In a world becoming more and more complex every day, creativity and innovation are critical. In research, this translates into a need for greater interdisciplinarity. By favoring connections and communication across disciplines, interdisciplinarity offers a way to better understand our societies and their ecosystems. Nevertheless, these essential goals are hard to achieve. Today, designers play the role of connectors and provide an interface with society. Could they be the missing link of 21st century research?
This article is a translation of “Le designer : chaînon manquant de la recherché au XXIe siècle ?”. It was translated from French by Julia Troufflard.
“Design is where science and art break even.” - Robin Mathew (source bananabun)
“The designer is the main character of the 21st century,” according to Dominique Sciamma, speaking at the "13 Minutes" lecture series. Many people would be surprised by this importance given to designers, as their work is little known. Yet, Dominique Sciamma, head of Strate Collège, a university of industrial design located in the French town of Sèvres, is convinced of it. (The name “Strate” comes from the word “strategy” and refers to the designer’s role.)
Most of us would imagine the designer creating art deco furniture, car doors or Ikea cupboards. Those clichés are far from the reality, though, and from the diversity of domains that involve designers’ work. Designers are everywhere. They allow us to interact easily and spontaneously with our environment, not only thanks to all kinds of physical objects, but also through the numerous digital applications that fill our lives.
What distinguishes designers is that they work in the shadows. As Geoffrey Dorne put it at the last TEDxParis Université, “I am a designer and I don’t exist.” For Dominique Sciamma, they contribute to the creation of the world and its understanding. Therefore, they play a key role in our complex and multifaceted societies. In this digital era, the designer becomes a mediator between science and everyday life, alongside the engineer and the marketer.
Nowadays, imagination and creativity are two key factors for evolution in our society. “Intellectual work must now be intelligent and inventive,” philosopher Michel Serres said. As a consequence, research has been turned upside down and questioned on its modes of operation and its relationship to society. Today, it must face highly complex scientific issues, mixing various scales of analysis and including major societal, economic, ecological and political challenges. What, then, could be the designer’s role within research?
Confronted with the world and its complexity, research needs to deconstruct old thinking patterns, and take a step back for a more global and human view, to build bridges, but, most of all, to establish understanding between different disciplines. Nevertheless, as Dominique Sciamma explained during one of his talks, we are often prisoners of theories modeling the world. “In the end, we mix up the world we invent with the real world.” This bias is also found among researchers, especially between disciplines. Everyone builds their own representation of the world, severely complicating communication between different research domains.
Designers can certainly provide a partial solution. They succeed in creating links between the societal issues they understand and the most critical technological questions. They know how to enlist their intelligence and originality for collective projects and, in so doing, dissolve the complexity. In this sense, the designer could be the missing knowledge link between scientific disciplines. Beyond being a source of scientific interdisciplinarity, the designer helps create connections between research and society. As Alain Cadix, former head of ENSCI, said, “Design comes along after scientists to help them find applications for their discoveries.” Design thinking, a concept created at Stanford University, is what we call the process of combining various societal, economic and technological issues to encourage innovation. And yet, do you know many designers working in research labs as full scientists?
Prestigious university curricula are being developed between engineering and design schools. Going forward, Strate Collège will offer a promising research master’s degree combining digital sociology, design basics, and interaction technologies. Unfortunately, these kinds of programs remain rare and little known, especially in the university world. It would be interesting to see this master’s degree followed by design PhDs, to allow designers themselves to take a step back and look at their own discipline.
Design needs research to produce high-level designers. Research needs design to adapt itself to the complex stakes of our present and future world…
So, what are we waiting for to promote the paths that already exist?
Find out more:
Research master’s degree in interaction design Strate Collège and ENSAM
Virtual Crash Course in Design Thinking, Stanford University Institute of Design
[video] Geoffrey Dorne at TEDxParis Universities (French)
Geoffrey Dorne’s blog: graphics & interactivity (French)
[video] “Designer: 21st century man”, from the 13 Minutes lecture series (French)