Critical Making: Design and the Digital Humanities

Scholarship: Published Research Award Winner

Jessica Barness
Associate Professor, Kent State University
Amy Papaelias
Assistant Professor, SUNY New Paltz

Our special issue of Visible Language journal, “Critical Making: Design and the Digital Humanities” (vol. 49, no. 3) locates where, how, and why critical making is emerging and the scholarly forms it takes. Visible Language journal is the oldest peer-reviewed design journal in the world and is currently published by the University of Cincinnati.

The idea for this special issue grew out of a mutual interest in the ways critical making in design connects with humanistic inquiry, and how this might form a foundation for research by design faculty. We viewed the project broadly as a finding tool because we observed a shortage of resources for design scholars on this topic. Critical making is an emerging framework that serves as a means to integrate research activity and practice-based artifact. It situates studio-based design practices as scholarship in ways that augment existing theories of design authorship, production, and thinking. The findings that occur within these activities become the crux of the endeavor and may produce as much knowledge as the polished, finished product.

As editors of the issue, our responsibilities included writing and circulating the international call for papers, facilitating double-blind peer review processes within two disciplines (design, and the digital humanities) and designing the issue layout, including the development of text analysis and data visualizations. Rather than advocate for each discipline to borrow and build off the other in isolation, this issue aimed to serve as a shared space to affect synergistic research, practice, and education. It became a research project in itself and is ongoing.

Two challenges were encountered in this project. First, Visible Language is a journal of evidence-based research and we focused on scholarship that is often considered exploratory. This meant determining, for all submissions, what constitutes rigorous ‘evidence-based research’ in theoretical and speculative inquiry, and in effect, publishing articles to serve as models for work of that nature. Second, the issue needed to connect research within disciplines that have significant overlap yet are just beginning to formalize their commonalities. The final issue needed to represent new knowledge, and be peer-reviewed, at a transdisciplinary intersection.

The final issue was published in print (approximately 700 copies distributed) and online. The online distribution coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of Visible Language and launch of its new open access web site; as a result, our full issue was readily accessible to all visitors to the new site. The issue contains nine articles by an international group of authors, and these were organized into two areas that blurred disciplinary boundaries: Theories and Speculations (methods and systems to facilitate research), and Forms and Objects (publishing, prototyping, and hacking practices). These published works have the potential to critically impact the ways we read, write, play, imagine, and learn across disciplinary boundaries, and exemplify non-traditional academic research methods for design and digital humanities scholars. This project served as a catalyst for the AIGA DEC conference Converge: Disciplinarities and Digital Scholarship we co-organized (spring 2017) and has been referenced in various other venues (see outcomes PDF).

Jessica Barness is an Associate Professor in the School of Visual Communication Design at Kent State University. Her research resides at the intersection of design, humanistic inquiry, and interactive technologies, investigated through a critical, practice-based approach. She has presented and exhibited her work internationally at venues hosted by organizations such as the Design History Society, HASTAC, and ICDHS, and she has published research in Design and Culture, AIGA Dialectic, Spirale, Visual Communication, SEGD Research Journal: Communication and Place, and Message, among others. Recently, her interactive work has been on display in the traveling exhibition Édition, Forme, Expérimentation, curated by Collectif Blanc. She co-edited (with Amy Papaelias) a special issue of Visible Language journal, “Critical Making: Design and the Digital Humanities” and is a member of the organizing committee for AIGA Converge conference, June 2017. She has an MFA in Design from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

Amy Papaelias is an Assistant Professor in the Graphic Design program at the State University of New York at New Paltz. Presentations of her creative work and pedagogy at national and international venues include the Type Directors Club, Digital Humanities, Theorizing the Web, TypeCon, and the College Art Association. She has been involved with several digital humanities initiatives including One Week One Tool, and serves on the Advisory Boards of Beyond Citation (CUNY Graduate Center) and Greenhouse Studios (University of Connecticut). She co-edited (with Jessica Barness) a special issue of Visible Language journal, “Critical Making: Design and the Digital Humanities” and is a member of the organizing committee for AIGA Converge conference, June 2017. She co-authored a chapter (with Dr. Aaron Knochel) for Making Humanities Matters (University of Minnesota Press, 2017). She is a founding member of, a network for promoting the work of women in type, typography and the lettering arts.

Place Into Words: An Unconventional Approach To Communicating The Story of Human Space Flight

Alan Walker
MFA Candidate & Adjunct Instructor
School of Visual Communication Design
Kent State University

Alex Catanese
MFA Candidate & Adjunct Instructor
School of Visual Communication Design
Kent State University

Jordan Kauffman
MFA Candidate & Adjunct Instructor
School of Visual Communication Design
Kent State University

Many of us have experienced moments where we can’t help but stop. We slow down to take in our surroundings; the single sliver of orange hanging onto the end of a sunset, or the subtle shift in colors on a lush rolling countryside. It’s hard to describe or identify why these locations express beauty, but they move us all the same. Place Into Words challenges viewers to imagine Mars, a planet often characterized as desolate and barren, as beautiful terrain. One day future generations may know nothing other than Mars’s vast canyons or sheer volcanos. Could a distant planet offer their most beautiful place?

Place Into Words was originally produced as a part of Kent State University’s School of Visual Communication Design MFA exhi bit, inspired by NASA’s O rion program, titled Survey’s: A Design Exhibition Immersed In The Journey Between Earth and Mars. The exhibit was backed by a semester long research process of secondary and primary methods, including interviews with NASA personnel and a visit to The Glenn Research Center.

Visitors to the exhibit were met with a 20ft projection collaging archival NASA footage and landscape photography of Earth and Mars, combined with documentary style audio of ordinary people’s responses to what they consider their most beautiful place. Visitors were also encouraged to participate by typing a response into the projection display. The installation created a distinct space in hopes to provoke and stir a sense of curiosity and wonder surrounding space travel.

This presentation will include insights gained through the process of research and creation. In addition, designers will present the companion Place Into Words online interface and screen a preview of the video component. Attendees will gain a broader understanding of how speculative design might be applied to experimental installations.

Link To Video/Live Site:

Critical Practices as Design Scholarship: Strategies and Opportunities

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

Steven McCarthy
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.