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Hierarchies and Humour in the Design Process


Humour. In her PhD project Mette Volf portrays humour as a creative strategy that is used for example to find new angles on an issue as well as a social strategy that can be used, for example, in a power struggle or to fix a si­tuation where someone has lost face.Illustration: Mette Volf
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Humour plays an important role in the design process, argues Mette Volf, who recently defended her PhD dissertation Når nogen ler, er der noget på spil (When someone laughs there is something at stake). In her dissertation she explores the design process as social construct. Humour is used, for example, to turn the formal hierarchies on their head.

By Leif Leer Sørensen

PH.D.-DEFENCE In many cases the formal leader – the person at the top of the hierarchy – ultimately has the last say. Even if he or she is not necessarily the person who has the best solutions. But in design, that is not always the case, says Mette Volf, who in February 2012 defended her PhD dissertation Når nogen ler, er der noget på spil – en undersøgelse af designprocessen som social konstruktion (When someone laughs there is something at stake – a study of the design process as social construct) at the Aarhus School of Architecture.
“Design is a creative discipline, so there’s a certain prestige associated with being edgy and unconventional. This means that it’s not always the formal leader who has the last say,” Mette Volf explains.

Mette Volf, who is a designer herself, bases her conclusions on comprehensive studies. Her dissertation includes empirical studies of design processes in eight very different Danish design companies.

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Humour. In her PhD project Mette Volf portrays humour as a creative strategy that is used for example to find new angles on an issue as well as a social strategy that can be used, for example, in a power struggle or to fix a situation where someone has lost face. 
Illustration: Mette Volf

Creativity Can Challenge Formal Power

Mette Volf elaborates on her main point:
“Sometimes it’s the person who keeps stirring things up, asking critical questions and turning the issues upside down again and again, who actually calls the shots. In many other professions, such a person will be seen as annoying, because they keep challenging what’s going on.”

Designers, however, have a different approach: They see, usually on an intuitive level, the quality in turning the issues upside down repeatedly.
“People who are capable of that can actually achieve a higher position in the hierarchy, thanks to their creativity, than the formal leader who initially sits at the head of the table. I have seen many examples of that in my empirical studies,” says Mette Volf.

Humour Is Crucial in the Creative Process

Mette Volf’s PhD dissertation marks the first study that focuses on the design process as a social construct. And in addition to her point that creativity can challenge common social hierarchies, Mette Volf has also found humour to play an important role:
“This is actually something I realised at a relatively late stage in the process. Based on my studies I had initially done an analysis that focused on form-giving, but when I read my transcripts I discovered that laughing and joking occurred frequently. That made me realise that humour plays a key role in the creative process. This was something that I could link to cognitive design thinking,” she says in reference to an understanding that frames the design process as a mental process.

Release Through Laughter

Humour affects the design process in several ways, Mette Volf argues. There is an interaction between creativity and humour that is very important for the creativity in the design process, and which can also serve to challenge the formal power structure in a design team. She points out that the use of humour can be both a creative strategy, where humour is used to come up with unusual or creative ideas, and a social strategy, where it is used, for example, for positioning or to prevent loss of face for oneself or someone else.
“It’s hard to determine whether humour is used as a social or a creative strategy. And it’s the group as a whole that decides how it is perceived. For example, if someone cracks a joke in order to defuse an embarrassing situation, that may enable the design team to see the issue from a new angle – or, conversely: A serious idea may make the designers laugh and thus loosen up a tense atmosphere and encourage others to go out on a limb and share their ideas. That does not appear as a deliberate strategy or method but rather as something that happens unconsciously,” she explains.

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A fly on the wall. By means of empirical studies in eight design companies Mette Volf has observed a number of design processes and subsequently analysed the social interactions among the participants.
Photo: Peter Kamp Knudsen

Tacit Knowledge

Aesthetic norms are also the result of a socialisation process, says Mette Volf:
“We are socialised into this tacit knowledge. Just think of the aesthetic norms held by architects and designers. Individual design and architecture students are very different in terms of norms, taste and opinions when they begin their studies. But it doesn’t take long before we develop a common understanding of what is beautiful, and what is ugly. We are socialised into the environment that we find ourselves in and are a part of,” she explains.

The same is true of the prestige associated with being able to turn things upside down in the creative process and to use humour as a way out of an impasse.
“That’s another form of tacit knowledge – something that we don’t normally put into words or are consciously aware of, but which we are brought up with,” says Mette Volf.

Mette Volf’s PhD project offers an analytical device for understanding the design process as a social construct. That can help practising designers and others learn more about the potential impact of social relations and interactions on design processes – and thus on the resulting artefacts. Mette Volf hopes that the design business can use this knowledge, for example in composing design teams, and that in the long term it will lead to better workplaces and optimise earnings for design firms. Her PhD dissertation helps to articulate the tacit knowledge of architects and designers, including their aesthetic preferences and a shared understanding of form-giving and design.

 

Mette Volf

Mette Volf defended her PhD dissertation, Når nogen ler, er der noget på spil - en undersøgelse af designprocessen som social konstruktion (When someone laughs there is something at stake – a study of the design process as soal construct), on 23 January 2012 at the Aarhus School of Architecture.

Read a brief summary of the dissertation (in Danish only).

Read the full text of the dissertation (in Danish only except for an English version of the summary).

Evaluation committee

  • Ida Engholm, associate professor, Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture
  • Niels Lehmann, associate professor and head of the Department of Aes- thetics and Communication, Aarhus University
  • Claus Peder Pedersen, associate professor, Aarhus School of Architec- ture (chairman of the evaluation committee)

Supervisors

  • Jørgen Rasmussen, designer and architect, associate professor, Aarhus School of Architecture
  • Karen Lisa Salamon, ethnographer, PhD in management, independent researcher and advisor
  • Anders Troelsen, art historian, associate professor, Department of Aesthetics and Communication, Aarhus University

Additional information

Mette Volf teaches at the Aarhus School of Architecture and is a teaching associate professor in the Department of Aesthetics and Communication – Art History, Aarhus University. She is the author of the textbook Design – proces og metode (Design – process and method), which was published by Systime A/S in 2009.


Mind Design #48, 2012


Edited and published by the Danish Centre for Design Research

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