Three ways of making in interdisciplinary design processes

Discussion of two comparable frameworks and suggestions for a more makerly MediaLAB model

The MediaLAB way of working has been subject to a number of iterations in recent years. The formalising and finetuning of the program, process, ideology and culture of design at the studio has led to a fast paced, well-structured 20-week program for collaboration in design research in interdisciplinary and cross-cultural settings. It has led to the development of a well-documented and structured 20 week program, an agile approach based on a modified version of SCRUM, a design method toolkit (online and physical card set), and a mobile app to simplify collaboration and reduce design waste (Van Hout & Gootjes, 2015). The MediaLAB Amsterdam model, in short: is based on an iterative loop called the research/create loop that signifies the desired alternating rhythm between analysing information and insights, and creating solutions. To go from one to the other, you go through a process we call translate.


Recent developments in production techniques and design tools have sparked a lot of discussion on the role of making and creating in a design research context. The craftsmanship of the designer is gaining prominence and is seems to be crucial for coming up with well-made, well-researched and innovative solutions. There is a rapidly growing body of work dealing with the embodied aspects of design research work: such as the role of sketching in design (Cross, 2011), embodied sensemaking and ideating (Hummels & Van Dijk, 2015), the formative value of design artifacts rather than summative value of deliverables (Dudd, 2011) and maker methodologies (Silver, 2009). The accessibility and number of makerspaces have made advanced production techniques available to researchers and students alike: a good time to reassess and formalise how a research and design studio such as MediaLAB Amsterdam can review their practice and come to terms with the question why designers make? 

I was asked to look into this question and make a number of suggestions for the workshops program and the methodology used. Below is an outline of the models of two other design education & research institutions: Design Academy Eindhoven and the model of the industrial design department at the Technical University Eindhoven (TU/e). There’s a short summary of the key points and terminology surrounding these models, followed by two suggestions for an improved MediaLAB model that can streamline the way we think/create.


Model 1: A critique of the slick prototype, and a call for making at TU/e

In the educational context of the design department of Industral Design at TU/Eindhoven, the role of making is discussed explicitly within their design education framework. Designers in training work in the context of designing systems, services and interactive products. At the core of the design process is the reciprocity of making and thinking: a reflective transformative design process they call the RTD process (Frens & Hengeveld, 2013: 2). Frens & Hengeveld define the design process not as a deterministic process from A to be, but as a process of making continuous informed guesses to move from unspecified to specified, and making serves a very specific purposes in this model (not to be confused with ‘designing’ which is the overall process, the interplay between thinking and creating).

1.Making for exploration

1.1 Making for inspiration

Making with a searching nature, making for inspiration, ambiguity as productive force, lack of planning. This is making for ideation & conceptualization.  “[The designer] is in constant reflective dialogue with that what he makes, his insights form while making” (2)

1.2 Making for elaboration

Making for elaboration is making in search for detail. The designer is looking to refine his concept, and searching for ways to express his design intent (2).


2. Making for validation

This way of making is to confirm and check ideas, the validation that will provide solid insights and will give direction to the next phases in the design. Designers do not make aimlessly, but try to move from unspecified to specified: “[T]he hand knows what the head doesn’t but needs to be shown. Making thus acts as a catalyst of thought.”(3)

Special note regarding digital fabrication

New techniques such as the ones belonging to digital fabrication and advanced rapid prototyping risk blurring the boundaries between making and prototyping, between making for exploration and making for validation and between making and designing (5). The ability to create fullfledged hi-fi working prototypes lures designers into making things work early on, but in turn they are often mistakenly perceived as ‘product proposals’: “the model is judged as a finished product rather than as a creator of insights (5).” Frens & Hengeveld strongly argue for keeping the boundaries very clear and to consider and evaluate making – and the design artifacts that come out of it – in terms of the insights they can reveal, not the definitiveness they express (6).

With regards to the MediaLAB model, there’s the same goal of interrelation between thinking and creating. But it is made more specific what that making is, and what different purposes the different kinds of making serve. This provides a lot of clarity as to why it is a good decision to start making at any point in the design process. Making is not just making, you do it with a different aim every time. If you start making with the right intention, then it will provide new insights to help designers make decisions.


Model 2: Design research at Design Academy Eindhoven

At Design Academy Eindhoven: they define making in different terms. In their manifesto on design research, they argue for 4 pillars that are necessary to do design research that can produce knowledge.

1. Anchoring in knowledge

To be embedded in a context of knowledge institutes, as a collaborative practice between academia and industry.

2. Capturing knowledge

Is to collect, document, analyse, map, reflect, translate and conclude. In other words: it’s the thinking that enables new meaning, dialogues and exploring futures (Manifesto, 2015). It’s one half of the thinking-through-making process they advocate.

3. Creating knowledge

This is the other half: the making part of thinking-through-making. Creating knowledge are all the ‘vessels that can express knowledge through more than words alone’ (Manifesto, 2015). In other words: text and verbal communication is one, but not one more important than eg. making objects, organising activities, telling stories, designing experiences, maps, styles, identities, scenarios, films, drawings.

4. Disseminating

By disseminating, again new knowledge is produced, they are not just vehicles. Manifestions of design – or perhaps ‘design artifacts’ –  is what is being disseminated and can be films, texts, maps, objects, services, events, maps, styles, identities. Dissemination is an active component of knowledge production and integral part of design research. Dissemination can take a plethora of forms again, not only conference papers, but also spaces, exhibitions, interactions etc.  (Manifesto, 2015).

We see here that there’s no subcategories in making, but that again the interplay between making and thinking is at the core. The more often a designer oscillates between thinking and making, the better. Posing the dissemination of knowledge as design activitiy is also an interesting addition here.

Key words in the DAE Design Lexicon

Additionally, it is good to highlight a few key words in the design lexicon that also come back in other publications by the Strategic Creativity Readership. First is the word ambiguity, or the quality to be open to more than one interpretation, inexactness (Raijmakers & Aerts 2015: 22). Ambituity represents the push to constantly question ideas and facts. Especially in the context of wicked problems that require a systems approach, or ecological approach of innovation, to ‘look for ambiguity everywhere’ seems like a wise mantra to stick to.

Secondly, the word systematic is offered to clarify that designers don’t make aimlessly here either. They have the responsibility to work methodically, according to a fixed plan or a system. This can be a system of the maker’s own choosing but it has to be explicit and argumented. Lastly the main term map is emphasised to draw attention to the visual representation of complex information. It indicates that text might not be the tool of preference on its own. Mapping is explained as research tool to collect and order data, and simultaneously can be a tool for manifestation and dissemination (Raijmakers & Aerts 2015: 66).

The power of implied dichotomies in the MediaLAB model

Relating this model to the MediaLAB program, the three pillars are strongly represented in the triple helix collaborations within ACIN specifically. The capturing/creating twosome resembles MediaLAB’s research/create cycle. However, there’s some tension in the choice of words in this implied dichotomy. If thinking is the opposite of making, then is research the opposite of create in the MediaLAB model? The dichotomy might be implied but it could be a strong source of noise. If we look at the choice of words (semantics are a powerful thing), we would conclude that in the DAE and TU/e models (design) research is the interplay, the constant oscillating between thinking and creating. Research doesn’t equal thinking, it’s only half.

Model 3: Suggestion for an improved MediaLAB model

Building on these thoughts, two main suggestions can be made:

  • the research/create dichotomy could imply the undesirable statement that creating is not research
  • specifying how the act of making and creating can serve different purposes could help integrate them throughout all the stages of the design process.

A new dichotomy: collect/analyse & design/create

With regards to the former, I would suggest using the pair: collect & analyse on the one hand, and on the other hand design & create to signify that there is a time for acting (creating) and a time for analysing and gathering information. Prototyping for example is a design and create activity, but testing the prototype and analysing the test results is an activity that fits collect & analyse well. Moreover it becomes very clear how the two contribute to one another.

Why designers make: three ways of purposeful making at MediaLAB Amsterdam

The second suggestion is a way to specify the purposes of making. These could fall into three categories within the MediaLAB design process:

  • Create to diverge (freeform tinkering, bodystorming, experiments)
    • A workshop in tinkering was developed for this as a very early attempt to integrate makerly ways of working into the design process in collaboration with Tamara Pinos.
  • Create to question and discuss (probes, discussion starters, workshops, mappings, experiences, games)
    • The latest addition to the workshop program was a maker sprint called ‘Discussion Starters’ and was developed and tried in september 2016 at the Makers Lab, the university’s makerspace in collaboration with Tamara Pinos. A workshop format and materials (workbook) in “visual communication” (using simple drawing techniques to map discussions, brainstorms and other verbal exchanges and collaborative contexts)  were developed earlier and would also fit in this category.
  • Create to confirm (prototyping and iterating on prototypes to test and refine a concept)
    • This was already very present in the methodology in the form of differen prototyping and testing methods. Tamara Pinos developed a prototyping workshop for this third category.

Create to diverge and create to confirm are based on the TU/e model (making for inspiration and making for elaboration), and ‘create to discuss’ is added to incorporate a way of making and creating that is rooted in the activity of researching by disseminating as described in the DAE model. Creating in this strand is purposeful, not because it will lead to a good product proposal necessarily, but because it will spark a lot of discussion that can then provide insights about the user’s values, fears and desires. The term of ambiguity from the DAE lexicon is central here: ‘conversations starters’ that spark real discussions rather than compliant nodding can point out irregularities and tensions in the user group that need to be negotiated in order to come up with truly user centered designs.

Moreover, the added category ‘create to discuss’ is in tune with the idea that design artifacts, or ‘deliverables’ should be evaluated for their formative value, rather than their summative one (Budd 2008). The deliverable’s value is not determined by getting (or not getting) an OK from a stakeholder or user; rather, its value correlates directly with the amount of new insights it provokes.

Specifying these three strands of making enables students and coaches to see how there’s purposeful making to be done at every stage of the project. From sprint 0 (user scenes and tinkering), to the final refining touches in production sprints; as long as analysing and creating alternate throughout you can allow for freedom and systematic research that is fundamentally intertwined throughout.


Budd, Andy. (2008). “Design Artefacts Part 1: Introduction.” Blogography. February 21st, 2008.

Cross, Nigel (2011). Design Thinking. Understanding How Designers Think and Work. Oxford: Berg Publishers.

Frens, J., & Hengeveld, B. (2013). “To make is to grasp”. Proceedings of IASDR, 13, 1-8.

Hummels, C., & van Dijk, J. (2015, January). Seven Principles to Design for Embodied Sensemaking. In Proceedings of the Ninth International Conference on Tangible, Embedded, and Embodied Interaction. ACM: p. 21-28.

Manifesto (2015). Lexicon of Design Research. Design Academy Eindhoven.

Raijmakers, B., Aerts, D. (2015). Thinking Through Making – Strategic Creativity Series. Lectoraat Strategic Creativity. Eindhoven: Design Academy.

Silver, J. (2009, June). Awakening to maker methodology: the metamorphosis of a curious caterpillar. In Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Interaction Design and Children, ACM, p. 242-245.

Van Hout, M. & Gootjes, G. (2015). “Scream! An Integrated Approach for Multidisciplinary Design Teams in Higher Education.” Edulearn15 Proceedings, 2157-2167.