Saturday, 27 November 2010

Phenomenology in Other Design Disciplines

Before this new adaptation of an established methodology can be explained, a brief review of phenomenology within other design disciplines needs to be discussed. Principally phenomenology, at least philosophically have been used within product, architecture and interior design, to some degree in order to understand spatial-temporal relationships. Wang and Wagner have recently attempted a mapping of phenomenological philosophy to the design process (2007). They conclude that “phenomenological studies have elevated many facets of human experience to the level of rigorous knowledge (or at least to the level of rigorous academic consideration of these facets as knowledge). This approach is useful for the design disciplines in that these domains stress the spontaneous, the creative, and the aesthetic” but they argue not to raise “phenomenological inquiry to a totalizing position” just yet as their mapping exercise isn’t robust enough yet. In their argument for mapping the phenomenologists they create a geography of four quadrants in which they place architecture. These four conceptual regions are: individual phenomenology, phenomenology of history and culture, phenomenology of design production, and phenomenology related to metaphysics. These quadrants are connected by orthogonal and diagonal lines, and acts as a slider between each section in which different forms of architecture may be placed to be be understood through a particular philosopher. This is a theoretical geography, and beyond the mapping the discourse into phenomenology still remains theoretical rather than practical.

Folkmann (2010) uses the philosophical work of Merleau-Ponty as a theoretical grounding through which to study aesthetics phenomenologically within design, arguing that Merleau-Ponty’s ideas can be mapped into design because, “every piece of design contains an idea, a dimension of immateriality; vice versa, design is only conceivable as something conceivable as something concretely manifested – when speaking of immaterial design.” (p46) Mainly the design examples Folkmann discusses are from Product Design but they do have connections straight into Interaction Design. The term ‘aesthetic function’ is discussed in the paper to frame a dimension in which meaning is constructed. The argument is that “aesthetics in design is a matter of how design relates to meaning. It is not enough to ask what the meaning of a specific design is on a conceptual level (the “idea”), we must also ask how it performs or reflects this meaning in its physical form, and how it relates to the kind of self-reflective “aesthetic function” where it displays a surplus of meaning.” (p49)

The phenomenological model being proposed here a codification of levels of aesthetic-ness that can be selected by a designer based upon their relevance to a particular design solution. Folkmann’s model is only a theoretical interpretation rather than an actual phenomenological methodology. Unlike HCI’s research position, the determination of how to understand what is meant by aesthetics isn’t framed from a pragmatic philosophical point. The application of phenomenology in this context is, like Wang and Wagner, theoretical rather than directly practical. This appears to be a method to frame studies on design practice, rather than to help the design of better solutions. In a comparative design paper on phenomenology Blackwell et al. (2009) use another theoretical position, this time from a comparative theology use of phenomenology. This model of applying phenomenology to design practice again is theoretical. Emerging from the shadow of architecture Dr Tiiu Poldma (2003) has used phenomenology to study her interior design students. This pedagogical approach appears on face value to be more about the students experience rather than using the philosophy in application to the design process like Brown and I are advocating. Whilst the main focus is pedagogical it does take a more interpretive and contextual approach to phenomenology, but uses the theory as a meta-study to understand and interpret studio practice rather than a methodology within interior design itself.

Finally from another product perspective Brown (2006) goes some way closer to a practical application of phenomenology to the design process in his Masters of Design dissertation. He concludes that, “the goal of the phenomenological design process is to offer the next generation of designers a new way of thinking about the artifacts we create” and that the “beauty of this design process is that it is free from the assumptions placed on the world by the metaphysical culture in which we live. It allows the designer to seek out deeply personal design solutions creating a more relative design experience.” (p141). Applying his thesis to transportational design, his approach uses the structure of a phenomenological research methodology to apply to a designer’s thinking, from an Aristotelean/Husserlian perspective. This places his methodology within a descriptive model of phenomenological research, rather than a Heidegerrian interpretive model. My argument is for a development of a visual adaption of a hermeneutic phenomenological methodology that rather than just sets out criteria for a phenomenologically-based design thinking, actually develops a practical methodology with it. This will be a visual technique to describe from a first-person point of view their experience within a situation that needs deigning for. Instead of just design thinking a visual hermeneutic approach will allow a designer to interpret the reduced themes of the studied experience, to make those “deeply personal design solutions” that Brown suggests to design a “more relative design experience” using an actual adaptable visual methodology.

In the next sections of this paper I will discuss a direct use of phenomenology that is a methodology rather than merely a theoretic position. In order to explain this I will use what van Manen describes as an existential writing process (p173) on my current practical research project Internal | External 2010. In doing so I will begin to provide the framework for a Visual Communication Phenomenological Methodology. This will provide practical application for designers, whilst being theoretically underpinned by interpretive phenomenological philosophy. To do this I will first discuss methods and then preliminary results. Using visual examples from the study I will end on a discussion, including an evaluation of the pros and cons of the initial experiments, leading to suggested future work before concluding.

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