Research Through Design Session 1 | Room 2 | Doing

Continuing my notes from the recent Research Through Design conference in Newcastle [see opening keynote]. This is the first of the sessions I attended on Day 1. Each session was held in a small room that sat about 30 people, all around a large conference table, and featured talks by 3 or 4 of the participants who had each submitted some kind of artefact to the event. Each artefact was presented, then plenty of time was left for discussion amongst the presenters and audience, not that it felt like there was a division between the two. Each session was tied thematically, with the following talks all being connected through the “Doing” of design research.

Below are my notes from day 1 of this event, featuring biological/architectural work, code, craft and paper electronics.


Carolina Ramirez-Figueroa |Synthetic Biology as Material Design Practice


Artefacts : two glass boxes containing a number of abstract, biological, cubic forms.


Notes on Carolina’s talk:

  • Manipulating biological organisms that are not found in nature.
  • Self-healing concrete. Photosensitive bacteria.
  • Other example design projects in the same space: Solidifying dunes, protocell architecture [armstrong], Philips bio-light.
  • Possible to program biological systems. How? In what language?
  • Looking at bone structure. Very specific process. Morphogenesis – series of mechanisms that describe the shape.
  • Digital morphogenisis – part of computer-guided design. Geometrical instructions.
    • E.g. genetic algorithms for architecture. Some relation to biology, but more through similarity of shape.
  • See: “The chemical basis of morphogenisis” – Alan Turing. Chemical processes + environmental forces.
  • Bio-mineralization – process through which organisms produce hard tissue, e.g. bones.
  • Controlling density results in material properties including strength, finish etc.
  • Avalon Shells – like bone but different structures on different layers. Hardness on the outside. Softness on the inside.


  • Artefacts developed using Synth Morph – a design environment through which shape can be evolved based on cellular growth. Dictating a density pattern for the cells results in particular patterns of growth.
  • Artefacts represent a catalogue of shapes based on the design language that emerged from this tool. These are Material Proxies – assemblages. E,g, In artefact 1 the attractor system is placed at the centre of the object. In the second round, 3 attractor systems are placed in the artefact. Long way to go from these early objects to the complexity of a shell.


Tim Regan | Words, Code, Dots, and Lines



Artefacts: a sketchbook, a printout of code and a whiteboard of notes.



  • Depressing how design is treated in CHI.
  • Tendency to “study” design.
  • Artefact from the project The Future of Search.
  • Show how different disciplines come together in one piece of work.
  • Social science looking for “texture” – small number of people in a longitudinal study.
  • Sian’s work (represented through a recreation of her whiteboard of notes) – trying to find an authentic attachment to her participants, rather than find a convenient representation. Uses space – looking for outliers etc. Not aesthetic. Looking for something that is actionable by other disciplines.
  • Tim’s code. Notions of failure in different disciplines is not the same.
  • Bob’s sketchbook. Very concerned with people. Jumps between high level and detail.


Janine Munslow | Inventing the Future by Examining the Past


Artefact: a green glove.



  • Fashion academic at Northumbria now looking more at soft product development.
  • Health and safety driven product development and certification process – e.g. baby sling.
  • Up-cycling – promoting responsible design practice in the lingerie industry. Trying to change people’s view on materials for new uses.
  • Swimwear project – show industry that is quite conservative new processes and old techniques.
  • New technologies/new fabrics. Nano-tech etc. Quite fascinating, but construction really matters. What can you MAKE out of these new technologies. Marrying old techniques with new tech. Making a glove the way they would have in Tudor times.
  • Set a brief of design for future space travel. Space gloves. Both have to be long-lived, and also part of a long journey where people will need stuff to do.
  • Looking back at vintage astronaut wear they were clearly influenced by fashion of the time, not just the technology.
  • Using a glove to test tailoring during the project. A Microcosm of the human body – how it bends and moves. A starting point from where new tailoring and joining tech could be applied.
  • Not much information in general about gloves. So prototyped based on V&A original. Old gloves don’t have the gussets between the fingers etc. Hadn’t been invented yet. Had to experiment with pattern cutting to get it to really fit the hand. A specific hand.
  • Eventually honed a pattern that helped teach how a hand works.
  • Tailors and plastic surgeons DO meet because tailors have such a good understanding of how to cut for the body.


Mike Shorter  | The Invite: Adding Value to Paper with Paper Electronics


Artefact: Paper invitation printed in conductive ink that links to a device for playing musically.




  • Paper invented in 105AD.
  • We’re born, we graduate, we die – we get a piece of paper for each. We keep on using it. Paper consumption continues to grow.
  • Paper electronics – conductive inks + components. Can use traditional processes – hand painting, screen printing. Just draw a circuit diagram.
  • Donald Schön, 2003. Reflective practice.
  • Work still feels rooted in online graphics and interfaces. Trying to find paper-equivalents of electronic things.
  • 3 versions of the invitation from literal to abstract, set to challenge the visitor to think about the electronics.


General discussion

To Tim:

  • Examples of thickening from Social Science – how sometimes visiting Facebook is like glancing out of a window.
  • Objects are at different scale. Harder to get an overview from the printout of the program.
  • How do we make code readable by real people (Jon Rogers). Tim disagrees. Such a gulf between the way the technology works and what it does. Discussion about whether Raspberry Pi is good or not. Can visual programming languages (e.g. Max) scale to big problems.
  • Is Sian a psychologist? Now much more ethnographic end of sociology.

To Carolina:

  • What was the starting material for these things? 3d Printing – powder and glue.
  • Is the goal a design tool for creating objects? Changes in the microscopic level can create effects in the macroscopic. In design we have intent and have to tweak materials to get what we want. With this project the process of design is part of the material because its alive. The seed.
  • Background in architecture – how do you collaborate with other disciplines. The more you get into a science the more you see the specialization. Different language between a microbiologist and a developmental biologist.
  • Issues of scale. Material proxies because the things we’re looking at occur at small scales, but are being explored at larger scales.

To Janine

  • How does the fact that this is research change the kind of things you’re doing. Doing research makes you analyse things that you would have taken for granted. Being asked to engage in research, but we’re design practitioners.
  • Aim is to do something interesting about the future, but couldn’t move on without looking at the past.

To Mike

  • How do the shoes you’re wearing affect the noise? The earthing process is affected by the soles.
  • Is the black box necessary? Could have the electronics locally.