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On design scholarship, the struggle to write, and Design Incubation

February 12, 2016 / By Aaron Ganci

Scholarship is a tricky thing for design academics. We constantly fluctuate between creative practice and more traditional scholarly pursuits, namely writing. Surely, this has always been true but those of us in a tenure track today are wading through a particularly disorienting time. Our institutions are under increasing pressure to define their worth and, in turn, are heightening their expectations around scholarship. The field is trying to distinguish itself (or not) from fine art, architecture, and others, muddying our dissemination outlets. Digital media is facilitating new and unproven outlets for publication. And, increasingly, the validity of our creative practice as a form of scholarship is under constant scrutiny.

On top of this, we often enter academia under-prepared for the reality of serious scholarship. Unlike other fields, the scholarship—and most importantly the writing—we do as graduate students does not necessarily prepare us for work as a professional academic.

But if you’re like me, you love this job—and want to keep it! So we knowingly, happily struggle to figure out how to do a variety of great work. Struggling has its perks but I have recently been looking for some support. As a visual designer, I often find it difficult to naturally communicate clearly though just writing. I also have several practical questions about the logistics of scholarship that we never really get to discuss. What are the most appropriate journals for my work? How do I know if I have enough of an idea to write a book? What exactly needs to be in a book proposal? What are good outlets to publish writing about your creative practice? What are some effective ways to build my reputation as a design scholar? My guess is that many of you have these same questions! But where can we go to discuss them openly?

Enter Design Incubation (http://designincubation.com): an fairly new organization based in the greater New York City area that aims “to create a community in which graphic designers can assess creative work through a lens of scholarly activity and academic review.” They host regular colloquia, publish work on their web site, and host an annual Fellowship program that includes an intensive, design scholarship-focused workshop. As a Midwesterner, I had only peripherally heard of them but when they released a call to become a 2016 Design Incubation Fellow, I jumped at the opportunity.

As one of the ten selected fellows, I was able to take part in the workshop which was led by a set of magnificent facilitators: Aaris Sherin (St. John’s University), Dan Wong (NYC College of Technology), Kathryn Weinstein (Queens College), and Maggie Taft (Washington University). Over the course of our three days together, we discussed the book publishing process, journal writing and editing, the review process, contemporary forms of scholarship, and framing creative work as scholarship. We also spent a lot of time reading and workshopping our writing.

In our final reflection, the fellows agreed that the experience was a much needed peek-behind-the-curtain that we had been looking for. It was refreshing to have devoted time to discuss the struggle of design scholarship with peers while also learning invaluable practical knowledge about the process of dissemination. I wish I attended something like this a long time ago and I highly recommend that you take part in the future.

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To help promote communication about writing as a design scholar and as a way to reflect on what I learned in the Design Incubation workshop, I thought I would share a few insights with the AIGA DEC community. These ideas might seem basic to some but I think they are good reminders for us all and may even help some of you jumpstart your next project. So, in particular order…

Treat writing as an extension of your creative process
As with your visual work, don’t expect your writing process to be perfect or quick. Be persistent! We wouldn’t expect to develop a flawless design solution after a first pass and we shouldn’t expect that with our writing either. Trust the process you use to design and apply that to your writing.

Explore alternative avenues for scholarship
Peer-reviewed journals may be the gold standard but technology has afforded us new ways to share our work with the design community and the general public. Non-traditional publications like blogs or online journals are now options for us even if their worth requires a little extra explanation to our T&P committees. If you’ve only written for strictly academic outlets in the past, propose an article for respected industry-centric outlets like A List Apart or Smashing Magazine. Find a podcast that you could be a guest on and discuss your area of expertise. These outlets are academically less rigorous but they can have a much higher impact factor than traditional journals. These can’t be your only outlets for dissemination but they can really help as you build a reputation. Remember that good scholarship can come in many forms; explore as many as you can.

Make time to write
Reflecting as you go can be more important than reporting on the work at the end. Writing about what you do, see, and encounter as a designer should become an integral part of your process. This is a hard one as we are often pulled in many directions. Schedule big blocks of time (adding up to at least 1-2 days per week to begin with) to just focus on writing, especially if you are wanting to write a book.

Set reasonable goals and cut yourself some slack
Anticipate a struggle and rely on peer-review to get better. If you are just starting out, go for the low-hanging fruit: write a book review for an established journal, start writing a personal blog to build a portfolio of work, set an achievable goal like “write 500 words per day” and work your way up. Make an outline for a book idea and start filling in the sections in one paragraph a time. Most importantly, just start writing something. Don’t get stuck (as I have many times) in the ambiguity of design scholarship. You have valuable things to say! Start writing them down and a publication will come with some persistence.

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Outlets to discuss the act of design scholarship are few and far between. The Design Educators Community continues to be a hugely useful resource in this area and I’m happy to see new opportunities emerge through Design Incubation. Our community desperately needs to find more ways to converse about design scholarship and I look forward to being a part of that conversation. I hope you will join me!

Now…go write something!

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Aaron Ganci is an Assistant Professor of Visual Communication Design at Herron School of Art and Design, Indiana University, IUPUI. In addition to being a 2016 Design Incubation Fellow, he is a practicing UI/UX Designer, researcher, and educator. His research involves the study of contemporary industrial practice and the use of technology to personalize design artifacts. You can read more about his work or contact him at http://www.aaronganci.com

Image: The New York Public Library. “An illustration of writing brushes.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Meiji 41 [1908]. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-83a5-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

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