interactions magazine

This is from 2010 | 4 minute read

On Academic Knowledge Production

It's no longer astute to point out how design has the potential to shape society and contribute to solving some of the catastrophic issues facing our world. Yet the conversation of addressing these problems is often divided into two groups. One, with a competency in building products, uses language like "social innovation" and "social entrepreneurship"—utilizing standard business activities, with goals of both a karmic and financial return on investment. I find myself in this group, and our conversations commonly describe the ability to scale up, to capitalize, to drive adoption, and to provide triple-bottom-line value.

There's another group holding heated discussions about the role of design in this brave new world. These conversations are happening at universities, and the language is likely foreign to practicing designers. I refer, of course, to the academy, where the conversation is one of co-creation, knowledge generation, "design with versus design for," and the design of social services. These are experts in cognitive and social psychology, urban planning, and anthropology. And in these circles, while the direness is as apparent and the conversation as heated, relatively absent is the discussion of money. Instead, the tone and content of the discourse are focused on people (often described not as users or consumers, but as citizens, voters, or "the populus"). I find myself participating in these conversations, too, albeit mostly as a guest.

This divide between practitioners and the academy has seemingly existed for as long as there have been either practitioners or academics, with the practitioners describing the academics as lacking realism, urgency, and practicality. The academics are a bit less judgmental in return, yet there is still a pejorative undertone to the description of "the corporate model" or "the agency approach."

But now, as design enjoys the corporate credibility of "design thinking" and with the social problems confronting the world growing increasingly intractable, the need for bridging the gap between the groups is more important than ever. The academics are generally driven by the generation or discovery of knowledge and are pushed to disseminate this material to the world. It is in these groups that I've heard over and over that we already have the data to address the big corporate and social problems. And I tend to agree; buried in obscure academic journals and presented at conferences by tenure-seeking professors is a beautiful array of data related to human motivation, the human brain, the nature of cities, and the patterns of digital culture. Yet following this claim of knowledge is a telling phrase that I've heard repeated over and over: "We already have the data to address the big corporate and social problems— but the practitioners don't listen!"

Indeed, the practitioners don't listen. The mechanics of a design consultancy celebrate speed of execution, not reflection. The business of the corporation is one of quarterly profits and a constant refrain of strategic imperatives and brand positioning. We read the books that translate the academic language into a consumable context; some of the best sellers of the past decade consist of academic cognitive psychology translated into a size and context we can supposedly "handle" (usually with single-verb titles, such as Switch, Drive, and Blink). But the latest Gladwell book isn't going to stop oil from leaking into the ocean. The pop-culture approach to bringing scientific and designerly knowledge to the masses scrapes only the surface, and it is in the depth and in the details that we can find the relevant knowledge necessary for practicing designers to do what they do best: to design, to execute, and to do so quickly.

This must be a larger and more public conversation, and the answer is not yet another conference with proceedings that few will read. My call to action is one of mutual dialogue, and the challenge is direct: We must find a way to move the knowledge from one group to another.


Kolko, Jon (2010), "On Academic Knowledge Production". In interactions magazine, September, 2010.
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