Logical thinking alone is not enough when design researchers set out to develop new methods and create results that can make a difference for future design. Associate Professor Troels Degn Johansson at The Danish Design School has worked with the artists’ group Superflex for more than ten years and is convinced that the artistic element is a key aspect of design research. Ph.D. scholar Anette Højlund studies drawing, and she views the artistic element as a natural component of the design process.
By Trine Vu
When the American singer Lady Gaga gives pop-modernism full blast in one of her hit songs, Troels Degn Johansson, who is an associate professor and head of research at The Danish Design School, notices especially how she recycles style elements from Dadaism, a precursor of Surrealism, and combines them with a contemporary expression.
And that sort of thing is pure inspiration for a design researcher who is constantly on the search for renewal in order to develop new methods that can make a difference for design in the future.
“For a while, art has been keen to recycle modernist style elements and mindsets. Lady Gaga is one example. Another example is a project where the artists’ group Superflex lets a 20th-century icon – the Stora Enso building in Helsinki, designed by the Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto – weather and disintegrate in a ten-day film. The method that the artists use in this film to create something new from something old is something that I can use to inspire designers to reinterpret design traditions and thus facilitate new ideas and design products,” says Troels Degn Johansson.
He has worked with the artists group Superflex for more than ten years, and he views the cooperation as a sort of symbiosis:
“Art and science are different domains, but the encounter between the two is interesting, and as researchers we can learn a lot from the artistic method, which revolves around the ability to ask questions and carry out experiments,” he says.
|Artistic methods. Experimentation and the ability to question the social order are important components in both art and design. The artists’ group Superflex worked with Troels Degn Johansson to develop Free Beer – a beer where the open-source methods known from software were applied to a physical product. Thus, anyone is free to make their own Free Beer. |
Ph.D. scholar Anette Højlund at The Danish Design School also believes that art is essential for the design discipline. In her research she studies how images are created through drawing, and what it is possible to say about that process. She seeks to demystify the use of the artistic element in the design process:
“In a design context, art is often viewed as an additional ‘spicy touch’. It’s viewed as a sort of gut feeling that can’t really be put into words, but which does carry some sort of meaning. Art operates largely on the sensuous level. But everyone has senses, so why portray that as unique? You might say that art conveys sensations – or that the art lies in the sensations that are conveyed by a work of art, not in the thing itself,” says Anette Højlund.
In relation to design, the artistic element is particularly interesting, both because designers have to have a well-developed sensory capacity and a good imagination in order to create what they want, and because we all, as humans, operate on both a rational and a sensuous level, says Anette Højlund.
“The design process in itself, the basic design approach, is about the ability to visualise ideas. One has to be able to draw an idea in order to take it further. At the same time, it’s also an incredibly powerful tool, because once an idea has been drawn, it exists,” says Anette Højlund.
|Drawing. Designing means being able to visualise ideas, Anette Højlund points out. And drawing is a process that sparks ideas, she says. This is her new poetic picture book Tree. Mist. Drawing. |
Photo: Anette Højlund
She explains that the artistic element in a design process is manifest precisely in the fact that the drawing also gives something back to the designer’s notion of the design.
“We know it from phone doodles; the little drawings and squiggles we make when we’re on the phone. They don’t really depict anything, but nevertheless, the lines fuel our thinking on an unconscious level. Drawing is always a process, so the key is not just to improve one’s drawing skills but also to improve one’s ability to use drawing actively in the design process,” says Anette Højlund.
To Anette Højlund, the influence of art on research and on design processes is very much about the ability to ask questions.
“Usually, design is said to solve problems, while art is said to create problems. The tiny disasters that art creates can be incredibly productive in a design process, where one simply has to introduce questions in order to find an optimum solution to a problem. In that vein, one might ask whether good design shouldn’t also ask questions and challenge our ways of thinking,” says Anette Højlund, and Troels Degn Johansson adds,
“The Superflex artists are great at asking questions about society and thus making a difference by contributing to our perception of society’s problems. They propose solutions to problems on a model level and invite us to consider what happened, and whether the models we find in art might be transferred to the solution of other problems or to the development of society on a more general level,” he explains.
Art’s questions and solution models inspire design researchers to develop new methods of their own, which may generate new knowledge and thus ultimately new design. In a comment on the cooperation, Troels Degn Johansson says,
“Superflex has modernised the ‘classic’ avant-garde notion of art’s obligation to serve life, and as with the historic avant-garde, here too, research is invited in, so that researchers and artists can work together to make a difference.”
Concurrently with her Ph.D. project, Anette Højlund teaches illustration students at The Danish Design School, and she often uses methods from art when she teaches; for example when the students are required to learn to break their own habits in order to bring new things out in the design process.
“Among other things, I introduce exercises where the students have to add to each other’s drawings; the point is that it’s necessary to set up obstacles for oneself in order to move on and come up with something new. The purpose of the exercise is to help them gradually do the same to their own drawings. They have to learn to break their habits in order to add something new to their illustration,” Anette Højlund explains.
She is herself a trained visual artist, and she says that many illustrators also work with visual art – this may be because they are unable to resist, but it also helps hone their senses and preserve their imagination, which is crucial in a design process.
The artistic roots are also evident in The Danish Design School’s embrace of a philosophy that encourages the use of experimentation as a method in both research and education, and Troels Degn Johansson explains that many researchers in fact have an artist’s mindset.
“It simply requires a certain degree of intuition and a certain sensory capacity for a researcher to take an interdisciplinary approach and develop new ideas. Logical thinking alone does not suffice, and researchers become more innovative as they activate more competences, because it gives them a broader frame of reference. By combining the methods from the two domains researchers and artists can learn a great deal from one another. For example, researchers can develop new design methods by drawing inspiration from artistic experimentation. On the other hand, the reflective approach that is characteristic of research can be used in artistic work. For example, we teach the students to write things down – that is, to document and reflect upon what it is they do in the creative part of the design process,” Troels Degn Johansson explains.
He and Anette Højlund agree, however, that both designers and researchers could improve their ability to incorporate the artistic element in their work.
“I’m convinced that it’s possible to learn to hone one’s sensory capacity and one’s ability to be open to the artistic element, just like learning a craft. The artistic approach is a way of addressing the world that can be practised,” says Anette Højlund.
Anette Højlund is a Ph.D. scholar at The Danish Design School. Her Ph.D. project is called Mind the gap! Om tegning og tilblivelse. Udkast til en tegnefilosofi (Mind the gap! About drawing and creation. Drafts for a philosophy of drawing). Anette Højlund also teaches illustration and image formation at The Danish Design School. She is also the author of a poetic book with drawings, text and photographs: Træ. Tåge. Tegning (Tree. Mist. Drawing ) which was published by the publishing house Umbau in May 2011.
To read more about Anette Højlund’s research, see the article Visualisation is the Topic of Research in Mind Design #3, November 2007.
Troels Degn Johansson is an associate professor and head of research at The Danish Design School and also head of Centre for Design Theory and Method at The Danish Design School. He has followed the artists’ group Superflex since 1999 and has worked closely with the artists, for example in the project Free Beer, which he has used in research and in the courses he teaches for the school’s design students.