Interdisciplinarity: translating design

Copyright Bob Corish, 2014

Copyright Bob Corish, 2014

Bob Corish graduated from Central Saint Martins’ MA Communication Design in 2008. Since then he has been working at Microsoft Research Cambridge where he collaborates with specialists from multiple disciplines, including computer scientists, technologists, sociologists, psychologists and more. In this post Bob reflects upon his experience of interdisciplinarity, and the act of communication and the art of translation in a non-design based setting.

“CSM was instrumental in enabling me to develop a design practice. In my practice I explore the expressive possibilities of different forms of communication. I work mostly with visual forms of communication. My research focuses on how insights gleaned from the experiential dimension of communication can be used to enrich and develop our interactions with technology.

I spend a lot of my time investigating the kinds of artefacts that are created when people express themselves or communicate. The kind of abstraction involved in experimenting with these artefacts sometimes leads to places which can seem quite removed from our everyday, pragmatic forms of communication. A good example of this is a machine I built for my MA. The main components of this machine were an ink pen and a speaker. The ink pen generated symbols which acted as instructions for the speaker to generate certain sounds. In turn, these sounds caused the pen to generate those ink symbols. An artifact of this kind showed how written symbols engage with sound and with themselves, through feedback. This machine, which I called, ‘Synthesized Feedback‘, was the culmination of my work at CSM. I used my two years there to experiment with shapes and sounds. I studied colour composition, pattern formation and translation between 2- and 3-D graphics by experimenting with dots[1]. With the aid of software programs like Max/MSP and Ableton Live I was able to investigate some of the ways in which digital technologies package sound. One of the motivations for building ‘Synthesized Feedback’ was the desire to juxtapose these sounds with graphical symbols and to get them to communicate with each other.


Chromophobia. Copyright Bob Corish, 2014

Chromophobia. Copyright Bob Corish

I’ve always struggled to articulate the insights I’ve gleaned from my practice into a form of language other than the one in which it is devised, namely, the language of design. The vocabulary of this language isn’t standardised. I didn’t learn it from a textbook, I learned it by making things and by communicating with other makers. There isn’t anything like a standard dictionary of design and there certainly isn’t a translation manual for its language.

Just like the design process itself, the work involved in translating the language of design requires creativity and constant innovation. It can be difficult to make sense of languages. If we look at games, they might give us a pretty useful analogy for making sense of languages. Game players are like parties involved in communication. Games like languages can be grouped together under one concept without them all sharing some essential feature. Not all games and languages can be defined in terms of their objectives – the language of design is like this. There are such things as design objectives, but the language in which designers conduct their work is not all aimed at and, thereby, defined by some clearly identified set of objectives. Many games are devoid of the concept of winning and people take part in them just for sake of it; they play the game for no other reason than the participation itself. The language of design is comparable to games of this type and people can use it for no other reason than the form of communication it affords them.

Fortunately, as with mathematics and many other activities that have intrinsic value and are ends in themselves, this does not mean that design cannot be adopted as a means to achieving some particular end. But what counts as an expression in the language of design, needs to be reconsidered when employed as a means to achieving some particular end – think of how an architect might have to modify a certain sculptural expression when using it to address a question about the design of a habitable space. This sort of modification is a difficult task that requires ingenuity.


Fibonacci. Copyright Bob Corish.

Fibonacci. Copyright Bob Corish

One of the toughest challenges I have faced at Microsoft is the task of translating my work across different disciplines. Collaboration is integral to the work carried out by Microsoft Research and it’s a very diverse environment, in which physicists, computer scientists, biologists, designers, sociologists and policy-makers (that’s not nearly an exhaustive list!) are constantly engaged with each other. This requires continual interdisciplinary translation.

As is always the case with the need to orchestrate a set of diverse activities towards a common goal, there is a propensity towards standardisation. At times this propensity manifests itself in peculiar ways. A senior scientist once asked me in all earnestness whether it would be possible to peer review design research in the same way that research in the core sciences is peer reviewed. That question struck me as being as incongruous and odd as asking something like, “Who won the ballet?”. Ballet can be developed in all sorts of ways. It can be modified for the ice rink and it can even be scored, though after such modifications you have probably moved from ballet to something more akin to figure skating. And although figure skating is a very beautiful and expressive sport its range of expressive capacities simply does not compare to those of the art of ballet. Translation, in any form, will always come at a cost. If design were to be peer reviewed in a manner comparable to the core sciences, then its language would have to be modified to allow for that. And that modification would leave you with something that had little resemblance to design as we know it. Two of the main evaluative criteria in the core sciences are explanatory power and predictive success. Evaluating design with these two criteria would be like trying to appreciate Swan Lake on the basis of something like the number of jumps it contained and the height of those jumps. The ballet dancer has much to contribute to the work of the figure skater, but the figure skater will overlook most of what that is if he evaluates it simply on the basis of criteria from his own discipline. Translation is of paramount importance to good collaboration between different disciplines. Doing this in a way that ensures a low translation cost requires finding a balance between the propensity to standardise and the need to be well attuned to how different sets of values belong to different disciplines.


Rep. Copyright Bob Corish.

Rep. Copyright Bob Corish.

In art college I learned how to develop a practice. I learned how to organise and develop my ideas in a way that I could execute them effectively. In this context, communicating my work in a language other than its own was always a secondary process. My works were what counted most. My classmates and professors all, through their own respective practices, spoke the language of that work. A good example of this is how designers talk about colour theory. When we do this there is an implicit understanding from other designers that we are doing it in a heuristic way. Our aim isn’t to model light in order to make accurate predictions about its behaviour. Instead we are interested in deepening our understanding of how human beings experience light and what it means to them. Developing my ideas through writing or entering into dialogue for the purpose of, say, group crits was done simply to supplement the finished works and everyone was mindful of that. Studying the history and theory of design gave me additional experience with thinking about design ideas in a language other than its own, but the language in which this was written was highly sensitive to the translation work it was doing. All of this gave me a good foundation for my current role at Microsoft Research, however, translating my work across different disciples has been a real challenge.

Finding ways to meet this challenge has been extremely rewarding for me. It has made me a better designer. The task of having to make my design accessible not just to a viewer or a user, but to a collaborator from a different discipline has helped me to see things about my practice that I had been overlooking. In my practice I sketch, I try out various ideas and develop them in different directions. Then I collate all these materials. This all comes quite naturally to me. The time I spent studying helped me to develop this process. I was able to use this time to improve my working methods. I used the responses I got from my classmates and professors to try to determine how best to develop and improve my working methods, but these were all essentially how-questions – how can I do this or that? Now I’m being forced to think about what it is I’m doing – what are my ‘research methodologies’ and what are my ‘results’. Addressing these what-questions is allowing me to gain a new perspective on what design is. Sketching has always been an indispensable tool for me. But it’s only in the last year or so that I have regarded it as a research methodology and that has helped me to find more value in it. I can now see that sketching comes in all sorts of forms and is the lingua franca of creative work – A wonderful software developer I had the pleasure to work with said that every bit of code he’s ever written has been a sketch. Sketching enables makers to work with shifting evaluative criteria, to move between the macro- and micro-details of a project. It’s in sketching that the abstract and concrete meet and come together. Sketching is so integral to the design process that I see it as something like the source of the grammar of design. Sketching allows makers and designers to strike a balance between open-ended, exploratory, creative ideas and the need for attention to detail, precision and refinement through iteration.


Prototype touchless interaction. Microsoft Research.

Prototype touchless interaction. Microsoft Research.

It isn’t always obvious how design experiments can be brought to bear on questions pertaining to our pragmatic forms of communication and issues that arise in Interaction Design. My job now is to find ways of doing this. This presents two main challenges that require some form of modification or translation. First, I need to modify my design experiments so that I can apply them to concrete objectives. Second, I need to translate all of this so that I can communicate effectively with collaborators from different disciplines. A good example of this is Touchless Interaction in Medical Settings. This is a multidisciplinary project. The objective is to enable Surgeons to interact with medical images during surgery with gestures and voice commands. It’s a very exciting project with huge scope[2]. Back in art college it would have been difficult for me to imagine developing my practice in order to work on projects of this kind. However, with plenty of guidance and inspiration from my professors and colleagues I’ve been able to develop things like my experiments with dots and bleeps into an effective toolset.”


This post is a contribution to the Expanded Boundaries theme of the Central Saint Martins Restless Futures Programme.