Designing RTD Experiments: Exploring and Materializing the Boundaries of Experimental Knowledge

This summer, I was fortunate to be selected to attend the Design PhD 2019 Summer School, “Designing RTD Experiments: Exploring and Materializing the Boundaries of Experimental Knowledge” at the Politecnico di Milano. The course was co-taught by Jonathan Chapman from Carnegie Mellon University as well as Stefano Maffei and Chiara Colombi from Politecnico di Milano. Participants included second-year doctoral students from the PhD programme in Design of the Politecnico di Milano and invited students from institutions part of the PhD in Design Network of Excellence: Aalto University, Carnegie Mellon University, Imperial College, TU Delft, and IIT Institute of Design (that’s me).

We spent the week working in a group creating idealtypes / gigamaps as a means to develop our own experimental research methodology through design. My group created a gigamap that explore values and motivations by different actors in the interaction assemblage of a co-creation process. Inspired by a couple of amazing guest speakers, including Amalia Ercoli-Finzi who spoke passionately about astrophysics, we used the metaphor of a solar system with different “actors” orbiting around a central “ball” of value that appears quite different depending on one’s vantage point and orientation. This somewhat fantastical exploration through design generatively posed new orbits for my own research. For example, it prompted me to ask, Who or what creates value? Who or what takes it away? Where are the key moments where values align? For a designer to think about systemic impact, must they be motivated at the individual, organizational, and societal level? No one actor in a system can create value—it must be shared and collectively generated.

Some other key takeaways were about what it means to do doctoral work and questioning the assumptions of that work. Jonathan encouraged us to examine our research questions and make them accessible to a wide audience. He also encouraged us to love our research—a much needed affirmation after the first year of grueling work for all of us. Emphasized the importance of research by doing, by doing design. Perhaps most importantly for me, I asked Jonathan about how much I should suppress my activist tendencies in order retain “objectivity” in my research. He encouraged me to acknowledge my activist approach and make that a part of my narrative. If you’re not provoking, you’re maintaining the status quo.

ResearchJessica Jacobs