Critical Practices as Design Scholarship: Strategies and Opportunities

Jessica Barness
Assistant Professor
School of Visual Communication Design
Kent State University

Steven McCarthy
Professor
College of Design
University of Minnesota

Conventional academic scholarship typically involves publishing one’s research findings in journals and books, or in the arts, performing or exhibiting creative work. Design straddles these worlds and adds its own cultural norms, such as industry competitions that seek the commercial work of professional practitioners, or the fine arts tradition with its emphasis on gallery shows. Design scholarship, whether written or visual, does not always fit these models: How might design faculty approach the dissemination of creative work that is neither client-based nor fine art?

Over the past decade, another path to knowledge formation and scholarly productivity has emerged: critical making. Involving a speculative approach to design (experimental, future-oriented, expressive), critical making combines an authorial point-of-view with the tangible aspects of media, technology, materials and process. Critical making is experiential and uses design to create knowledge across disciplines.

Through critical making, some design faculty have found diverse scholarly venues to share their creative and intellectual work. These dissemination venues often take their cues from other disciplinary cultures like the humanities, the arts, science, engineering and business, and can include publications, exhibitions, performances, and conferences. These venues can be an advantage to design scholars as they are already generally recognized and legitimized by academic culture. However, faculty may not fully understand the opportunities for an enhanced, rigorous approach to scholarship – a strategic integration of making and writing – that moves beyond industry practice and fine arts traditions yet remains distinctly relevant to the design discipline.

Considerations of this presentation will include faculty effort, the scholarly product, the selection process, dissemination venues, scope (local, regional, national, international), and the resulting impact. The challenges in assessing interdisciplinary work and the roles in collaborative projects will be discussed, as will the implications for tenure and promotion.