Last month, Jeff Johnson and I were interviewed in the online event OU Design Research @50. In the discussion, ably steered by Claudia Eckert, Jeff and I reflected on how design research has developed at the OU and what is distinctive about the OU’s design research approach. I thought for this blog it might be useful to pull together some of my own reflections and insights that emerged from this event.
My path to becoming part of the Design Group at the OU was a somewhat indirect one. In 1974 I joined the OU as one of its first PhD research students. This was not in Design but in Social Sciences, with my supervisor being Ray Thomas. Ray was a Senior Lecturer in Economics and he was Director of the New Towns Study Unit. My PhD was on the design of transport systems for new towns and could easily have been based in the Technology Faculty’s Design Department. Indeed, as I settled into my PhD research, I found that, rather than networking within the Social Sciences Faculty, I was increasingly drawn to a group of people in the fascinatingly diverse Design Department, particularly the Energy Research Group that included Steve Cousins, Godfrey Boyle, Andy Wood and others who were working on some fascinating transport technology projects. I also started doing some research and teaching work with Robin Roy and that led me, in 1987, to swap Faculties and work with Robin and his team in the Design Innovation Group.
I had an interesting introduction when joining the Design Department and their home in the temporary hut, Wimpey 3. The day before I started, there was a fire in a mainframe computer that smoke damaged most of Wimpey 3, including my office, and also burnt down the adjacent Creche. I had already worked with Robin Roy and the Design Innovation Group (DIG) for three years as a consultant and very much enjoyed the socio-technical perspective that DIG adopted, working with colleagues in Manchester Business School. The key thing about DIG (and indeed a big theme in the Department’s approach as a whole) was the linking of design and innovation to explore how innovative designs come about; the design explorations that take place and how interactions with users lead to the emergence of dominant designs. It was all about getting behind designed objects to understand what determines the outcome.
My first work was transport oriented – a detailed teaching study of British Rail’s Advanced Passenger Train design. Here clashing design cultures within an organisation played a big role and led me to coming to work in the Design Department on the Commercial Impacts of Design (CID) project, which explored the importance of putting a value on what designers do. In the late 1980s sustainability was emerging to become a key research issue and we in DIG undertook a green design version of CID and later explored the environmental impacts of alternative HE teaching systems, work that eventually led to the influential SusTeach project. DIG also work with the Energy Savings Trust on user experiences and perceptions of heat pumps – well ahead of the current agenda to phase out gas boilers!
I ‘retired’ in 2013, but have continued to work with Matt Cook in the Future Urban Environments group within Design. In the last 15 years we have contributed to a series of socio-technical projects on electric vehicle charging infrastructure, smart grids, autonomous vehicles and the design of new transport systems. It is notable that the practitioner industry funders have come to increasingly value our contribution and skills on the social relationships involved in these technology projects.
My journey to and within Design at the OU is, perhaps, not quite as unusual as I first thought. Design at the OU is not a traditional design department, but contains an amazing range of people doing fascinatingly different things with Design at its core. This goes back to the vision for the original Technology Faculty about having some conventional departments and groupings and then two departments representing the integration of technology and society – and these were Systems and Design. So, you have an amazing breadth of design research from complexity, cybernetics, Artificial Intelligence, manufacturing, fashion, urban and built environment, participatory design, innovation, energy, sustainability and more!! I have always like exploring across disciplines, working with people with other expertise and perspectives – design research here is so very stimulating – hard work, sometimes frustrating, but never boring.
But the diversity of design research at the OU does present us with an identity challenge. Possibly the periodic funding exercise of the REF/RAE is where we have had the most important research challenge about our integrative design approach as opposed to being traditional design researchers. For the first of these, Nigel Cross argued that we had to be in the Design unit of assessment and make our case. That was hard work and tricky, but it worked. I worked with Peter Lloyd on the following RAE and remember vividly waiting for the results to be unveiled and were amazed to see us at the top of the rankings. Our approach to design is recognised and valued – even though we still may struggle with funders.
For the future, I feel that the OU’s diverse and integrative approach to design research is very appropriate for the research challenges of our time. Recently I have started to use the term ‘transformative design’ – where you don’t just tinker with the performance of products, services and systems, but work within a process that can lead to a transformation in performance – be it quality, price, social accountability, user satisfaction or (crucially) environmental sustainability. That’s what’s we have done recently through working with practitioners on local transport and energy innovation projects. They may not in themselves produce a massive improvement in sustainability, but they move us towards that much needed transformative trajectory.