QofR: Practice-based research

Updated: Apr 7, 2021

In a session led by Elaine Igoe, we focused on practice-based research, in particular, how story-telling and narrativisation can be employed as part of our research. Elaine began by talking us through the aims and objectives of the QofR module, with the intention of focusing on the following:

  • Originality in the application of knowledge, together with a practical understanding of how established techniques of research and enquiry are used to create and interpret knowledge in the discipline.

The ‘established techniques’ are those design research methods we had been learning about, specifically Bruce Archer’s definition of ‘practice-based research’. See Models of Research for more information. Archer states:

“There are circumstances where the best or only way to shed light on a proposition, a principle, a material, a process or a function is to attempt to construct something, or to enact something, calculated to explore, embody or test it.” (Archer,1995)

Archer was writing in the 90s, when art colleges were being rapidly subsumed into university structures, and design as a research field needed to find its feet, and some funding. By borrowing certain methodologies from the social sciences, Archer and his contemporaries hoped to herald design research as an academic field in its own right.

What Archer defines is practice-based research. Research that is often reliant on self-analysis, on being a ‘reflective practitioner’. The difficulty with this is twofold. Firstly, because we’re not really used to explaining why or how we do things as practitioners it makes it very difficult to communicate or analyse. We employ ‘haptic’ and ‘tacit’ knowledge in our practice – knowledge that seems to travel from our brains to our hands without rational thought and little energy. What Polanyi calls ‘personal knowledge’ and defines as: “a skilful performance [following] the observance of a set of rules which are not known as such to the person following them.” (Polanyi, 1962: 49)

The second difficulty of practice-based research is that it requires us to take on the dual role of investigator and lab rat. Naturally, when we are ‘in action’ as it where, it’s very difficult to try and analyse those actions without totally destroying the organic nature of creation. I imagine it as if someone has come up to you with a massive camera, behind which you know 20 million viewers are tuned in, and they tell you to act natural… or, in other words, a bit like the later series of Big Brother. Elaine used this quote from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience, in which he describes the state we often encounter when doing our best work:

“Fully absorbed, energised focus, enjoyment – often achieved through the collaboration of different types of knowledge in conditions which favour the achievement of flow.”

This is us at our most natural – our ‘best selves’ – so is it possible to retain this and still gather worthwhile research? Elaine cited Dr Rachel Philpotts as an example of the detrimental effect of self-reflection:

“The problems of documenting the spontaneous, creative explorations of physical materials led to an increasing conservatism in my practical work. The challenge faced by me ‘the researcher’ (as opposed to me ‘the designer’) to make my embodied, playful, intuitive practices explicit resulted in the loss of the organic spontaneity of my design methods.”

The reflection must be completed in retrospect and unobtrusively. We must somehow attempt to trick ourselves into that state of flow.

  • Could video both of the practitioner and the work being created?

  • Prior to and once completed, note down thoughts about the piece?

  • Attempt to narrate spontaneously? Could you attempt to verbalise the thought process going into the work?

  • Analysis of the piece itself once practice has finished.

Examples of practice-based research

Elaine moved onto to various examples of what research might look like for creative practitioners. A key aspect is image making and visual research

  • Personal drawings: as an act of processing/an output for looking/or expressing the ineffable.

  • Sketching: mechanistic visualisations that test or evaluate different scenarios and communicate those with other people.

  • Drawing as an experimentation method with research participants. Elaine gave us an example of a project she worked on when researching the role of a textile designer. She asked various students from RCA and Portsmouth to draw their conception of a textile designer.

  • Image collection as data. Collecting information.

Elaine also gave us several examples of practice-based research. I was particularly drawn to Hamzah Al Adadulloh’s use of collage to subvert the idea that a building must be an efficient use of space and how an alternative use of space can change the experience of a physical environment.

By working intuitively through found images, I explore various spatial configurations that were otherwise unattainable.

Another example to remind us of the importance of ‘seeing, noticing and capturing’ within our research was Jane Fulton Suri’s Thoughtless Acts, which is a collection of photographs of entirely ubiquitous sights – a muddied sign in a play park used as target practice in the absence of a goal, or a man in shorts and t-shirt with his suit bag hung neatly on his rucksack – and how they can inform design.

Storytelling and narrative

The final part of the talk was focused on discussing the narratives we had created in advance of the session (in my case, after the session). As Elaine stated, creative writing or narrative enquiry is another practice-based research method.

“To write is to carve a new path through the terrain of the imagination… To read is to travel through that terrain with the author as a guide.” (Solnit, 2001, 72)

Narratives are the creation of retrospective meaning. They turn our experiences from an unrelated sequence of events (I did this, and I did this) into a causal succession (I did this, so I did this). In writing, like drawing, we can make sense and gather together all our muddied and messy thoughts into something neat: rub out some extraneous detail, add a bit of colour – done.

See my story.

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