I am still recovering from jet-lag but wanted to share just a few thoughts about the fun I had this past week at AIGA Decipher 2018. There was so much great energy from all the speakers, participants, and keynotes—it’s hard to know where to begin.

One of the outstanding sessions I attended was the activity group “Critical Race Design Studies: Exploring Practical Approaches and New Opportunities in Design Curriculum” led by Nikita Thomas. Thomas began by sharing her research and thoughts on co-resistance, co-construction, co-practice, and co-refinement. She also shared critical readings by authors such as Bell Hooks, who writes:

“From slavery on, white supremacists have recognized that control over images is central to the maintenance of any system of racial domination.”

And Hito Steyerl, who explains:

“The poor image has been uploaded, downloaded, shared, reformatted, and re-edited. It transforms quality into accessibility, contemplation into distraction… it also reveals the conditions of their marginalization, the constellation of social forces leading to their online circulation as poor images… Their lack of resolution attests to their appropriation and displacement.”

Next, we were led through three activities focused on critical race design for behaviour change. These methodologies seek to critically unpack, iteratively disrupt, effectively analyze, and sustainably transform both hegemonic ways of reading blackness and the black experience. The three activities Thomas shared during the activity to engage with the process include (1) Start with Yourself, (2) Values and Indicators, and (3) Testimony.

Along with Thomas’s activity group, I genuinely enjoyed the session “Feminist Methodologies for Human-Centered Design” led by Ali Place. In her introduction to the session, Place positioned feminism as a natural ally to design and explained her view on what makes research feminist. She noted how feminism rejects concepts such as positivism, objectivity, and quantitative data — and instead embraces interpretivism, subjectivity, and qualitative data. She went on to argue:

“Equity is not meant to provide comfort to those with power and privilege.”

Following this poignant introduction, Place led the group through an activity that looked at the ways each participant might operate research through an intersectional feminist lens.

Beyond participating in these sessions focused on critical studies in race and gender, I was honored to serve as a moderator for two outstanding activity groups.

The first was led by Sudebi Thakurata on “Unpacking Context in Design Research Through Orality And Narrative Inquiry.” In this activity group, Thakurata facilitated an exploration of visual conversations around the intersections of orality, narrative inquiry and design research—not only as a pedagogical tool but as an approach to design research. As part of the morning activity, there were triggers given in the forms of case studies generated by Thakurata’s own research, along with quotes from existing literature and probing questions.

The other session I moderated was led by Mindy Magyar on “Cultural Responsibility in Design Research.” Magyar’s activity group explored the need for integrating cultural research into design processes in response to today’s cultural unrest, both nationally and globally. As part of the process, Magyar led participants to unpack the terms ‘cultural appropriation’ and ‘accountability’ for designers. She went on to explain:

“Designers must embrace more cross-cultural research and intercultural dialogue within their work. Doing so can mitigate negative and unintended design outcomes, and even facilitate a more just society.”

Finally, I had a wonderful time presenting “Let’s Play Together: Creating Games to Diversify Design Research Teams” with Kelly Murdoch-Kitt. During this session, we facilitated an activity about how elements of play and game design can bring diverse teams together.

As part of our ongoing research, we have identified a number of areas that frequently cause a type of ‘positive friction’, or creative abrasion, between our students. For instance, during co-creation projects our students often struggle with the basics of (1) communication (2) accountability (3) ownership (4) evaluation and critique (5) role assessment (6) assigning tasks, and (7) sharing and working with each other’s project components.

We purchased about ten different tabletop games to help participants engage in these ideas using the ingredients of ‘play’ and ‘fun.’ The games ranged from Scrabble and Twister to Pictionary and Apples-to-Apples. Session participants were broken into small groups, and each group was asked to develop a rough prototype of an analog game to address one of the topics. For instance, one game was dedicated to assigning tasks (using a hacked version of Apples-to-Apples), while another focused on critique (using a hacked version of Twister).

By the end of the session, participants created a collection of games that could be brought back to their own design classrooms as learning tools for collaborative projects. It was wonderful to engage in discussions with everyone who participated in our session, but also throughout the conference. Overall, I really appreciated the format of the Decipher conference as a hands-on approach to addressing crucial themes of defining, doing, disseminating, supporting, and teaching design research.

Thanks to everyone who made this conference come to life, particularly my research partner, Kelly Murdoch-Kitt!