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Communicating about Design: Communication Scholarship Moves into Practice
By Trudy Milburn
When you think about design, you might think about fashion: clothing, accessories, fabrics and the like. Recently, communication researchers have been thinking about design a bit differently, yet the analogy can help ground what is sometimes relegated to a simple workflow process. Sally Jackson and Mark Aakhus edited a special issue of the Journal of Applied Communication Research, 42 (2) at the end of 2014 about a communication take on design. Their compilation helps to fit communication research into a field commonly lacking communication scholars.
If you think about creating a new brochure, one often thinks about the graphic design that determines how the fonts, colors and images look on the page. That works calls for a graphic designer or artist. Yet, the words or content that the brochure contains is also designed. The particular messages used depend a great deal upon the people who are supposed to read the brochure. For instance, one might say very different things to wearers of scarves in Saudi Arabia as compared to those in New York City. This is one way that communication messages are designed for brochures.
Many people are familiar with the ways communication researchers examine how people talk or interact in particular situations; this descriptive work is often written up in our journals. Other professionals, like brochure message designers (say PR folks) would be the ones who use communication research, putting into practice what has been theorized. This transition to move scholars’ descriptive research into the realm of the applied world is one need NCA’s publication, Communication Currents fulfills.
Extending from this tradition, Jackson and Aakhus (2014) propose that communication researchers participate in design. When scholars move from an observer position and take a more active role they may fundamentally change how the interaction will proceed. This is a different type of research commitment and one with exciting implications and ethical challenges.
When considered from this perspective, communication scholars become active participants in work ranging from the design of brochures to the creation of any material artifact. In these realms, communication scholars may contribute to the creation of specific messages, refining the channels through which messages flow, to advocating that policies be put in place to facilitate work.
Design work is undertaken to solve a specific problem. Along with designers who may focus on the aesthetic aspects, communication scholars can bring different questions to design work.
For instance, Harrison (2014) contends that design is about creating a particular object. While sometimes theory is considered abstract, design is always specific. Rather than designing the idea of a scarf in general, you need to design the scarf you will wear to keep warm in the winter. Harrison asserts that designers need both materials and tools. So, in the case of our analogy, we would need fabric (material) and a sewing machine (tool). For communication scholars who participate in the design of a specific artifact, we may work with the design team to focus on how key goals will be accomplished. In order to accomplish goals, they must be articulated. Communication researchers can assist in learning about goals from multiple perspectives, such as differing goals of the scarf maker versus wearer. Harrison describes the importance of context, considering where and how the item being designed will be used. Consider a specific scarf example, Isadora Duncan wore her silk scarf while riding a new convertible automobile where it got stuck in the open-spoked wheels and killed her. In this case, design may have played a role in the accident (the scarf was too long), but the environment or context also played a role (the scarf was only too long when riding in an open-topped, moving vehicle). The communication scholar’s questions can make a difference in helping all design participants understand the distinction between stated goals and typical outcomes; and help everyone watch out for unintended consequences!
Analyzing failure can yield rich lessons for improving design. Sprain, Carcasson, and Merolla (2015) describe the implementation of one purposefully designed meeting. Using the analogy above, think of the group of people who need to come together to determine the best design to enact a policy for automobile safety. In this case, either re-designing cars that do not kill passengers who wear scarves, or putting rules in place about what safety features that should be included in all cars (a matter of policy). The design of the deliberation was planned in advance; scholars who planned and then reflected on its outcome, can improve not just the specific meeting they engaged in, but deliberative meetings in general.
When considering the safety of material artifacts or policies and procedures, it is useful to consider how safety is communicated. Barbour and Gill (2014) discuss their work to ensure safety within nuclear power plant through daily status meetings. While these are quite different meetings than the deliberative meetings described above, the description for how the status meetings should work (as documented in formal signs and emails) was different from how those meetings were actually carried out and enacted. Only by reflecting on the process of communicating during the meetings, could the design of those meetings be improved.
In the examples within the special design issue, we learn that communication scholars can be quite useful by participating in both parts of the design process: the creation of the artifact or process AND evaluation of its use or outcome.
By participating in the process of design, communication scholars pose questions that focus on process and product. Critique or criticism is one stage in design that seeks to act in new or different ways to produce better designs, creating an iterative process. Communication researchers bring a toolbox of methods for figuring out how people interact with one another, with and through artifacts, media, etc. These particular skills can be very useful for designers hoping to improve products and processes: from what we wear to the selfies we display through social media.
In this piece I have shown how communication researchers are playing new roles in design work not limited to simple message design for campaigns, but including places where interactions occur (i.e. a planning meeting); creating digital interfaces (either sole-interaction, or interaction with other persons through the interface); working with designers and/or users (conducting field research) and collaborating in re-design (always an iterative process).
If you’re interested in working with Associate Scholars on communication design projects, please contact us.