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August 14, 2014

Some reflections on synthesis

by allisonmwong

-Allison Wong

Wow – I can’t believe we’ve made it to the penultimate week of my fellowship.  (What!)  Though it feels like I just started, I’ve been wrapping up my research activities and am starting to synthesize what I’ve been learning into a final report. Since I’m interested in design research – and my project this summer has been focused on research – something I’ve been struggling with is understanding the valley between hard observations / data and meaningful insights.  To me, what’s unique about doing research as a designer is that the results are actionable.  You’re not seeking to build public knowledge, but to help shape future decisions on what/how something looks like, feels like, and functions in the world.  But how do you get there?

All the thoughts! (i.e. my sketchbook)

Because design is so hot now, writings on methods for productivity, how to spark creative thinking, versions of the design process, and the psychology of creativity exist in abundance.  I’ve explored them looking for answers, but I never usually find satisfying ones.  I don’t mean to discount the many tools designers (and people in related disciplines) have developed for synthesizing research.  There is an arsenal of charts, matrices, and maps that visually lend structure and value to research findings.  But I believe there is some element of individual trajectory and intuition that these can’t address, since the creative process is so divinely personal.  Perhaps it can only be honed through practice.  What I really want to understand is how creative individuals create their magic, mojo, secret sauce – what happens between absorbing the mess of everything around them and the action of turning it into something new.

So many tools! (

As a design student, it feels really silly asking the questions, “Where do good ideas happen??”  It feels kind of like watching one of those Discovery Channel TV where a crew of explorers very earnestly goes on an expedition to find Bigfoot.

I’ve been exposed to quite a few different processes while at RISD – and during this internship – but in my experience, it’s not something we actively talk about or reflect on very much on in the studio.  Something that I love about RISD is that we learn how to navigate challenges rigorously through making, building, and creating.  We respond to questions by making.  Yet, I think deliberately reflecting on the process – rather than just doing – is a critical part of learning to craft our own practices as designers.

This has led me to question: What is my personal process?  How have I learned to develop ideas, to synthesize valuable insights?  And how does that relate to what other people do? I don’t think I have an answer to that question yet.  My education has given me a chance to try things out, however, with relatively low risk.  In reflecting on process, I wanted to share a few methods I’ve learned in practice while at RISD:


In a course I took last spring with Cas Holman, we experimented with integrating play into the design process.  Play became a platform to ideate as we engaged in games to spark ideas and conversation.  Moving and doing translated into thinking and making.

Design studio, or recess?

This is a design studio!?

In a project I worked on with the awesome Allison Chen (making us Allison^2) – we did some making to think to get unstuck.  Our project focused on the relationship between gender and wearable technology, and our process took us on a detour exploring gendered toys.  It took hacking at some toys with a saw and screwdrivers in order to get back to our real project: wearable technology.  The toys didn’t really have anything to do with the result of our project, but we wouldn’t have gotten there without some physical creations and a few detours.


Unfortunately, I couldn’t find our actual pictures, but you get the idea.

Sometimes (or often) the process can be painful.  I’ve been in many 3hr+ long meetings with partners and project teams where we seemingly smash ideas together until something happens.  The process is also often obsessive.  In a research project I did with Liz Connolley on aging and cooking, we spent many hours documenting, post-it-ing, mind-mapping, writing, asking questions, revisiting, testing new angles, until we reached clarity on our key insights.

An artifact of an obsessive research process


I realize that in the examples above, I’m lumping together things that seem more like synthesis of research findings and concept generation.  Perhaps it would be more clear if I separated parts of the process in my mind.  Yet, I’ve learned that there really is no clear distinction between research and making, creating and reflecting: the creative process is supposed to be messy.

One thing I’ve learned about myself is that the other people I’m working with make a huge difference to how my design process looks.  I’m used to going deep with a team or a partner, so doing the work of my fellowship as a singular designer has been really challenging.  (That is not to say that I don’t have great support in my work!)

My mentors have been encouraging me to be consistently writing and reflecting in order to process what I’ve been seeing, experiencing, and learning.  Reflection has been a big part of this process this summer–both in my housing research and in the broader context of my fellowship–and it’s been great to be given space to think about design on a more meta level.

Although I’m describing this synthesis process as an often painful one, this is what I love about being a design student.  It’s facing that blank sheet of butcher paper head on, learning to be embrace not knowing, and organizing ideas into something elegant.  Something I’m growing into as a designer (and a person) is being comfortable with being uncomfortable.  It takes a lot of messiness to get somewhere.

(And hopefully since my last day is next Friday, I will get somewhere!)

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