Designerly Ways of Knowing*

Experimental Making at the Fuzzy Front End of Design

Visual thinking, making artifacts and keeping a design process book engender reflective practice in early stages of the research progress. Master of Design student, Emma Joy Lovell’s process book spreads illustrate how she draws on all of these methods to position her research at an early stage, moving on to visually and mindfully depict her design process as a research methodology. Master of Design students who have established a research path, along with previous undergraduate work for this course, provide necessary examples of good practice for current Design Research students.



Through contextual search and review, assigned readings, seminar discussion, design experimentation and peer/staff critique, students address and share their research question or issue; give rise to their passion, test their tolerance for risk taking, manage complexity, and seek to structure their outcomes as simple and elegant visual communication. For example, undergraduate student Lee Yuen-Rapati’s Brief History of Timekeeping from his research outcome Niche Series No.1: Watches, pictures the evolution of timekeeping devices in a compelling data visualization. Lee’s research focused on niche products, investigating the context and analyzing the characteristics of niche products to develop a greater understanding of their importance.

In culmination of her design research and with the intent to provoke consumers to act for improvements in the food system, Rebecca Granat designed this infographic for a recent public exhibition titled Environmental Justice. One of her early artifacts in the Design Research class used origami and photocopies of a fifty-dollar bill to create a school of counterfeit salmon.

I created this artifact in direct response to an issue that I uncovered regarding genetically modified salmon. I chose to use $50 bills because the co­lour is reflective of the natural colouring internally of salmon. The process of making origami is reflec­tive of how fragile and sensitive our food system and the environment are; if you don’t accurately line up one fold, or crease the paper the right way, the end result will not be optimal. In addition, the process of making the first salmon was reflective of my research process because I was learning new techniques for the first time,  similar to how I am beginning to value and understand sustainable eating.

Rebecca is advancing her concept aiming to generate visual communication from a design activist stance. Her purpose is to be explicit about the health and environmental dangers of farmed salmon, raising consumer consciousness regarding issues surrounding food sources.


Essentially the Design Research course supports students in generating their own design brief through critical thinking and discourses of discovery. Formulated around the ‘see’ going practice of design, the course engages students at the same and at different times in theory and practice. Not a linear process, but a ‘messy business’ of dynamic generative enquiry. The challenge for the student is to transform this ‘messy business’ into a structured and coherent whole.

Look at it, when you‘ve actually looked at it you can begin to see it, and when you can see it, then you can begin to describe it – quite difficult – and when you can describe it, then you can begin to analyze it. And only after looking, seeing, and describing and analyzing can you begin to interpret it, to construct meaning from it.[2]

Looking, seeing, describing, analyzing, interpreting and constructing meaning is the bedrock of design for NSCAD University’s undergraduates and master’s students. Experimental making at the fuzzy front end of design has led these students, amongst others, to define their own path, leaving them with valuable tools for developing knowledge throughout their careers as designers.

Marlene Ivey BFA MDes (UK) is Associate Professor, Interdisciplinary Design, NSCAD University where she teaches undergraduate and postgraduate students.  Her capabilities include, designing for experience, design activism, participatory design and research through design practice.


*[1] Cross, N (2007) Designerly Ways of Knowing, Birkhäuser Verlag AG Basel Boston Berlin

[2] Ivey transcription from TED Talks, TEDx  Dartmouth  2010, Brian Kennedy,  Visual Literacy Why We Need It