Kees Dorst finds meaning in the in-between. Throughout his career, the prolific author, researcher and product designer has kept one foot in practice and the other in theory to better understand design. As Director of both the Design Innovation and Designing Out Crime Research Centres at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), Dorst examines how design practices can be adapted to achieve innovation in different fields.
“Over the years, my work has changed from studying design and clarifying design practices to trying to deeply understand these practices so that they can be transferred to other fields,” Dorst says.
Having trained as an industrial design engineer at Delft University of Technology, Dorst worked as a product designer for a number of years when his fascination with design inadvertently led him to pursue a research career. While studying prominent designers in the field, Dorst realised that these practitioners spend the majority of their time creating new approaches to problems rather than thinking about solutions. The research showed that there was a pattern to the way they created these new approaches (“frames”), which grew into a proposal for a Frame Creation methodology. In order to experiment with this fledgling methodology, Dorst moved to Australia in 2006, joining UTS as Professor of Design.
“[...] there are these inner tensions in Research Through Design, and I’m particularly interested in how different projects around the world deal with those of tensions.”
Research Through Design (RtD)
As design steadily emerges as an academic discipline, Dorst hopes to gain deeper insight into the value of (scientific) design knowledge acquisition by studying contemporary Research Through Design practices. “Design is getting more knowledge-intensive and more closely linked with research,” Dorst explains, “but we need to think about what that link actually is. We need to articulate that well so we can strengthen ‘Research Through Design’ as an emerging new research paradigm.”
In collaboration with Design United, Dorst embarks on a comprehensive survey of current RtD projects such as those sponsored by the Dutch Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) during a 2015 call. He is convinced that mapping and analysing these research practices in the Netherlands and abroad can inform an in-depth understanding of the nature and nurture of RtD.
“Research Through Design has its own internal paradoxes: a key one is that while design is always situated, in research you are aiming to create generalisable knowledge (which is de-situated) […] So there are these inner tensions in Research Through Design, and I’m particularly interested in how different projects around the world deal with those of tensions.”
Despite the notion that design (thinking) can be applied to various fields, Dorst sees limitations in addressing highly complex infrastructure issues. “All the world’s big problems (sustainability, the refugee crisis) are basically infrastructure-like. Design doesn't engage with those extreme levels of complexity very well – yet.” Nevertheless, Dorst is convinced that design can rise to the challenge.
“As in every field, design has its own in-built assumptions. Maybe our way of thinking doesn’t work anymore above a certain complexity level. Then we need to deal with that or maybe find ways of thinking from other fields and that we can learn from, embedding those in design. This is one of the reasons I am so keenly interested in the new emerging practices around Research Through Design.”
Personal profile of Kees Dorst
Visiting professor 2017
Evaluating Research Through Design as an approach to scientific inquiry