Multidisciplinary Approaches to Design

An event at The Design Museum in Kensington, Industry Insights: Multidisciplinary Approaches to Design, discussed multidisciplinary approaches to design. As a significant part of my graphic design practice involves working with people from other disciplines, mostly scientists, it was interesting to attend the event and hear the views being put forward. Four speakers talked about their experience of working in multidisciplinary teams and projects:

Mike Thompson, from the art/design collective Thought Collider, who talked about art projects and so didn’t relate directly to my own research work. He did, however, raise the very relevant concept of ‘thinking through making’, as outlined in Tim Ingold’s book Making: anthropology, archaeology, art and architecture.

Natsai Chieza, of the biodesign laboratory Faber Futures, who talked in particular about a project that created sustainable dyes from living organisms (the header image shows the purple dye that is produced). She made interesting points about the role of design thinking in these multidisciplinary projects, advocating that designer should be involved at an early stage of scientific research, although very much as part of a multidisciplinary, rather than an interdisciplinary, team. She also emphasised the importance of ‘making to learn’, closely linked to the ‘thinking through making’ discussed by Mike Thompson.

Amy Frascella, chief designer of colour and materials at Jaguar Land Rover, also spoke of the importance of multidisciplinary teams.

Cat Drew, director of policy and place for Future Gov, the government department that is designing public services for the 21st century, spoke about service design, an area of design that has some links to my own research. Future Gov consider technology and service design, while thinking about the end users. She recommended Bas Leurs’ Nesta Innovation Playbook, that can be downloaded as a pdf file from this link.  She had also contributed to the BBC Radio 4 programme The Fix, that brought together multidisciplinary teams to try the resolve intractable social problems.

Cat Drew provided the most ‘common sense’ approach to multidisciplinary design (in my view, common sense is what service design boils down to!) and gave the following ten tips for multidisciplinary projects:

  1. Spend time to build relationships – get to know the value of what each practice brings (what can they give, what do they need to get?) and develop shared goals and success.
  2. Find out ways to ‘level out’ the expertise between the different disciplines – using different objects and different ways of knowing.
  3. Be visual – you need to quickly get a shared understanding of the problem (use large sheets of paper so everyone can see!).
  4. Recognise that others might feel uncomfortable with your methods – not everyone may want to join in with an activity.
  5. Experience rather than explain – don’t say too much in advance, to avoid people forming preconceived ideas.
  6. Think carefully about language and avoid jargon – everyone understands design differently.
  7. Feel able to adapt to the context you are in.
  8. Be humble to new ideas and open to new ways of working.
  9. Recognise there are different ways of knowing – these are greater than the sum of their parts.
  10. Bring the right people in at the right moments.

Many of these points ring true for my own collaborative work with the neuroscientists of the Centre for Neuroimaging Sciences. However, I have always viewed my collaborative work as interdisciplinary, rather than multidisciplinary. Rather than standing as a graphic designer on the outside of the neuroscience team, and just completing the tasks that are assigned to me, I have worked closely with the scientists to develop graphic design solutions to their visual communication problems, and to involve them in the production of those solutions. The issue of multidisciplinary versus interdisciplinary was raised during Cat Drew’s talk, and she described an interdisciplinary approach as ‘creating hybrid disciplines and being curious about how other people are working’. Perhaps this is a good way of describing my collaborative graphic design work.

The term ‘design thinking’, and its relationship, or not, to scientific thinking, has also been raised during my research into the contextual framework underpinning my work. In my mind, design thinking is closely tied to the ‘thinking and discovering through making’ discussed by Natsai Chieza, and so could be related to the ‘scientific method’ of thinking and discovering through experimentation. It also relates to the use of graphic design practice in my own practice-led research. However, ‘design thinking’ is a term that has been adopted by disciplines outside of more conventional design circles, service design being a case in point. Has the term become associated with any collaborative / consultative design process, rather than with the physical making of design objects?