February 27, 2009


Part of what I find so intriguing about finance and economics is that is seems so foreign to me. Almost like no amount of research I could ever do would allow it to make sense. And of course that isn't true. At its core, the basic principles are common sense. Even I could understand them. But the years of experts and incomprehensible language and a scaffolding of complexity dulled our common sense. Or at least they dulled mine. I spouted suggestions that I heard repeated on radio shows. "Student loan debt is good debt." "A home is a great investment." Are these things true? Maybe? Sure? Probably? I don't know. I could make an argument for or against either although each argument would be pretty short.

So as the economy crumbles, I find myself digging through the rubble looking for my common sense and trying to apply it more reasonably to my own economic decisions. Listening to a story on NPR this morning, jointly produced by NPR and This American Life, felt like finding kindred spirits, other diggers.

Taxpayer Beware: Bank Bailout Will Hurt

And it struck a chord as to the types of thing designers can contribute to a discussion about complex issues like economics and finance.

February 22, 2009

But what does this have to do with design? Part 2

(My apologizes for this delayed response to Julka's fantastic post dated 2/2/2009. I was on holiday and then I caught a cold. )

Interpretivists and positivists
I think Julka and I fundamentally agree that our work falls into the interpretivist camp although I suspect we came to this realization through different paths. (Certainly her path involved more of an academic underpinning.) I came to design first through practice. It was only later, in graduate school, that I undertook a discussion about the possible theoretical frameworks that might inform my approach to design and research. Even then I undertook them with a knowledgeable guide who had climbed the mountain many times before and laid the map of options out in front of me, so my ability to speak the language is still pretty stunted. Still, for me, discovering about and understanding the world is fundamentally about narrative and stories; breaking them apart and putting them back together. Like Julka said, people are really really complex which is what makes them so interesting.

As a person who spends her days at an institution with a positivist bent, I think there is an interesting conversation to continue here about how different research types co-exist and work together, but I will drop it for now in favor of Julka's other question.

What can a design collective contribute?
I am going to suggest two things that design (and by extension a collective) may have to offer.

1) Making. Designers bring to the table the skills and an inclination towards moving beyond understanding to the act of creation. This can be applied at the information gathering or information sharing stages.

2) Sense-making. Julka makes a great point that there is a vast amount of research addressing in this case money and the human condition from multiple disciplines. What seems to be missing, what a design collective may be able to offer, is a method for pulling that information together and making sense of the amassed information. In this view, design research serves less as a formal research discipline and more as a supplemental strategy for understanding the topic and helping to form frameworks into which other research is synthesized.

February 13, 2009

New ways to think about money

I am loving this project, 2009, by David Horvitz (I also posted about it here). I think this activity offers an intriguing way to think about money. Completely different than anything I had considered and maybe totally unrealistic, but I like the idea of interacting with money as a material thing that represents an experience of travel. Interestingly, in all my travels, I save money (especially bank notes) because they somehow represent that place, a memory of being there, like a souvenir. How can money go from being a way to buy things to being a souvenir? Clearly its has a range, particularly in value. As a souvenir its value is symbolic and not really about its monetary value, except for the fact that I am generally only willing to save banknotes worth a small amount like one or two dollars. In this activity I also like the idea of having people photograph their receipts. That would be something interesting to incorporate into our project. If we were to put an entire weeks worth of receipts together it would a great way to visualize how people spend money, both in terms of content and frequency.

February 2, 2009

But what does this have to do with design?

As I have been working on a blog post about the philosophical orientation in my research, or why I am not really interested in facts, I realized it was full of academic jargon, completely pretentious, not very accessible to the public and, frankly, boring as hell. I will sum it up in this very short paragraph:

In my research facts are not just out in the world to be explained or discovered. Instead there are multiple realities and people construct these realities. There are really no such thing as facts or universal truths as we try to describe these complex realities. Through my work, I try to explain people's realities which means I also engage in a layer of interpretation and construction. This type of research is known as interpretivist (and is also referred to as constructivist). It is quite different from the work in which scientists, like Darwin, engage. His method of research is known as positivist. Positivists believe in facts and truth and they set out to explain what, according to them, already exists in the world. See the difference? While positivism makes the most sense in the hard sciences (i.e. biology, chemistry, physics), it doesn't always make the most sense when you want to understand people. People are really really complex.

I have included this lovely image of a brain from the Museum of Fabric Brain Art because I think of positivists as sharing one (metaphorical) mega brain which can hold all these "facts" and "truths" that exist in the world that are out there waiting to be discovered. It represents something universal, singular and true. Interpretivists on the other hand are interested in things that are contextual, multiple and dynamic, and don't believe ideas are out there to be discovered.

Along the lines of my boring, academic jargon, I have started to ask myself, what does any of this have to do with design? Especially after Maggie's last post describing why we chose money as a topic of exploration.

Truthfully, there is a ton of research out there addressing money and the human condition. It is in sociology, anthropology, economics, psychology, etc. No need to reinvent the wheel. I think the more interesting question relates to how a design collective can understand and engage in research practice about money that is different from existing research. How could we collect information or make things that would be unique? What skills, ideas or philosophical orientations do we have that make us especially well suited for this type of research? This is an epistemological question, but it needs to be asked so that we don't just do sloppy social science research. And we are dangerously close to that. So I ask, what can design bring to the table that other fields cannot?

Let's start to address this before I turn the blog into one big academic bore.