Science meets design

This was co-written by me and Anne Odling-Smee and originally published on the DesignScience blog. I have republished here so people can comment if they wish.

Through intelligent use of tools and resources, design can lead to a better outcome, and for less money

On Monday, hosted by the UK’s innovation agency, the Technology Strategy Board in partnership with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Science Museum and the Design Museum, held an event ‘to bring together leading thinkers in design and science to discuss how greater collaboration can drive forward the UK economy.’ Having been established in 2011 in response to the gap that was observed between these two industries, this was an event that caught our eye at DesignScience.

The debate examined the critical, yet often overlooked, link between science and design and the need for even greater collaboration between them. At the end of the evening recommendations were put forward for consideration by David Willetts, Minister for Science and Universities, which encompassed some of the conversations we have had at DesignScience over the last two years. This blog post is our response to them.

We certainly welcome the recommendation that more funding should go into multidisciplinary collaborations involving science and design. In the arts and other disciplines, the value of design is well recognised and subsequently there are funds allocated towards design work. This is not the case in science. We have frequently encountered situations where, despite researchers being keen to work with us, the institutions they work for have not been able (or wanted) to allocate money to the project. What fails to be recognised is that, through intelligent use of tools and resources, design can lead to a better outcome, and for less money.

We know there is an appetite for projects that encourage interdisciplinary work between design and science. And we aren’t alone. The Wellcome Trust – a leading authority in the scientific world – is increasingly aware of how design (as distinct from art) can influence and improve science, and visa versa. This year DesignScience, in collaboration with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Royal College of Art and Institute of Education, have been shortlisted for the Wellcome Trust’s Hub Award (an initiative that will provide resources and a stimulating space through which researchers and other creative minds can collaborate). A key aim of our proposal is to apply design to science and science to design, to develop innovative ways of doing each through a two-way exchange.

This feedback system between science and design is at the heart of the work we do at DesignScience. It is evident from projects we have worked on, and from the reactions to our work (such as the positive receptions to our production of ‘Litmus Paper’ at Cheltenham Festivals and our workshop for the British Science Association) that these fields can benefit each other. As David Bott said on behalf of the speakers at the Science Museum, ‘it is important to celebrate the successes of joint working [between science and design]’.

However, the most vital point is that along with increased funding towards collaborations and multidisciplinary work needs to come education. It was clear from the discussion at the Innovate UK event that major misunderstandings exist about a) what design is and b) how science works. Overcoming stereotypical perceptions about these subjects is vital, but not without its challenges. In our recent article ‘What can design do for science, and science do for design?’ we discuss this, stating our own definition of design as ‘being concerned with ideas and problem solving on technical, functional, aesthetic, economic and socio-political levels’.

As noted by the Science Museum speakers, language is another critical issue. We find ourselves constantly having to contend with language miscommunications that give the illusion of science and design being inherently incompatible. Our design guides for scientists are presented in a ‘neutral’ language to help try to address this, and we are working on a subsequent series of guides that similarly try to educate designers about science and the languages associated with it.

Through our work, such as online publications and workshops that introduce basic skills and show their application, we aim on the one hand to demonstrate the role that design can have in communicating science and on the other, to help designers’ understanding of science so they can perform their role within this field more effectively. Only through an appreciation of each other’s subjects, then through funds allocated to prospective projects, can effective collaborations be built and the full potential of multidisciplinary collaborations be realised.

The notion of Minister for Universities & Science taking on the responsibility of being an acting Minister for Design, as recommended by the speakers at the Design Museum, seems like a good step forward.

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