discussion starters: making as research


A thing I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how to make the benefits of hands-on making more available in a way that fits the MediaLAB Amsterdam design process where I coached a lot of design teams in recent years. I noticed recently that there’s a powerful semantic pull when models of design processes present making/creating as the opposite of “research” activities (I will write more about this in a later post). Opposing the two is not always productive when trying to understand in what ways making and creating can in fact be a research activity in itself.  Now that I’m developing activities for Makers Lab: the makerspace of the University of Applied Sciences, I got a chance to dive deep and develop a new workshop for the kick0ff week of the design teams that start every semester. In this post I will summarize the conceptual work behind the development of this activity. I facilitated this 3-day makersprint in September 2016 together with Tamara Pinos.

MediaLAB Amsterdam does research and design projects for NGO’s and small to big businesses (from IKEA and Cisco to local partners such as Cinekid or the municipality of Amsterdam). What I noticed in my coaching years was that the teams would show and discuss their design artifacts mainly as they started to move towards developing a specific solution for a problem. I’ve come to believe however that design artifacts can be of great significance earlier on in the project. However, they are often treated as semi-final results or deliverables that need to be ‘approved’ by partners and aren’t evaluated on the amount of insights they produce (Budd 2008; Frens & Hengeveld 2013). This is something I have also experienced in the design research projects I’ve led. I had a hunch that maybe, if done well and with a certain attitude and goal in mind, even “naive” design artifacts could be valuable as early as the first week. How can creating artifacts in the early stages of a project help designers/researchers map out the problem ecology they are investigating?


Objects as Design Artifacts as Research

I’ve been reading Martinez & Stager’s Invent to learn: Making, tinkering, and engineering in the classroom (2013), as a starting point for coming to terms with contemporary making and tinkering activities in educational contexts. Considered “Fablab teaching 101” in many makerspaces. The work holds many pedagogical and didactical handles for teachers and facilitators in primary and secondary education, but is lacking a specific outlook on the significance of making in higher design education.  So I started looking into design processes at other institutes more similar to ours. At TU Eindhoven’s Industrial Design department a lot of importance is put on making in two ways: to explore (get a grip on a problem) and to validate results, eg. prototyping for testing (Frens & Hengeveld 2013). Secondly, at Design Academy in Eindhoven design artifacts are understood in the broadest sense of the word, they can be drawings, notes, prototypes, maps, scenarios, identities, events, spaces, objects and films or other forms. This institute also sees potential value for arts methodologies as a part of research, placing importance on values such as ambiguity, intuition and serendipity alongside more formal research values like rigour, systematic way of working, analysis and referencing (Lexicon of Design Research 2015). Especially in early stages of the project – the divergent stages – room for arts methodologies can be valuable, because it expands areas of the thinkable, acting as a creative catalyst. The creation of design artifacts is placed at the center of the design research process (it is a form of thinking in its own right) and of disseminating knowledge (Thinking Through Making 2015).  These other models suggest that design artifacts can be part of the research because they make implicit information, values and thinking explicit. Once thinking is explicit, thoughts-as-artifacts can be circulated and discussed, contested, responded to, reflected on and improved: they can act in a real-world context from day one.


Boundary Objects

A useful concept to understand this is what sociologists Star & Griesemer called “boundary objects” (1989). Object act as markers of communities of practice when there is a shared understanding of the object and their use, such as certain maps or instruments. Conversely, if the understanding and use of an object is paradoxical or contested, this marks the boundaries between groups. When objects are not fully “naturalized” by one community, and classification systems collide, boundary objects can negotiate areas of overlap between social worlds (Bowker & Star 2000). So the idea emerged: what if we could design boundary objects in the early stages of a research project, to spark discussion and understand the problem area as a very diverse and not-so-unified social arena?


I took this as the starting point for developing a 3-day workshop with a few different goals, keeping in focus that design objects can act as ‘discussion starters’ that may lay bare the different interpretations, values, fears and emotional responses of people when confronted with such artifacts. It’s a mixed exercise in: making objects (not necessarily a common skill for digital designers), presenting a problem area as an – ideally ambiguous – experience (confronting people with the problem rather than a ‘solution’), and finally presenting these artifacts in a very serious way to start discussions with various people, which may lead to new sources of information, contesting of hidden assumptions, unforeseen angles to look at the problem, etcetera. (On a sidenote, thinking in terms of tech solutions might be a dangerous track to go on altogether for a medialab…Evgeny Morozov’s writings on solutionism are still on my to-read list, but here’s a short intro by Ethan Zuckerman (2016).


I’ve started to develop a number of ‘recipes’ to ease participants into this way of thinking, in which paradoxes, ambiguities, humor and assumptions are welcome. This is a radically different attitude to presenting design research work, which normally in the case of these students involves a lot of simplifying information in order to be able to present – or “pitch” – a convincing story. In this case, we aren’t looking for convincing arguments, we’re out to tease people to tell us their very own view on things. This slideshare gives an overview of the process, steps and examples we gave the students.



The final results ranged from dataphysicalizations to design fiction to board games and every team made 2 objects or more, so their work also acted as a non-unified variety of perspectives in itself (no singular “Truths” there). Not only were they really impressive to see, the following expo – small but vibrant – lead to a lot of interesting discussions for the students. They were exposed to a multitude of views, questions, critiques and suggestions only four days into their projects. Because it was an experiment for us af facilitators, we make plans to bring any of the results to the project partners. So we were happily surprised to see and hear that many teams did show their partners (some even made a new iteration for it), and another team showed their physical questionnaire/tangible infographic at a public event this Friday to discuss some more. For a generation that thinks “desktop research” is an actual research methodology, that’s a pretty impressive feat. All results (in pictures) can be viewed here.




Budd, A. (2008). “Design Artefacts Part 1: an Introduction”. Blogography. February 21st. Retrieved here 12 April 2016.

Bowker, G. C., & Star, S. L. (2000). Sorting things out: Classification and its consequences. MIT press.

Frens, J., & Hengeveld, B. (2013). To make is to grasp. Proceedings of IASDR, 13, 1-8. Retrieved here 11 April 2016.

Lexicon of Design Research (2015) Design Academy Eindhoven. Retrieved 10 April 2016: http://www.lexiconofdesignresearch.com/ 

Martinez, S. L., & Stager, G. (2013). Invent to learn: Making, tinkering, and engineering in the classroom. Torrance, CA: Constructing modern knowledge press.

Star, S. L., & Griesemer, J. R. (1989). Institutional ecology,translations’ and boundary objects: Amateurs and professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39. Social studies of science, 19(3), 387-420.

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

Zuckerman, E. (2016) “The worst thing I read this year and what it taught me….or Can we design sociotechnical systems that don’t suck? Ethan Zuckerman. Retrieved Jun 25th 2016 at: http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2016/06/22/the-worst-thing-i-read-this-year-and-what-it-taught-me-or-can-we-design-sociotechnical-systems-that-dont-suck/….