Joining forces in academic research through the Brief Encounters Network

Through the AHRC and IED grant, investigators from City University London, Northumbria University and Lancaster University have brought together academics and practitioners within the design field from all over the world in order to discuss the challenges emerging technologies bring to design education, theory and practice.

Three structured workshops were held at three separate locations to discuss these challenges and find possible ways forward in (re)designing design practice through new technologies.

The first workshop was held at City University in London in April 2012. One of its aims was to start exploring ways in which technologies can improve interdisciplinary design processes over distance.

Twenty-one academics, commercial researchers and designers were present from companies as diverse as Autodesk, Square One, ICDancing, Philips, Motorola, Mayborn Baby and Child, and Kohler five of which participated remotely. The workshop was structured into two sessions. After the introductory lines from the organizers and brief introductions from all participants, the first session aimed to capture details of creative conversations that the participants have been part of within the last four to six weeks.

In order to keep the workshop participants engaged, the University of Lancaster team gave the workshop a fun and entertaining element and as a result, produced a series of interesting creative conversation prompts that would generate interesting stories. These prompts were developed into a comic strip theme that would encourage the participants to describe their creative conversations by drawing or writing in blank comic strip cells.  The completed comic strips would feed into discussions in the second phase of the workshop around the four themes; the effect of supporting artifacts, different medias, participant’s backgrounds and the overall success of the conversations. Building on the “creative conversations” the second session involved teams of participants identifying challenges that working in distributed environments brings and how these can be tackled by the use of technologies at hand. The introduction to the second session was provided by presentations from academic and industrial participants. Short talks focused on the use of communication technologies in both, professional and educational environments and aimed at boosting discussions among the workshop participants on these topics.

Ian Thompson, a senior designer at Kohler, said that:

our design practice and global working methods are evolving and the problems we face to stay at the peak of productivity and innovation change constantly. Sessions like these bring real world context to academic research and combined will develop deeper understanding of the current and future landscape and provide a roadmap to the future of technologically assisted design practice.

The final result of the second session was a set of roadmaps, identifying how and when technologies need to be adapted to aid the design processes. Each group of participants briefly presented their ideas to start the discussion on identifying the major challenges that need to be worked on in the next Brief Encounters workshop.

To gain additional information on how designers perceive working in distributed teams and the challenges they face with the new technologies as part of their work environment, the Brief Encounters team held a half day workshop at the DESIGN 2012 conference in Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Twenty-one participants from academia and industry attended the workshop held in May in Croatia. Similar to the first Brief Encounters workshop in London, the participants were asked to outline one of the creative conversations they had in the past months. The major question this time was, how the use of technology helped/challenged them and if there was something that they were actually able to do through the use of technology that they otherwise could not do. Surprisingly, the participants of this workshop identified similar challenges as the participants of the workshop held in London. The four challenges they identified and worked on solving them in the second part of the workshop were:

  • intimacies
  • trust
  • use of artefacts
  • visualisation in distributed design teams.

The results of the first two workshops served as a starting point to the third one held in the creative facilitation space of ImaginationLancaster, Imagination Lancasterin early June. The main objective of the workshop was to determine common research topics that the participants want to pursue within the field of (re)designing design practice through emerging technologies.

The workshop was structured into two sessions to foster creative discussions.

In the first session the industrial participants led the discussion on 4 predetermined challenges (identified in the first two workshops) and the participants tried to map out methods and techniques to manage and overcome these challenges.

The second session aimed at getting the participants into smaller groups to start discussion on possible joint research proposals. Each of the participants mapped out their research interest, skills and competences and presented one of the challenges he/she is interested in pursuing in the future. This led to the formation of small groups that individually discussed their research interests after the workshop closure.

Itamar Medeiros who works as a Senior UX Designer at Autodesk Shanghai’s Design office and who participated in the workshop from China while talking to Professor Chakrabarti from Indian Institute of Science who had also participated from distance said that he is enjoying this whole idea of talking about distance collaboration by collaborating across distance!

Itamar identified that:

One of challenges that we are facing more and more at Autodesk is that design teams are collaborating across geographies. So, how do you design object interfaces when teams are distributed as the interfaces of these product are very important in getting the user experience right?

One of the issues that we have identified during the workshop was how do we build an awareness of what each design team member is doing at any particular time across the distributed design team. This is a very small, but very difficult aspect of synchronising teams located in different locations. Another issue is the lack of tools supporting the early design development stages.

Professor Simon Vaitkevicius commented that:

The event was interesting and innovative in its approach to the use of collaboration tools. The virtual participants interacted very well throughout the day and it felt like they were there in person. There was also a definite positive feeling with those participating and the feeling that something will come from these events. It was an excellent event to network and foster new ideas. Certainly a good breeding ground for innovative new ideas in collaboration with Industry and Academia

The aim of the Brief Encounters Network was that these three workshops will lead to  research funding applications, prepared by the network participants. Not only did this network bring together experts from different backgrounds, but it also showed how research interests can be pursued in a creative and playful way.

Through the workshops the participants found that companies ranging from Philips Research to the tiny but excellent radarstation are looking for creative ways of practising design across different locations. New tools, processes and techniques need to be developed to make the design collaboration across geographically dispersed teams better and different from conventional modes of design rooted in the 19th Century. This is one of the key aims informing the research projects growing out of this project.

Brief Encounters Workshop Hosted by Lancaster University

This one day workshop brought together academics for a wide range of institutions including Cambridge University, Lancaster, Glasgow School of Art, Indian Institute of Technology, Northumbria University to explore the potential to develop new thinking and bids in the area of distributed design and the the digital augmentation of design processes and idea generation. The agenda for this was set by out participating academic partners. These ranged from huge multinationals such as Phillips Design and Autodesk to small but highly innovative agencies such as Radar station.

The even was facilitated and run in Imagination’s creative facilitation space. One of the innovative (and problematic) aspects of the workshop was the virtual participation of 5 partners. In an earlier workshop this was actually highly problematic, with people Skyping in using iPads. These were good in terms of portability and giving them an ’embodiment’ but the poor speakers and microphone quickly lead to a vicious circle of louder and louder shouting as the workshop split into groups.

In this workshop we tried a different approach, each electronic attendee was assigned a PhD student who was tasked to work as a team with the person Skyping in, together they contributed to the workshop. The students connected with their partners before the main workshop started and gave the virtual attendees a tour of the location to help them situate themselves.

The results of this were unexpectedly positive. We expected most of the virtual attendees to leave around lunch time but apart from the person in Shanghai (who was on a VERY late night) the participants stayed in the highly interactive workshop all day. This was by far the best virtual contribution we have had in an interactive workshop.
 


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