Making Connections for Collaborative, Multidiscipinary Research

How do design educators make the connections, on campus and elsewhere, necessary for valuable collaborative, multidisciplinary research projects?

Inter- or multidisciplinary pursuits are being encouraged and rewarded in academia at present. Designers have consistently collaborated; we have always understood that design was never about itself, but the content and problem, so this is nothing new. But how do design educators connect with other faculty and researchers in different disciplines on our campuses, communicate the benefits a designer can bring to a project team, and perhaps expand the understanding of design?

Research-1 institutions and their extensive disciplinary offerings can present abundant opportunity for multidisciplinary work, but this large scale can also be a hindrance to making the connections necessary for involvement in valuable collaborations. Certainly we can assume that establishing these relationships might be more challenging for faculty in art/design versus those in traditional research disciplines. Also, if our design programs are housed in an Art school or department, there may be additional obstacles due to lack of awareness—not only of the broad nature of design—but that design is even a discipline within Art. Those in other areas of study tend to have a narrow understanding of what constitutes research in the art and design areas and can often be quite unaware of the potential of design to have a significant impact on shared projects. This is understandable considering we grapple ourselves with how to define design research activities and institutions reconsider tenure and promotion guidelines in the design disciplines.

At the University of Georgia, graphic design is housed in the School of Art but the moniker “Design” is actually used by the (smaller) College of Environment and Design, home to Landscape Architecture and Historical Preservation. Most folks I meet on campus are surprised to find out that there are large programs in graphic, interior and fabric design in the School of Art and that, in fact, the School typically produces more graduates in the design disciplines than in the fine arts.

One of the main attractions for me to a large, research university like UGA was the breadth and diversity of areas of study found on such a comprehensive campus, but once I arrived and jumped onto the busy tenure track treadmill and teaching, I found it challenging to even get to know the nearly 50 faculty in Art, much less those outside of the School.

Mentoring of junior faculty can also be an encouragement or impediment to multidisciplinary endeavors. Supportive senior faculty who came to design from the fine arts are more likely to have taken a traditional route to tenure in terms of their creative activity; therefore, they might not see the potential merits and possibilities of working collaboratively or with those outside of the arts.

Perhaps forming these cooperative relationships is less complicated for faculty on smaller campuses? I have witnessed several interesting conference presentations that suggest this; for example, a design educator at a small liberal arts college is based in the same building with an anthropologist and the familiarity with each one’s respective research and the ultimate pedagogical collaborative relationship seemed to happen fairly organically.

Post tenure I sought out projects that would allow me to work together with experts in other disciplines and looked toward existing campus programs at UGA to facilitate those relationships. In fall 2013 I was fortunate to be selected as a Public Service and Outreach Fellow, a program that allows faculty to be embedded with campus outreach units for a semester. This fellowship led to my ongoing participation with project teams that help coastal communities develop resiliency to increasing weather hazards related to sea level rise and environmental change. On this project team that included systems ecologists, marine biologists, planners and communications specialists, I was (refreshingly) accepted as a contributing member and not merely a service provider.

University of Florida Associate Professor Maria Rogal, recipient of the first AIGA Design Faculty Research Grant, focuses her research on the relationship between culture and design and how we can leverage the potential of design to positively shape the human experience.

Rogal concedes that sometimes seemingly random design inquiries can lead to great projects suitable for faculty research. She points to the following as having been helpful in making collaborative connections at the University of Florida: being an affiliate of the Center for Latin American Studies, the award of Fulbright grants which allowed for research travel abroad where in-country networking resulted in long-term collaborations, social events with faculty from other Colleges, being featured in the local indy newspaper and campus magazines then being contacted by people who read about the work, and even meeting people in different disciplines through the UF Faculty Union. Here are more detailed suggestions and experiences from Professor Rogal for making collaborative contacts on campus.

University of Tennessee Associate Professor Sarah Lowe has done extensive work related to the interpretation of cultural heritage through the application of human interaction design. In her experience at UT, Lowe found there have been hindrances to collaboration due to limited knowledge of graphic design faculty residing in the School of Art; pointing out that faculty in other research areas have admitted to not even realizing that Design is a discipline within Art. This is further confused at UT by the College of Architecture and Design, which offers interior design, residing in the same building as the School of Art which is under the College of Arts and Sciences. Lowe admits that once graphic designers do forge fruitful connections on campus, the initial perceptions quickly shift and that word of mouth through those collaborations can then lead to other productive relationships.

She credits the initial connections to her early fruitful projects—in her first year at UT—to the School of Art’s Interim Department Head, who was faculty in Anthropology. Once he became aware of her research interests and expertise, Lowe was brought on board for several projects which eventually led to her current work with the Eastern Band of Cherokee in North Carolina.

Lowe, who was awarded a Fulbright to study in Norway in 2012, notes that while she certainly may have eventually found these projects, it would have have taken much longer without that initial connection. “Cold-call knocking on faculty doors doesn’t work unless you can come in with a hook to their work, which then runs the risk of placing design faculty expertise in a secondary role instead of that of a co-collaborator/Co-PI role,” says Lowe, who contacted many Computer Science faculty during her first years at UT in hopes of making connections, but all led nowhere. Eventually, Lowe participated in a colloquial discussion for a local Siggraph chapter where CS faculty were in attendance. One faculty person contacted her afterwards and they are now Co-PIs on a data visualization project for the National Park Service. (SIGGRAPH is a community of interest related to computer graphics and interactive techniques.)

Associate Professor Courtney Barr has taught at Louisiana State University since 2008 and has been involved in valuable collaborations through both personal research and work with students. The collaboration began via chance meeting with a faculty member from the Oceanography Department who was touring the School of Art on a university review committee. At the time Barr was directing LSU’s Graphic Design Student Office (GDSO), and the committee came through their studio. Barr was later contacted by the Oceanographer about the potential of students working on a project he led, Continental Margin Ecosystems, which encouraged the integration of marine biodiversity research with the visual arts. Barr’s student design team designed the websites for the Into the Abyss Art Exhibition and the INDEEP Group Project.

“In this case, the GDSO was seen as a research partner rather than a service, which is often the case with other projects brought to designers,” Barr notes. Additionally she points out that at the time, the Director of LSU’s School of Art encouraged collaborations that would bring external funding to the School as well as opportunities to expand Barr’s personal research activities since she was in her third year on the tenure track. Barr came to see her collaborator in Oceanography as a valuable mentor.

Barr notes that the GDSO has a history of working on collaborative projects with other departments at LSU such as Computer Science and the Center for Computational Technologies, which has made the work of designers more understood in the campus community.

Barr also brings up the somewhat tricky issue of defining what actually constitutes faculty research in design, especially when Design is housed within Art. It can be challenging to compare traditional, studio research activities—seen as independent—to a design research project that involves a team or collaborative effort, which can sometimes be unfortunately downplayed as not as valuable in terms of annual productivity for promotion and tenure.

How have you made connections for collaborative work on your campus? Share your successes, challenges, resources, etc. below or submit your thoughts to

Julie Spivey is Associate Professor and Area Chair of Graphic Design in the Lamar Dodd School of Art at the University of Georgia and currently serves as Co-Chair of the Steering Committee for the AIGA Design Educators Community.


Image Credit: Some icons from the Noun Project by designers Rob Gill, Mark Caron, Antonio Vicién, Eva Verbeek, Faure Bucky, Clarke A.Dinagar, Patengerie, Juan Pablo Bravo,, Sherrinford, Gina Rafaella Furnari, Laurent Patain, Mister Pixel, Arthur Shlain and Reed Enger
By by Julie Spivey
Published February 5, 2015
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