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Ensayos de Educación

Nivel de pre-grado y grado

1. Introduction

In the Art and Design field, whether educational or professional, research is considered an essential step in the initial stages of the design process. For both novice and expert designers, doing research means collecting data from a variety of sources, searching for information and inspiration that will later enable them to create. Thus, when following most models of design process in their linearity when they are taught by practitioners and applied by experts, the stage of research would come after the brief had been introduced, preceding the stage of ideation (Johnsey 1995). It is even mentioned in the assessment objectives of the Beijing-based Foundation course discussed in this essay, which provides a British curriculum, that students should be able to “use investigation to inform creative practice through pertinent theoretical and practical approaches” (Pearson Education Limited, 2020, p.71). Although both phases are well connected to each other as research gathers insights while ideation transforms them into ideas and solutions (Sun et al., 2020), such process is not always clear to the students, who usually struggle starting their projects as these first phases are wide open, not always made explicit, and require much self-discipline and curiosity.

Gonçalves et al. (2011) revealed and confirmed through their study that inspiration search was considered very important for both novice and expert designers in order to continue with the generation of ideas, but as Perkins (1998) explains, there would be an issue in considering that because students know research is important that it necessarily supposes they can demonstrate an understanding of its mechanisms through a flexible performance. Therefore, the aim of this small-scale qualitative study is to explore the extent to which students, as novice artists or designers, understand the role of research as stimulus in their idea generation process. This is expected to provide enough insight into their self-perception of the research and ideation phases, which very little is known in the current literature (Sun et al., 2020). In order to do this, five Chinese undergraduates specialised in visual communication were interviewed as former students of the same Foundation course. The first section provides a review of existing literature on ways of understanding and the influence of research on ideation. The second section exposes the details of the study while the third section presents and discusses its findings. At last, a conclusion is drawn considering limitations of the study and suggestions for future design research.

2. Literature review

Foundation students may know how to do research as it may have been a recurrent task in high school as a sort of routine performance, but some may not instantly understand what they can actually do with that knowledge. A continuum of understanding happens as there are students who will “act flexibly around what they know” (Perkins, 1998, p.42) by analysing the work of others found on the Internet and quickly see a link between these works researched and how they can inspire their own work. Others instead may partially understand the purpose of doing research and may not react with the same performance, doing research for the sake of doing research without thinking in-depth of why they are doing it, grounded at a recitation level of learning (White, 2007). Prior knowledge of students’ Chinese high school years may also come to affect their learning when suddenly exposed to Western education, hindering more than helping them to understand the nature and beneficial use that research may have for their work (Brod, 2021; Barnes, 1992), revealing at first a sort of rigidity in their existing store of knowledge.

In the Art and Design field, the generation of ideas is a process rooted in individual knowledge. Thus, doing research is understood as an active search for inspiration and information to enlarge the possibilities of creativity, which is more than necessary to generate new ideas. Such research discoveries may come from external sources, which are entities in a person’s surroundings, or internal sources residing in a person’s working and long-term memory (Gonçalves et al., 2014, p.32), including background experience and expertise. When treating external sources, these could involve collecting data directly from its origin through questionnaires, interviews and field work (primary research), but also relying on already existing data on the Internet and books (secondary research), not without mentioning that research can also be practical through the exploration of techniques and materials. There is, for example, a wide range of literature that discusses the general assumption that designers make greater use of visual stimuli during idea generation as they tend to be of more effective inspiration (Borgianni et al., 2020; Laing, 2016; Cardoso et al., 2012). At the same time, there is also evidence of empirical studies (Purcell and Gero, 1996) with controversial findings about how the use of such external stimuli could constrain creativity by leading to design fixation, accentuating the self-resistance discussed earlier that one could experience when acquiring new learning. It seems clear that research methods and types of stimuli will always be varied and freed to be chosen by artists and designers as they please according to the type of project, context and skills required, but the reasons of doing research should at least come “from a genuine desire to find something out, or else it is unlikely that the study or enthusiasm for it will be sustained” (Gray and Malins, 2004, p.12).

Expert designers know perfectly that the more information they obtain, the better chances they have to form an initial concept that is strong (Goldschmidt and Sever, 2011). Therefore, when first exposed to research as an activity, students would internalise ideas on what it means to do research and how purposeful it can be, which considers understanding as a mental representation. On the other hand, “learning about research is about learning how to research” (ibid., p.17) and what is done through research – generating ideas that would lead to the development of an artwork or design work – which may show students’ flexible capability to use their research in their creative project, rather considering understanding as performance (Perkins, 1998). For instance, in White’s scale of higher levels of understanding (2007, p.160), ‘synthesis’ is defined as “the ability to create something new using the knowledge one has acquired”, which coincides with a cognitive strategy used by artists and designers known as ‘analogical reasoning’ when previous knowledge is accessed and transferred to fit the requirements of a novel problem and therefore allows to generate innovative solutions (Gonçalves et al., 2014). Designers are usually good at articulating prior knowledge to new ideas as these latter usually end up as a combination of known elements, transformed and adapted to the context (Sun et al., 2020), but this is not always evident to beginners. With this in mind, our study aims to question the extent to which students, who are consciously discovering this process in their first years of Art and Design education, understand the influence of research in their projects’ ideation phase.

3. Research design

Five Foundation students specialised in visual communication participated in this small-scale qualitative study. Based on purposive sampling, participants are young Chinese adults who studied during one year in the same Foundation in Art and Design (FAD) in Beijing, with the researcher as their tutor, and where they learnt Western ways of thinking and working in preparation for their future BA studies in the UK. All the students were interviewed online for half an hour in a format that provides an equal authenticity level as face-to-face interviews (O’Connor and Madge, 2017), being time effective by allowing a greater flexibility from both researcher and interviewees in a period of the year where students are in summer break, thus widening the geographical range. Further, as implied by Self (2021), the Covid-19 pandemic and its restrictions had a strong impact on students’ ways of working, becoming more familiar with using online communication methods and normalising it to the extent that a research interview could be perceived as another type of tutorial, facilitating the planning of this study in a country as China where lockdowns are still recurrent.  

The last part of the interview required the use of participants’ sketchbook as visual stimulus to recall the thoughts and feelings that they were having at the moment they did their Final Major Project (FMP), to better grasp their understanding of their own reasoning when searching inspiration for ideation (Dempsey, 2010). In the Foundation course, sketchbooks are not only used as a personal reflective journal that documents one’s work but as an assessment tool used strategically to make creative thinking visible and to unveil each student’s understanding of the design process. These were enough reasons to use stimulated recall in an interview as it allows “to understand individuals’ experience of an activity, of how they understand what they are doing” (ibid., p.353), of how they might understand what research is and its correlation with ideation. Once the data was collected, transcripts were simultaneously analysed and coded inductively, identifying patterns, categories and answers to the research questions (Merriam and Tisdell, 2016).

The study follows the British Educational Research Association guidelines (BERA, 2018) and is consistent with the local ethical requirements of China as well as the Code of research conduct and research ethics of the University of Nottingham, from which it received ethical approval. Participants were duly informed of the procedures and outcomes of the research, to which they gave their written consent. Interviews were tape recorded and transcribed while the sketchbooks were photographed and grouped as PDF files to be used in the interviews. The audio and visual data generated were treated with the strictest confidentiality and anonymity to guarantee participants’ privacy and safety. The main ethical issues considered in this study were the positionality and role of the researcher as former teacher of the participants, which could have created a power imbalance in the interview process as well as compromise the objectivity of the research. Further concern was placed in how the current Covid-19 lockdowns and restriction policies in China could have had an impact on the participants wellbeing, affecting the viability of the interviews.

4. Findings

In this study, the five FAD students clearly considered research as an important stage in their creative process, and their way to comprehend its role is generally similar. They defined doing research as a process, a tool, a way to study, to make connections, or even a trigger to complete an idea. However, when they recalled what research used to be in their mind – and what it could still be for some in the way it is addressed at school – they used words such as assignment or restriction, a stage that may not support adequately their first hunch. As presented in table 1 (see Appendix 5), a contrast is more than apparent in how participants recalled their understanding of research a year ago, before they started their Foundation studies, and in recent days after acquiring more work experience and a better grasp of the design process. The table clearly shows a change in students’ self-perception of their own learning and understanding.

It is clear that there are different ways of understanding what ‘doing research’ means as much as there are reasons to induce someone to do research in a creative educational context. When interviewing the five participants about it, they all mentioned that research would help them to develop their personal knowledge, whether it is for a specific project that they are doing at the moment to which research findings have a direct and instant impact on their work, or for their lifelong learning to which the knowledge acquired acts indirectly on their long-term memory, suggesting that previous research done could feed further ideas. As participant 1 claimed, research can be done every day without purpose as ‘our body and brain are doing research for us all the time, […] getting information from around us’ while at the same time it can be done purposively but not necessarily used for a specific project, both ways acknowledging that research can always be useful even if ‘some of it you can’t put in your project, but you already got this knowledge’ (P02). For participants 3 and 4, a small percentage of a project’s active research can be considered useful to that same project, which discusses the relation between quantity and quality of the research done, further filtered and selected, but it does not mean, in their opinion, that what was discarded will not become useful subsequently.

The acquisition of new knowledge has been expressed similarly by all participants as a way to connect with others on a larger scale, as academic researchers would experience when doing their literature review. To all five interviewees, research is a way to open their mind towards other understandings of the world that go beyond their own view as ‘we have to listen to different voices and different thinking to collect more ideas about this concept’ (P04), or also as ‘the topic is not related to my early life so the research can let me know more about it’ (P02), enhancing the effects that new information may have on one’s mind:

And that really surprised me a lot of time. I think something is new, but it's already here for a long time. People just kind of didn't pay enough attention to that. So, kind of ignore them, but they are already here. You'll find a lot of treasure in this old discussion and old opinions around some topics that you think is new. It's like digging up treasures. And see what this treasure can become (Participant 1).

Participant 2 added that research as new information helps her ‘to be more familiar with this area’, which increases her confidence when working on an unfamiliar topic or problem. Such feeling of insecurity towards one’s capacities to handle a creative project is reaffirmed by participants 4 and 5 who say to feel limited with their own views, and therefore need to search for others’ opinions and works. Students may also feel such limitation when they cannot solve a technical problem alone (P01), when they need to learn a new skill (P04) or when they consider not to have learnt enough ways to do research, which questions the variety of methods that one masters (P05). Besides a clear emphasis on searching for what is new, research can also be defined as a moment, a state of mind, as one may need ‘to calm down’ to do research (P02), a state of freedom as one can choose what to search and through which ways to do it (P03) or a rational structure that comes to guide students and narrow down concepts that are at first too broad (P05).

Studying first the meaning and purpose of research leads to the second part of this study, a focus on the relation between the stages of research and idea generation. Both are intertwined and although one would say that research logically precedes idea generation, it is not always that clear. For participants 1 and 4, it seems that ideas come first – as a vague hunch – and that research will come to develop or complete their ideas rather than generating them. Even further, participant 1 questions the usefulness of research done purposively as a task which ultimate goal is to constrain ideas; ‘sometimes it feels like give me the title and that’s what you have to look for, and I feel like the inspiration and the idea is dead’. On the other side, participants 2, 3 and 5 seem keen to be given the brief and title of the project to start researching and therefore generating ideas, but they also acknowledge the flexibility that the design process may have in its linearity, as when participant 5 explains that research helps him to connect ideas rather than creating new ones, as part of a structuring and selective process:

The reason why I do research, because actually I have a lot of ideas, but most of the time I cannot combine them all. So, doing research, I think is a good idea for for me to make the idea real, to become real (Participant 5).

Linking research to idea generation supposes consequently to discuss research methods and tools used by participants and how they recall their own process of work at such early phase as, for instance, in their Final Major Project (FMP). It was soon made clear for all five participants, in this project but not only, that online resources definitely played an essential role in their research process, whether these were online articles, artists artworks, social medias, videos and films, among other sources of knowledge. As secondary stimulus, participants 2, 4 and 5 claim that primary research helped them to collect useful data through interviews, questionnaires, field work or more informal talks to family and friends as these activities allowed them to gather different and valuable opinions on their topic. Participant 1 also insisted on books and other textual stimuli as her main way to generate ideas in this project and others.

For the FMP, as table 2 shows (see Appendix 5), all students recognised a stimulus, a starting point, whether it was a book, information found on the Internet, an animation, or the results of questionnaires and interviews. It would activate a reflection process that would ultimately develop or reinforce an idea and lead them to their first experiments. However, such striking starting point did not necessarily come at the very beginning of the project, and even with continuous effort it did not come that easily, as participant 1 uses the analogy of ‘walking around in this forest of information’. Further, every participant had a different strategy to research and develop ideas that was not necessarily transposable to other participants, and even to other projects of their own, as they all have their own specificities. Despite these observations, all students definitely had a stimulus, whether unconscious, accidental or intentional prior to their idea development, but whether that stimulus was a clear result of doing research is still debatable, as much as the two-way process of ‘a good idea comes to me instead I come to the good idea’ (P01) can be questioned.

5. Discussion

The findings of this study show that all participants are self-aware of how their conception of research’s purpose, usefulness and application has evolved, according to White’s hierarchy of understanding (2007). As students progressed in academic maturity along their one-year Foundation course, in which research was systematically taught to them as an elemental part of a project’s development, they became more capable to understand and apply it, even changing their definition of what research is and conveys. Their experience with the design process led them towards more advanced stages of understanding in how they perform research and how they could perform it better (Perkins, 1998). It is even more significant, as shown in table 1, when their current understanding of research is compared to their former understanding of a year ago.

What the findings have also revealed is that research is mainly associated to the acquisition of new knowledge and to the participants’ own personal development, which comes to question their prior knowledge before research starts, what ways do they find to know more and what impact their new learning has on their work. In this regard, as they are novice researchers but also creative practitioners, it is striking to see their level of awareness on the usefulness of research as they all understand that although most research done may not have been used for the intended project, it is all part of a process as it is lately stored as internal stimuli in their long-term memory (Gonçalves et al., 2014). Regarding research as the acquisition of new knowledge, participants exposed it as a process that conciliates the individual to others and the wider context, being themselves self-observers but also “observers of others for placing the research in context, and gaining other perspectives” (Gray and Malins, 2004, p.21).

When discussing the impact of research on idea generation during the interviews, it does not seem clear that this order of one preceding the other is valid to all participants or, at least, not necessarily linear and part of a rigid methodology. However, when the FMP is taken as an example to recall, it seems clear that a stimulus came to refine participants’ ideas, not with mentioning that they had the ability to identify the type of stimulus by showing a page of their sketchbook where they could remember a change in their project direction. In light of these results, the question that one may ask is if that stimulus needs to be called research as the word connotation may be understood by some participants as an active search for stimuli while these can also appear suddenly without anticipation, unconsciously or accidentally, being a more passive procedure retrieved from memory (Gonçalves et al. 2014). When recalling participants’ experience in table 2, the stimulus appeared unexpectedly for participants 1, 3 and 5 while it was the result of an active search for the two others. Whether the source of stimulation is approached consciously or unconsciously, as Johnsey (1995, p.215) suggests, students “need a variety of strategies or processes to cope in a variety of design contexts” and there should not be a model set in stone. Such need for variety is also supported by the five participants when considering methods and stimulating preferences, as they claim to mainly use digital tools for inspirational purposes, a trend clearly noted by recent studies (Sun et al., 2020), besides other secondary approaches more interactional. Some are even aware that the more methods and tools they acquire, the best results they could obtain in their projects as these will definitely vary based on the context given.

Thinking back at Perkins article (1998), it is rather interesting to note that the capacity to think and act flexibly around one’s understanding of research is more evident in participant 1, who discusses her approach to research with more confidence and self-awareness, and who even interrogates the model of research taught at school by mentioning what Purcell and Gero (1996) defined as design fixation, thus proving a greater self-directed practice and metacognitive skills. Similarly, participant 2 made quick connections when recalling a video that he watched before the project brief was given and that he later applied to his FMP, which shows efficiency in the research phase and a level of synthesis with the knowledge previously acquired (White, 2007). In contrast, participants 2 and 5 may have the ability to talk about what research is, apply such knowledge and even discuss their skill limitations along the interview, but through the latter they made more evident that research would rather reassure them in their work, as if researching was a necessity without which they would not know what to do, a practical tool that would counter the uncertainty of the process and the risk of not being able to generate any meaningful idea.

As such, the level of synthesis and evaluation that participants acquire varies, as some may be able to construct new models of doing research that suits them in their project while others may encounter more difficulty in being that autonomous. Some may use research as a driver towards the next steps of the project while others may use it as a crutch not to fall apart, thus placing research as a necessity rather than a need.  Alternatively, we could also question students’ professional identity development in the creative sphere, as their understanding of the self and what is expected of them within that sphere may impact the way they seize the design process (Hutchinson and Tracey, 2015). Hypothetically, a fine artist such as participant 1 would have a more critical approach than graphic designers such as participant 2 and 5, who may be more methodical, less impulsive, and thus follow more carefully the research and ideation stages. Regardless of the field, it is needless to say that the more experience and ability in collecting sources of inspiration as a matter of routine, using effective methods to do beneficial research, and recognising a useful idea in a stimulus, whatsoever its origin, the more this practical guidance will turn, over time, the novice artist or designer into an expert (Goldschmidt and Sever, 2011).

6. Conclusion

This study firstly reviews the literature on ways of understanding as well as the relation between research and idea generation. Secondly, the study analyses FAD students’ understanding of the role of research in the design process, and more specifically in the first phase of ideation. The research results were described based on the interview responses from five participants who studied visual communication in the same course. Two main areas were discussed; participants’ understanding of the research phase as well as their understanding of its application to a project and its close connection to their individual idea generation. Although the participants have all evolved in their comprehension of the role of research in the design process, there are variabilities when it comes to understanding, to act with that knowledge by finding a stimulus and generating ideas, as the example of the FMP may illustrate it.

A first limitation in this study is the small sample size of participants, which could imply the possibility to complement interviews with a quantitative study on a whole cohort. A second limitation is to focus specifically on the research phase as first sub-phase in the ideation process, when it would also be useful to study the later development of the ideas and to which extent former stimulus later produced successful outcomes. Thus, this study implies that further research could be done in the area of Art and Design education by studying undergraduate students’ self-perception of research and ideation. The types of research or stimuli used could be narrowed down, and even a parallel with intuition could be covered. Also, future samples of students being interviewed could come from a specific area of visual communication as fine artists may have different approaches than graphic designers, or inversely, it could be wider by including other creative disciplines. As briefly mentioned in the introduction, this study acquires even greater relevancy knowing that FAD teachers assess students on their investigation among five other criteria, expecting them to understand what it implies during their education years as they will be required to use them later in their professional life.

Posted: August 15th, 2022

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