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RCA Staff and Students Explore the Past, Present and Future of Design Research

The Design Research Society (DRS) is celebrating its fiftieth Anniversary at its biennial conference, hosted by the University of Brighton and taking place in association with the RCA and Imperial College. RCA staff and research students join international academics and design researchers, to deliver papers and take part in debates, conversations and workshops at the conference.

The DRS is a multidisciplinary society that promotes global excellence in design research. This year’s conference looks back over the history of the DRS whilst considering how design research can help address the problems of today and tackle future challenges. The various paper presentations, debates and conversations will examine how design research can be a creative force in both rethinking design and shaping society in more responsible, meaningful and open ways.

Stephen Boyd Davis, Professor of Design Research at the RCA, is a Co-chair of the Conference. Boyd Davis explained: ‘There is an unusually historic aspect to the DRS conference this year because of it being an important anniversary.’ Boyd Davis will be chairing a session of papers discussing 50 years of design research alongside presenting a paper with Dr Simone Gristwood at the 'Histories for Future-Focused Thinking’ session. They have also created an online exhibition for the conference website on the key roles of the RCA in early Design Research. This has been an opportunity, with the help of Neil Parkinson the College archivist, to show newly acquired historic material.

Their paper considers the 1968 doctoral thesis of L Bruce Archer, a mechanical engineer and former professor at the College, who was instrumental in the founding of the Department of Design Research and the development of design as an academic discipline. Boyd Davis and Gristwood’s paper explores the trajectory of Archer’s ideas during his time at the RCA, including his use of Operational Research and other approaches that created a lot of excitement in the post-war period. The paper will form part of a wider discussion cross-examining the intersections of design history, theory and practice. Maya Oppenheimer, who graduated from History of Design in 2009 and is now a Critical & Historical Studies tutor at the College, will co-chair the session. Discussants joining them include Professor Jeremy Aynsley and Professor Jane Pavitt, past and present Deans of the School of Humanities, who will provide perspectives on design history practice and the histories of design research.

In line with the conference theme, other activities featuring RCA staff and students will consider the future. ‘Plans and Speculated Actions’ is a conversation session organised by Creative Exchange PhD candidate Veronica Ranner and Visiting Tutor in Innovation Design Engineering (IDE) Dan Lockton, examining how visions of the future are drafted and how design might influence and affect human behaviour. IDE PhD candidate Gyorgyi Galik will be a contributing member of this session, together with other international academics. 

Veronica Ranner is also taking part in the opening Keynote debate ‘(Speculative) Futures in Design Research’, which will consider the reflexive relationship between design research and speculative design. Ranner is a designer, artist, and researcher currently pursuing a PhD at the College, examining the burgeoning domain of the bio-digital.

Dan Lockton and Veronica Ranner are both Conference Experience Chairs, responsible for designing participants’ experience of the conference. Discussing their approach to this role they explained: ‘We have tried to see the conference experience as a design task in itself, to think through the experience of a conference participant – and we do want everyone to feel a participant rather than just an “attendee” – from initially signing up, to enjoying, learning and meeting new people during their time in Brighton.’ The pair reflected on prior experiences at academic and industry conferences to propose a more inclusive and participatory approach. ‘As such, DRS 2016 has a variety of formats, from conventional paper presentations to experimental conversations, and all the material is online before (and after) the conference to enable discussion outside of the conference itself.’

The emphasis on participation is reflected in several conference workshops. ‘Being Relational: Entering the World of Sensory & Embodied Communication Design’ is one such practical workshops led by three current Information Experience Design (IED) PhD candidates: Claire van Rhyn, Kate McLean and Caroline Yan Zheng. Through the workshop, participants will explore the potential for sensory communication and the possibilities of interactive objects to materialise the intangible. These explorations aim to broaden participants’ understanding of how the intangible can shape our lives in more meaningful ways.

Other contributions to the conference include a paper from Critical Writing in Art & Design Post-experience Programme student Jane Norris, which explores the potential of polychronic objects within a networked society, and a paper from Service Design Tutor Qian Sun reviewing design policy in the UK, identifying emerging opportunities, challenges and trends.

Deputy Head of Programme and Research Leader for IDE Ashley Hall is contributing to the Design Thinking paper session, where he will present his paper ‘Designing Creative Destruction’ which explores the links between globalisation, the homogenisation of culture and creative destruction.

Associate Dean of the School of Communication and Professor in Graphic Design Teal Triggs is contributing to a conversation about ‘Futurescaping the Museum’, considering the future of museums by exploring design as both a form of cultural heritage and as a catalyst for socio-cultural agency.


The conference is taking place in venues across Brighton 27–30 June. Full details can be found on the DRS 2016 website, where all conference papers are available to download.