PhD by Design Conference

PhD by Design is a conference that explores the messiness that!is practice- based research. Walter van Rijn, who is soon due to complete his PhD in Fine Art at WSA, provides a review of the conference held in November 2014. 

On 6 and 7 November 2014 I attended and presented at the PhD by Design Conference organised by students of the Department of Design, Goldsmiths, London. The main reason I wanted to take part was to see if my research, which has an artistic research methodology, could also apply to the design world. As I will show below my work has an overlap with design but I approach it from a dierent direction, and I hoped that by discussing my points of view I could work out in what way my research might be relevant for the design discipline, that is, outside the fine art discipline.

The conference was introduced by Jules Sprake who introduced Andrea Fraser’s famous ‘welcome’ as a way to perform her critique of institutions. Sparke was basically saying we, as phd researchers in this conference and through our work, are here to do exactly that. The critical intention was already part of the set-up of the conference, as the organisers explained in the pre-conference info, the conference itself was structured around questions and discussions by the participants. Over the two days we were going to “discuss and work through many of the topical issues of conducting a practice-based PhD in Design” ( On the basis of the questions, we the participants provided with our registration, the organisers placed everyone in discussion groups. The group sessions were focussed on a particular question, and they started with a couple of short presentations which were then intensively discussed and commented upon. I go into some detail here about the conference itself because the way it was organised was exactly fitting for the subject we are dealing with: ‘the messiness’ of our practice and research, also called practice-based or practice-led research. As became clear at the end of the conference, everyone really appreciated the conference structure facilitating an intense two days, somewhere between a workshop and conference. And of course thanks to hard work of the brilliant organisers Alison Thomson, Maria Portugal and Bianca Elzenbaumer! By the way the conference sessions were very alike the discussions and seminars of our own Postgraduate Research at the Winchester school of Art, organised by Sunil Manghani.

The questions for the different sessions tell their own story:

Session 1: doing/ making/ planning
What about interdisciplinarty? How to connect with actors beyond academia?
How to work with the politics of participation?
How to wrestle with the gap between practice and theory?
Exploring methods of making and recording?

Session 2: output/ dissemination/ use
How can we reach non-academic audiences?
How to represent research practice in inventive ways?
How can we evaluate the impact of design research?
How to deal with co-produced research outputs?
How can we disseminate practice-based research beyond the academic article?

Session 3: open discussion
What does design research look like?
How to decide on my approach and format of submission?
How to value the knowledge and eects produced through design research?
How to integrate design research with other fields?
How to consider the impact success and sustainability of design research?
I hope the organisers will manage somehow to create a record of what happened in all the discussions I could not take part in, because there were many I would have liked to be in. A pdf version of the participants’ abstracts will be available on the conference website.

I presented my research in session 2, How can we reach non-academic audiences? See the presentation A Dispersal Alongside … on my website:

It argues for a dierent critical approach. One that moves away from a focus on products and target audiences, and instead uses a strategy of embedding and giving access. The discussion afterwards turned towards the questions: What is the role then of the designer/artist? Are we to provide a service, a product or critically engage with a particular context as a whole? Besides a general sense of what a designer/artist is or does, we seem to seek to answer that question individually. Our research is a great opportunity to do that. Some of us work through a sense of gender, mapping human/site interaction, user interaction, dispersal practice etc.

Besides our discussion sessions there where also keynote speakers. Bill Gaver, Jennifer Gabrys, Jane Harris, Jon Rogers and Teal Triggs. Bill Gaver talked us through one of his design studio’s projects, the Energy Babble project, and interspersed it with answering more general questions that came up at the conference. The Energy Babble project was a great example because it showed success and failure, and how he arrived at this evaluation. Hearing his methodology I realised that in design research too, the practice-led methodology works out as a methodology that follows where the practice goes, that is, it evolves and entails that what is needed to be able to “reflect on the results to precisely articulate the insights gained”. Besides the researcher has to “realise that many possible perspectives can be taken on the work” so that the research is not a closed off thing that is assuming a “stable ground truth”. The fact that the research takes place does change the situation.

Jennifer Gabrys, Jane Harris, Jon Rogers and Teal Triggs had their presentation at the end of the conference and focused each in their own way on the application of our research in the real world. Jennifer Gabrys presented Citizen Sensing and Environmental Practice, which resonated with my own work for its do it yourself strategies and critical view on all the actors (human and non-human) implicated in a particular situation. Jane Harris put it very strongly that we have to look beyond our usual field of applications, and to follow our instincts and that what drives us, diversify as much a possible. Or to quote Jon Rogers “How do you bring you into the PhD? Through your practice.” Teal Triggs also came up with lots of questions we have to keep asking ourselves during the research: When is it over? What is opened/closed through the research? What is for the future? What has it uncovered? What fields does it contribute to? Questions to articulate the messiness of what we do, and, she stressed, we need to keep asking these questions after the phd to pursue research in our fields. The importance of extending research in our fields….

The conference ended with a collective debriefing, and launching ideas about what’s next. What ever happens next everyone agreed that the format of the conference was hugely successful and hopefully will be continued in some form. Then it was off to the pub, head buzzing, you might have guessed, we had a great time.