrust Says:

    Thanks Simon,

    I have a bee in my bonnet about the term “practice led” in relation to design research. It was a useful device in the early days to mark out some territory for the development of new research practices. These days in design it feels like a slogan that’s used more by relatively inexperienced researchers to refight battles that were done and dusted ages ago, rather than engaging with the more settled understanding that you’ll find among the growing number of people who have finished their PhDs.

    My view is that all research is rooted in the practices of the discipline concerned, if Chemists and Engineers don’t have to remind us that they do the practices of chemistry and engineering to pursue questions of interest to chemists and engineers we don’t need to make special claims either. “We do research and these are our methods of inquiry” should be sufficient.

    Of course I hold no brief for performance, although I have some misgivings about practice AS research for similar reasons.

    Regarding your second point, of course you should not show ALL your research practice, any more than a social scientist would include every interview transcript in their thesis. But what is vital is to show the process in action, sometimes quite a small fragment of text, image, video, whatever might be sufficient to show the nature of your research practice and its reliability.

    Graham Whiteley told me about a visit to a prosthetics research lab where they had build a mechanical arm to test some artificial muscle devices. The publications from the research told part of the story but when he saw the actual test rigs he could see straight away that they were compromised by bad design and manufacture. Any engineer could see at a glance that the arm could not move easily and therefore the performance figures measured would be misleading. Because the published outputs form the work avoided that scrutiny they were inaccurate and unreliable. Showing the matter of the research is essential to reliable peer review.

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