‘Practice’ has a kind of tokenistic status in the world of art and design. Design companies are referred to as agencies or practices, a bit like a doctor’s surgery, artists discuss and present their practice, and it is common to read about a designer’s practice referring to the work they actually produce in the course of their daily activity. Generally understood, practice is what cultural producers do. Theatre directors direct actors, glass artists make glass sculptures, novelists write, photographers take pictures etc. All the resulting output as well as the processes by which it comes into being is termed practice. There are cultures of practice with accepted norms and traditions, such as the practice of basket weaving or etching, and there are practice based institutions like art and design schools where the emphasis is on the doing of creative practical work. The idea is that there are certain fields of knowledge where new ideas are produced by means of practice. Practice based research is the structured and systematic examination of a research question partly through the doing of practice. Results take the form of created objects, physical or virtual, which are presented for examination alongside a written component.
Linda Candy (2006) makes an interesting distinction between practice-based and practice-led research. Practice based research concentrates on the creation of objects or artefacts, while practice-led research turns analytical attention to practice as an object of study. With practice-led research there may be less importance placed on artefacts (although they are often included) and more on how the research advances a field of practice. Both these definitions feel a bit deterministic to me and I’m coining the term practice-oriented here. What I mean by this is that, as a designer, my work features the creation of novel physical research instruments as a way of eliciting qualitative responses. The work is intended to add to the sum of knowledge about the practice of design research and so is practice-led. But it will also feature original creative output as part of the submission and is also practice-based. I’m not sure the distinction between those two things is particularly useful and suspect as categories they are a result of the need for universities to have rules and regulations about what and what is not admissable as research at doctoral level.
Sidestepping the profound epistemological impIications of knowing by doing that have exercised design intellectuals and theorists for so long, I would also say that design research is a bit different to practice-based research in the arts. Design research has its roots in two camps; the development of new products like cars, tables, and computers by designers working in agencies, and the need to find out what people think about things carried out by market researchers and ethnographers. Design research is instrumental, it has a purpose beyond form giving or meaning making. In Herbert Simon’s (1982) famous phrase, to design is ‘to devise courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones’. Design research, as Friedman (2000) says ‘design is both a making discipline and an integrated frame of reflection and inquiry. Design seeks explanations as well as immediate results‘ it consists of something more than the systematic pursuit of studio based creative work, however reflective or rigorous. Where it gets interesting, but also complicated, is in the intersection of these two (practice-based and practice-led) ways of doing research. Practice-oriented implies one eye turned towards creative work and the other towards the conditions of doing in which the practice is conducted. Since design research is an emerging field without many decades (never mind centuries) of tradition to draw on, there is plenty of room for hybrid forms and unexpected methodologies.
As what I am doing is a PhD by practice, it is necessary to define what practice means in the context of my research. I am consciously framing the doing of research – where it involves the design, development and deployment of original creative methods or techniques – as a form of practice. This includes attention to the creation of novel settings, contexts and environments for research, or the creative arrangement and manipulation of existing ones. This framing involves studio-type-practice (producing artefacts) that are used in the doing of research and more expected practice-based outcomes that extend the argument proposed by my research towards experimental creative outcomes. The aims may be theoretical, artistic, moral or political – more likely they are a synthesis of all these and more.