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Words: Yoko Akama and Carolyn Barnes
The project, called Probious (a marriage between ‘probe’ and ‘curious’), was a collaborative endeavour among a broad range of graphic designers to design the research tools and questions from the ground-up. Between 2009 – 2011, a total of six design research workshops took place with many volunteer participants, including practitioners from industry, design educators and postgraduate and Honours students. This diverse group of contributors has been central to generating as many research issues and themes as possible, as well as identifying the most promising approaches for inspiring designers’ input and flagging any barriers to response. The workshops proposed open-ended data gathering methods to enable a diversity of responses to expand the parameters of research, rather than seeking finite answers to fixed questions. A critical framework we introduced at the first workshop was Gaver, Dunne and Pacenti’s concept of ‘Cultural Probe’, a research method specifically conceived to capture ‘inspirational data’ and drive expansive exploration of an area of investigation, often before specific questions and issues were known. A cultural probe is a package of items sent to research participants to trigger unconstrained responses to elicit insights about the person. Subjectivity, affective experience and meaning are the raw material of graphic design, although the current industry-driven image of the field in Australia is of a seamless, uncomplicated extension of mainstream corporate and consumer culture.
The elements in the cultural probe were designed to delight, arouse curiosity, be engaging, relevant and prompt reflection. Some were deliberately ambiguous and fun and others were thought provoking. Once the workshop participants embraced the idea that fixed responses were not the aim, they allowed their intuition for designing to drive the process. For example, the theme of designers’ identity prompted Sarah to stitch a calico doll representing an abstracted human form (see Figure 1 above). She proposed it as a ‘blank canvas’ to enable diverse responses. Naomi, intrigued by the sense that designers like making lists, conceived a simple paper concertina asking for responses to the prompt ‘What do I…?. Each fold, when opened, qualifying the questions by adding action verbs like ‘consider’, ‘influence’, ‘contribute’ and ‘prevent’ (see Figure 2 below). The humble nature of this probe invited a spontaneous, uninhibited response, even though the questions it asked were profound. Similarly, a circular disc with layers of ‘what I care and ‘what I care less about’ invited the designers to express the things that mattered to them most. A more open-ended probe was a magnetic typoetry kit (see Figure 3 below), consisting of words related to a designer’s practice like ‘client’, ‘hierarchy’, ‘communication’ and ‘Helvetica’. This probe was not led by specific questions. It invited respondents to play with it, to make up sentences that might not say anything specific, aligning with observations that designers’ judgment processes are commonly felt rather than cognitively made, intuition and tacit knowledge being an inherent attribute of the design process. A number of probe elements engaged designers’ ‘sensual’ process in involving the direct manipulation of mediums including fabric, magnets and paper, or visual imagery and typography.
We posted the first experimental probes in May 2011 to twenty designers around Australia, sending a few to each of Australia’s state and territories and the rest to areas outside the large urban centres where there is no concentration of cultural activity and related support services. This became one of the major hurdles in locating designers spread broadly across Australia, rather than just capturing those that reside in the capital cities. Recruitment of participants happened serendipitously. The designers who contributed to the development of the probes suggested some prospective participants. Others volunteered when a request was made at national and state level through AGDA. Since diversity was an interest of the project, we chose probe participants of varying age, experience, ethnic and social background and gender.
The twelve responses received so far from designers show that Probious provides plentiful scope for the expression of difference. However, this in itself poses a significant challenge in building generalised theory from such micro-level specificity. Obviously, we, as academic researchers are expected to undertake investigations with a scope for theory building. The meanings of stitches and marks made on a calico doll, for example, are not explicit, although they suggest alternative forms of subjectivity and self-expression to the professional work of the designer. Resisting an ‘obvious’ response, either by turning the doll into an airplane (see Russell and Mick’s responses) or drawing a figure up-side-down (see Michael’s response) indicates their willingness to playfully push boundaries.
The magnetic poetry probe suggested the exponential dimensions of designerly playfulness within a relatively ‘restricted’ brief. It speaks volumes about the power of visual communication and the complexity of ideas that can be conveyed within a limited amount of words. The pieces communicate the choices they make in what to include as much as what they chose to exclude. In Michael and Drew’s example, they used all the words in a careful arrangement that conveys a great deal about their thoughts about design. In contrast Emily has attentively chosen the words to express her love for craft, which is also echoed in the way she had sewn buttons on to the calico doll. These typographic examples imbue an almost zen-like quality in its simplicity and message formation. It seems as if the designers had approached it like a puzzle and problem to be solved – a skill that they exercise with elegance and expertise.
The probe items ‘Things that I care about, ‘What do I…?’ and ‘Journey to becoming a designer’ were intentionally thought provoking to elicit statements of values from respondents. Where the graphic design sector’s self-representation often focuses on the commercial impact of design, surprisingly, money was frequently mentioned as something that they cared the least about. Instead, all probe respondents emphasised the relationships with family and friends that nourish their creativity, which make their work-life meaningful. Ironically, despite the ubiquitousness of technology and its centrality in a design profession, many voiced how they disliked computers. The responses suggested that life experiences were as important to them as the prestigious positions held as ‘senior designer’ or ‘creative director’ in becoming the designers they are today. Valuing human relationships and personal experience is not specific to designers, but it reveals a human dimension to graphic design that is eclipsed by the sectors’ focus on successful projects.
Feedback from participants
Email correspondence from participating designers suggests they found Probious engaging. Alberto, a designer from ACT, commented, “it looks like such a fun exercise. Trust me if it were a form to fill out, it would have been chucked long ago.” Drew from South Australia, said “It was good fun to be involved so thanks again for thinking of us. I feel there’s a good chance I’ve well and truly exposed the neurotic designer mind I inhabit. I’m interested to enter into further dialogue if required. Great project.” Becky, from Western Australia, revealed the curiosity generated by receiving a ‘mystery’ box in the mail, commenting, “This will make you laugh. Just before lunch a large cardboard box arrived and naturally, I thought it was your box. So we waited until everyone was back from lunch to open it. After several hours, with palpable excitement, the box was opened only to discover that it was not from you at all, but some Shaker boxes I had ordered last week from the States … I wasn’t disappointed, but I think everyone else was!”
Probious has designed a valuable research method for investigating widely spread groups, but it demands a high level of motivation and input from research participants. A lack of time to respond to the probe as a result of family and work pressures was an issue for all participants, causing several to pull out of the study. This is an obstacle we need to examine further for the next phase of the study. Highly time-consuming probes were culled during the design workshops, but the comments of respondents underscored that engaging with the contents of each probe not only took time away from work for clients, it required a reflective head-space. Tracy from Tasmania, for instance, commented, “I have received [the] package and I’ve had a quick look and I am keen to think more about the questions it asks of me…. Great timing really as I feel I need to reflect on those very questions.” She continued to say in another email, “I actually took yesterday off to spend on my own and tried not to think about anything that involves design. It was extremely hard and I didn’t manage it! You’ve created some kind of epiphany and I’m going to reassess my business and the work I take on. Thank you!” Many workshop participants also echoed that the research had enabled reflection of their own practices and design approaches as well.
Reasons for their failure to complete the probe can tell us many things about their practice as much as the ones that have been returned. Hannah, from New South Wales (NSW), ultimately had to pull out of the project, explaining that, “I have carried around the doodle pad, but keep forgetting to doodle.” Similarly, Michelle from NSW noted the difficulty in juggling her workload and desire to give the project due time, writing, “I have been hit with freelance projects on top of full time work so it’s been quite hectic for me. I am still keen to finish the articles in the box but at the same time, don’t want to send a rushed job back.” Their candid comments reveal the hectic nature of a designer’s practice, governed by client briefs and timelines. The popular impression of design as a creative profession may not necessarily mean having freedom to undertake creative activities, like doodling.
This article has explored some of the challenges in researching Australian graphic design, arguing that conceptual and methodological innovation is required to investigate its complexity and diversity. The trial of the cultural probes gives us confidence the method can engage designers to reflect upon their experience, identity and practices to reveal dimensions of graphic design otherwise hidden from view. The depth and richness of response found in each returned probe confirms our initial research objective in seeking to capture the diversity and vibrancy of Australian graphic design. The effort and passion invested in each returned probe box suggests that designers really care about what it means to be a designer and are prepared to think deeply about the issues and questions this raises while simultaneously making the process of response enjoyable through creative play. This article does not do justice to the rich personal stories uncovered by the returned probes – and so we hope that this is one of many stories to be shared in revealing the diverse, expansive and nuanced responses from the participating designers. We seek to identify the interrelated human, conceptual and material elements that comprise Australian graphic design. The collection of returned probe items will form a significant material archive of Australian graphic design. Whether made available through a website or in an exhibition format, we hope the resource will spark a multiplicity of investigations into a cultural field that has immense scale and influence.
Our warmest thanks go to the Honours students from RMIT and Swinburne. Designers who kindly agreed to take part in this project: Tracey Allen, Michael Agzarian, Mick Barlow, Dougal Binns, Karen Brook, Becky Chilcott, Cherise Corick, Hanna Cutts, Paul Dennis, Minh Doh, Hugh and Jodi Edwards, Alberto Florez, Russell Goodman, Sarah Hendy, Mark Hilton, Tania Ivanka, Jacinda Jackson, Brett Jacobs, Drew Joyce, Bec Nally, Kate Owen, Emily Pacey, Naomi Savio, Michelle Teh, David Williams and Dan Withey. We would also like to thank AGDA, Design Research Institute at RMIT and Swinburne University for their support.