DSRG > Science and Design: Parallel Processes?

After a successful launch event at the wonderfully quirky Hunterian Museum in November 2011, the Design Science Research Group (DSRG) returned with their next event. ‘Science and Design: Parallel Processes?’ brought world class scientists and designers together to discuss their work processes, and how a greater understanding of how the two fields work could lead to more effective collaborations and improved science communication.

After a brief introduction by DSRG Design Director, Anne Odling-Smee, the evening’s chair Leonora Oppenheim kicked things off. Leonora has the self made title of ‘design storyteller’ and is currently working on Creative Data, bringing scientists and designers together to create installations about scientific data. She began by asking each of the chairs to talk about their work process and how this affected the way they approached collaborations.

First to share their thoughts was Professor Geraint Rees, director of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL. He explained that there are two different processes that scientific investigation follows to generate knowledge. You could start with a meaningful question that you rigorously test, or you could go on a ‘fishing trip’, measuring lots of different factors without a set question in mind. Whichever process you follow, Geraint explained, communication is essential. ‘A scientific fact doesn’t exist unless it is communicated,’ he said. In his view there is no point in doing science unless you communicate it, as communication of knowledge feeds into generating questions to move the knowledge-making process forward.

Next to feed in to the discussion was Joel Gethin Lewis of Hellicar and Lewis. His background was in maths and computer science before he went to study at the Royal College of Art. No barriers exist between the design camp and the science camp he told the audience. He explained how there are aspects of the design stereotype in science and visa versa; designers are very methodical and scientists are very creative, making them more similar than they may realize. I believe that these similarities may aid more effective work processes in collaborations between the two.

The third panelist to introduce their perspective was Professor Stephen Curry, Professor of Structural Biology at Imperial College London. When it came to his work process he told the audience how the days of scientists focusing of design of experiment are long gone because there are so many other things drawing on their time. Because of the way he works, and the research that he does on the natural world, Stephen explained that he had a ‘dim view’ of design. ‘Paradoxically’, he said, ‘the more intelligent the design the dimmer [his] view [of it].’ He prefers the chaos of natural world’s ‘design’.

The final panelist was Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, a designer currently working with synthetic biologists. Whereas the other panelists had highlighted similarities Daisy believes that science and design are very different processes; design creates many possible solutions whereas science is hoping to find a truth (this caused understandable grumbling from the scientists – a scientific ‘fact’ is not a fact but simply the best theory with the given data at the time). She also explained that there are other challenges when it comes to working together; the two fields either use unique vocabulary or have different uses for the same words.

After the panelists had put their initial thoughts Leonora pointed out that science is going through a form of cultural renaissance at the moment, from the prime-time broadcast of Sir Paul Nurse’s Dimbleby lecture to the ‘Brian Cox phenomenon’. Geraint pointed out that scientists have an intrinsic fascination with just finding out stuff, not just about sharing knowledge. Perhaps this is a point to consider when working with scientists to communicate their work?

At this point, a member of the audience asked a question. A scientist can perform a well designed experiment that doesn’t give result; design resides within science, just sometimes not in a place where it is wanted. How then do you fail in design and how do you fail in science? Although the panelists did not directly address this, the discussion did highlight that many do not understand what design means or use the word design to mean different things. Daisy illustrated this by explaining that designing an experiment is not necessarily what designers would call design.

Another point that led to further discussion was made by Geraint. At start of career, he explained, a scientist worries that won’t come up with enough ideas and how they might find a path through the diverse range of ideas that they do generate. Therefore, scientists rely on hunches and gut feelings, and he could relate to Joel saying that science has creativity. I believe that this comes back to understanding what people understand different words to mean. A scientist might call a situation problem-solving whereas a designer might call the same situation creative thinking.

The evening highlighted how scientists and designers share many similar personal traits and aspects of their work processes. However, when it comes to working together there are barriers which could prevent effective collaborations between the two. Language, for example, was a prominent recurring issue that both scientists and designers raised. However, Daisy explained how these differences can be harnessed to make creative and successful collaborations. For example; a groups of scientists and designers she has worked with still have entirely different definitions of design, and still use their unique language, but have found a common ground on which the base a successful collaboration.

A final thought from the audience which could have been explored further was; how can processes in design and science help fix the problems they create? Stephen explained that this is complex and more scientists should speak up and defend scientific method. The designers also felt that design should take more responsibility. Perhaps a matter for another debate is, how do science and design take responsibility to create solutions?

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