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Applying Design Research to Generate New Knowledge

A collaborator with neuroscientists and technologists, Amber Howard applies design research to discover knowledge that does not yet exist. As such, her life and work in design is atypical. As a PhD candidate in Design at North Carolina State University (NCSU), Raleigh, she prognosticated augmented reality on mobile devices and is currently collaborating with teams at Duke University.

Learn more about Amber’s life in design in this interview conducted by first-year student, Michael Yap:

I first encountered PhD in Design candidate Amber Howard’s work in conversation with Meredith Davis, the Chair of the Master in Graphic Design program at North Carolina State University (NCSU), Raleigh. When I shared my suspicion that recent discoveries in cognitive science and neuroscience may have profound, but unrealized, implications on the activity of design, Meredith pointed to Howard’s 2007 Master in Graphic Design thesis in “anticipatory design.” In an interview I conducted with Howard in September of 2010, she described the role of anticipatory design as a “primer” for information processing. She went on to say: “Emerging technologies have enabled us to merge an information world with the physical world. In this convergence, we are able to overlay the ‘invisible’ information of things—our bodies, another person walking by, a book—onto a physical space, creating rich environments that allow learning to happen on the spot. Anticipatory design intervenes just before this exchange happens—it sets us up to look at a certain place over another, enhancing our learning in that situation.”

Howard’s life in design is atypical. Early exposure to neuroscience during an undergraduate course led to her to pursuing graduate studies at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena in industrial design. The program shared a laboratory with scientists from the California Institute of Technology. Howard fell in love with design research in those labs—specifically, in an fMRI scanner imaging her brain while she interacted with an interface. From then on, she “hit the ground running, pursuing research that merged design, neuroscience and technology.” These days, in the PhD program in Design at NCSU, Howard works closely with neuroscientists and technologists at Duke University. She believes that the research on motivation, emotion and memory conducted at Duke is intrinsic to design, thus it “propels her own work” and shapes the direction of her inquiries.

Howard navigates two worlds: the professional practice of design and the academic sciences. Each presents distinct approaches to research. Design research, as Howard acknowledges, is a relatively new pursuit; in fact, its definition remains contested. Her goal as a PhD candidate is to “create or generate new knowledge” that can contribute to design through research, in contrast to practitioners who conduct research to evaluate prototypical designs. Among academics, Howard explains that the term, “new knowledge,” is fraught; because some will argue that there is no “new” knowledge—it is only combinations of existing knowledge. However, Howard seeks to discover knowledge rooted in empirical study, subject to equally rigorous academic standards.

Sharon Poggenpohl [1] of the Institute of Design wrote in 2004: “Design is at a crossover point—a place where art and science overlap,” and that “there have been significant scientific developments lately [that have deepened our] understanding of human cognition, which has profound implications for our knowledge of how people use and process information.” If Sharon’s assessment was the call to action for designers of all stripes, Howard’s work is the resounding response.

[1] “Plain Talk about Learning and a Life–in Design

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