Design tools for imagination and critical co-investigation: exploring the DRS Digital Library

This article was originally posted in the Design Research Society’s DRSelects series, 4 December 2023

In this DRSelects, we speak with Dan Lockton, DRS Executive Board member, on his DRS Digital Library selections emphasising design tools for imagination and critical co-investigation.


Hello, I’m Dan Lockton. I was elected to the DRS Executive Board in 2022, after serving on the International Advisory Council since 2020. I was involved in a small way with the organisation of DRS 2016 in Brighton, and then was the programme committee chair for DRS 2022 in Bilbao and online. My first DRS conference was DRS 2014 in Umeå, which was such a refreshing and engaging experience as a participant that it set me on a course of gradually becoming more involved in the DRS’s activities: it is a friendly community. I live in Utrecht, in the Netherlands, but am originally from Devon, UK.

My current research centres on creating and using design tools for participatory (re-) imagining: helping people, together, create and explore possible futures, imagine new ways to live, and understand ourselves, technologies, and the world around us better, in an age of crises in climate and social inequalities. As part of this line of work, I am a co-chair of the DRS 2024 track ‘Designing (for) Transitions and Transformations: Imagination, Climate Futures, and Everyday Lives’ with Femke Coops and a great team of fellow co-chairs. We hope this track will bring together the DRS community around Transition Design, imaginaries, and futures. In the past, I have worked a lot on topics such as design for behaviour change (particularly around sustainability), mental models, design and energy use, some unusual interfaces using sonification or more qualitative approaches, and even questions of the haunted and spooky in technology. In design academia I have been lucky enough to work for a variety of institutions—Brunel, Warwick, and the Royal College of Art in the UK, Carnegie Mellon in the USA, and currently TU Eindhoven in the Netherlands—and have seen a range of quite different approaches to design research and education (and what is valued).

Throughout my academic career, I have tried to maintain at least partially one foot in design practice, through the Imaginaries Lab, which publishes tools such as New Metaphors, and also running workshops and giving talks at ‘industry’ events such as the IxDA conferences, indeed using these to do research where possible. My aim in my own future is to try to take this hybrid studio model much more seriously as a platform, a way of bringing together research, education, and action in the world—I am increasingly uncertain that our existing academic institutions are suited to the challenges the world faces.


Could you talk about the initiatives you’re involved with in the DRS and any upcoming events you’d like to share?

The DRS Digital Library has been one of the most impressive initiatives I have seen from the DRS over the past few years. As part of the Executive Board over the last year, I have been organising a working group including members of the International Advisory Council in which we are exploring future directions for the library—how could it evolve? What features might be possible? Could it, in time, become the starting-point for exploring design research of all kinds, connecting contemporary and historical publications across fields and venues? Having now seen behind the scenes, and the amount of work that Peter Lloyd, Lenny Martinez Dominguez, and everyone else involved has put in to build and maintain the library, I am very aware of the constraints that this kind of platform involves, but also, as so often with design, those constraints can inspire creative possibilities! One of our upcoming plans is to do some ‘user research’ with DRS members and other users of the library, to understand what works, what doesn’t, and to learn from people’s ideas, so watch this space.



What do you see as the benefits of being involved with the DRS and how can those interested become more involved in the Society?

It can be lonely doing research, especially if you don’t have a community around you. DRS is a way to ‘find the others’, to become part of an international group connecting people, ideas, and institutions. The SIGs can be a great way to meet passionate people with similar interests in design, and attending the conferences (whether you are able to take part online, or in-person) can really help with meeting people and sharing ideas. But in terms of becoming more involved in the Society itself, I would recommend getting in touch with any of us on the Executive Board or International Advisory Council with your ideas.



Please choose five items from the DRS Digital Library that you’d like to highlight.

If you’d asked me a few years ago, I would have probably picked out papers much more directly focused on topics related to how I saw my research at the time—design theory and design practice (and the links between them), and design’s intersections with other fields, such as sustainability and politics. But the reality of everyday life as a ‘design academic’ for many of us is that educational activities (teaching), and facilitating workshops with groups (project partners, members of the public, etc) are often the main opportunities to do ‘research’ as part of our jobs. I know I’m not the only one with this experience.

Devising new ways to support people in sparking and materialising imagination—helping people imagine, explore, and experience different ways of thinking and being, for themselves and society more widely, or applying (or developing) theory to particular contexts in the world, is a shared aim of many educational and ‘knowledge exchange’ activities in design—and indeed a significant part of design’s role in society’s transitions to more sustainable and just futures, if we are able to do it. Perhaps naïvely, I like to think that this is a way that design can contribute to enabling hope in times of crisis, part of the scope of imagination infrastructuring in Cassie Robinson’s term. The long traditions of co-design and participatory design (together with the kinds of ‘convivial’ design tools as named by Liz Sanders and Pieter Jan Stappers (2012), following Ivan Illich), of course can have something in common with the more transformative, liberatory approach to education and practice offered by, for example, Paulo Freire’s (1970) notion of students (or perhaps ‘participants’) as “critical co-investigators”. Design methods can support us all becoming critical co-investigators of our worlds.

So, after exploration of different parts of the Digital Library, I have chosen seven items (it was hard enough to reduce my much longer list down this far, let alone to five!) from recent years which are each, in their own way, inspirational for me in engaging with design methods and activities in this way. A type of paper that is particularly well-represented in the DRS Digital Library (compared to, say, the ACM Digital Library, which I also use regularly) is what we might call a report on what people are doing and what they’re thinking about—a kind of ‘work in progress’ but also an example of (as I understand it) something like what Bill Gaver (2012) called “theories that are provisional, contingent, and aspirational” in design, “an endless string of design examples,” not necessarily in the form of annotated portfolios of artefacts, but discursive glimpses of how other people are thinking and acting through design processes. These papers are offerings to the field, in a way, not (usually) claiming generalisability at all, but rather hinting at possibilities (often with an abductive kind of reasoning), propositional hooks for others to latch onto and build on. These are one of the kinds of conference papers that I think the DRS community does well—and which are much less common at self-consciously “prestigious” conferences such as CHI where they may struggle to make it past reviewers determined to quash such non-normative epistemologies.

The first paper I have chosen is Lesley-Ann Noel’s Envisioning a pluriversal design education (2020), from the Pluriversal Design SIG’s Pivot 2020 conference. It is inspiring because of its aim to “make a case for locally developed curricula” in design, “built around the experiences of people from the Global South”, rather than the default transposition to everywhere on Earth of industry-focused curricula (that are not even, honestly, appropriate in the Global North either, in an age of climate crisis). The approach that Lesley-Ann takes is really rooted in design as being a way for people to take action in their worlds, to propose (or act) in ways that embody critique of the systems around them. Via a set of five ‘sketches’ of different types of curriculum that “separate design education from innovation or consumption, and instead focus on identity, agency, culture, and building thinking skills”—including design education “through a decolonial lens”, “a design curriculum that celebrates a pan-African identity”, and “a curriculum for ‘vulnerable economies’”—she gives us an inspirational set of starting-points for doing things differently.

In a related vein, also at the intersection of critical pedagogy and design, Insurgent Design Coalitions: The history of the Design & Oppression network by Frederick van Amstel, Batista e Silva Sâmia, Bibiana Oliveira Serpa, Mazzarotto Marco, Ricardo Artur Carvalho, and Rodrigo Freese Gonzatto (2021) describes the development of a design coalition in Brazil, the Design & Oppression Network. The coalition aimed to “establish bonds of solidarity between all the struggles against oppression, taking design as a tool, space, or issue” in the context of “the Latin-American reality” and carrying out “educational actions” during the worst phases of the COVID-19 pandemic: weekly online study group meetings discussing how the works of authors such as bell hooks, Frantz Fanon, and Augusto Boal could be related to design—but also a surrounding network of care and mutual aid. As the paper notes, “actors do not coalesce only by sharing interests but by helping each other in their struggles”. Through experimenting with the affordances of Discord, the group created new structures for discussion and participation, including the role of a complicatorrather than a facilitator. The paper—presented at the Pluriversal Design SIG’s Pivot 2021 conference—discusses the ongoing repercussions and developments the network instigated, across educational institutions in Brazil and internationally. Aside from the practicalities of work itself being inspirational, I found it especially important to recognise the point made that “if design research wants to have productive engagements with social movements” this should not be about “instrumentalising (and watering down)” the forms of real social movements and forms of organising, as is sometimes seen in social design (and which I recognise, guiltily, having done a bit of myself).

Care is also part of my third choice from the Digital Library, Sasha de Koninck and Laura Devendorf’s Objects of Care (2022), from the main DRS 2022 Bilbao conference proceedings. The paper discusses a card deck (with some unusual features) used in a workshop activity through which people’s attention is turned towards their own bodily interactions with textiles and other materials—a practice of noticing the ways in which materials ‘notice’ the bodies that use them. There are elements in the paper which resonate with my own research, from card decks to metaphors to the ways in which use and wear create qualitative displays of objects’ own interaction histories (autographic design, in Dietmar Offenhuber’s term (2023)). But two things really intrigued me about Sasha and Laura’s paper. Their focus on “prompting people to take time with the old and ‘gross’ and see them as rich historical artefacts, a kind of archaeology of the body constructed through the marks and smells it left on textiles” is distinctive in a field so dominated by idolising the new, and again it is very much an activity that meets people where they are, in the messy, worn contexts of their own lives, and supports being vulnerable together, as doable by students as by scientists or societal stakeholders. And secondly, the practical design choices made with the cards, one suit of which—inspired by Sister Corita Kent’s ‘viewfinder’ idea (Kent & Steward, 1992)—included holes through which participants could focus on particular details, a form of ‘deep looking’ in Sasha and Laura’s terms. This is such a powerful idea, which we also see for different purposes in examples such as John Willshire’s Where the Light Gets In kit, but which also, as a metaphor, seems important for considering in transformative design (education) more generally. Viewfinders that help us take different views, to notice what we don’t notice, from interactions to infrastructure, are surely part of a critically-informed practice.

My fourth choice, Theory instruments: Helping designers see the invisible by Jacob Buur, Mette Kjærsgaard, Franciska Fellegi, Sisse Schaldemose, and Tom Djajadiningrat (2023), from the Nordes 2023 conference, and fifth choice, Feral Ways of Knowing and Doing: Tools and resources for transformational creative practice by Cristina Ampatzidou, Markéta Dolejšová, Jaz Hee-Jeong Choi, and Andrea Botero (2021), from Pivot 2021, are both about practical workshop activities. In the Theory Instruments paper, students try to ‘materialise’ theories (from anthropology, STS, and related fields) through iterations of building physical models, in which materials, layouts, structures and interactions between elements come to physicalise aspects of the theoretical constructs and frameworks. This work was exciting to see: as something like a form of qualitative constructive data physicalisation, it parallels some of what Lisa Brawley, Manuela Aguirre Ulloa, Matt Prindible, Laura Forlano, Karianne Rygh, John Fass, Katie Herzog, Bettina Nissen and myself tried to explore with our work on tangible thinking and thinking with things, but with a much more focused link to theory. The value of people using real materials to express their understanding of abstract concepts—and together come closer to understanding each other’s understanding—is a large part of my current work with the Centre for Unusual Collaborations in the Netherlands, where facilitating (or perhaps complicating!) unusual collaborations between disciplines often involves a creative process of people coming to see each other’s worldviews (and perhaps reflect on their own). It was this creative crossdisciplinary aspect (among others) that also appealed to me about the activities in the Feral Ways of Knowing and Doing paper, in which creative practitioners shared tools and resources that they considered to embody a ‘feral’ approach, “broadly denot[ing] the alternative, experimental, more-than-human, and wild, challenging the dominant ontological and epistemological discourses”, building on the use of the term by authors such as Anna Tsing, Mike Michael, and Genevieve Bell. The activities included range from psychogeographic explorations, to mask-making and live action role play techniques—tantalisingly brief in their descriptions, but all worth following up to understand better.

My final two selections both play with the forms of academic conferences and publishing themselves. It has been observed a few times over the years in different ways that design academia, at least as practised in conventional universities, very often does not seem to apply very much from its own research. We labour in university systems that are not co-designed, and barely even designed at all, while espousing the value of design. We talk about creativity, play, expression, constructivist epistemologies, while subjecting our students to centralised, bureaucratic systems of assessment modelled on quantifying learning outcomes. These two final papers describe experiments with doing something different. John Fass, Tyler Fox, and Alastair Steele’s The Echoing River (2022) made use of the venue of DRS 2022, in Bilbao, to run a 10-day “sonic placemaking” experiment in the city itself, via the new model of DRS Labs, with participants (local, and visitors) collaborating with local organisations to “activat[e] abandoned and overlooked public spaces in creative ways” through designing and creating installations and experiences using sound, materials, and spaces to reflect Bilbao’s histories and possible futures. I was one of those visitors during the conference—astonished by the amount of creative work and the kind of event that could take place during a design conference, an “experiential counterpoint” to the sitting in (albeit very stimulating of course) conference rooms and watched people’s PowerPoint presentations. The paper nevertheless demonstrates just how much work and organisation goes into this kind of endeavour.

Equally, and finally, I was taken by David Green, Joseph Lindley, Enrique Encinas, Mayane Dore, Jesse Josua Benjamin, and Spyros Bofylatos’s Ways of seeing design research: A polyphonic speculation (2023), which takes something of a meta-level approach to the form of how design research itself could be presented differently (and in much more designerly ways, frankly). Practically, the suggestion to think as much about research programmes—”emphasising the connective tissue” between individual projects (or indeed papers)—is very appealing to me. I won’t spoil the fun of reading the paper by explaining each of the authors’ six very creative ‘speculations’ here, but in opening up questions of how (and why) design research could be shared in new ways, they provide a useful point of reflexivity for how we might think about evolving the DRS Digital Library in the years ahead.

Whatever criticisms we might have of design’s over-belief in its ability to “save the world”, I still believe that designers, in general, do have skills that can enable people to share and externalise their thinking with others, and turn ideas into forms that people can engage with. We can help to prefigure plural possible futures, in the present, by actually enacting them, and that includes ways of teaching, learning, and investigating together as much as it does creating prototypes of products.


References from the DRS Digital Library

Cristina Ampatzidou, Markéta Dolejšová, Jaz Hee-Jeong Choi, and Andrea Botero (2021). Feral Ways of Knowing and Doing: Tools and resources for transformational creative practice, in Leitão, R.M., Men, I., Noel, L-A., Lima, J., Meninato, T. (eds.), Pivot 2021: Dismantling/Reassembling, 22-23 July, Toronto, Canada.

Frederick van Amstel, Batista e Silva Sâmia, Bibiana Oliveira Serpa, Mazzarotto Marco, Ricardo Artur Carvalho, and Rodrigo Freese Gonzatto (2021). Insurgent Design Coalitions: The history of the Design & Oppression network, in Leitão, R.M., Men, I., Noel, L-A., Lima, J., Meninato, T. (eds.), Pivot 2021: Dismantling/Reassembling, 22-23 July, Toronto, Canada.

Jacob Buur, Mette Kjærsgaard, Franciska Fellegi, Sisse Schaldemose, and Tom Djajadiningrat (2023). Theory instruments: Helping designers see the invisible, in Holmlid, S., Rodrigues, V., Westin, C., Krogh, P. G., Mäkelä, M., Svanaes, D., Wikberg-Nilsson, Å (eds.), Nordes 2023: This Space Intentionally Left Blank, 12-14 June, Linköping University, Norrköping, Sweden.

John Fass, Tyler Fox, and Alastair Steele (2022). The echoing river: A DRS 2022 Lab, in Lockton, D., Lloyd, P., Lenzi, S. (eds.), DRS2022: Bilbao, 25 June – 3 July, Bilbao, Spain.

David Green, Joseph Lindley, Enrique Encinas, Mayane Dore, Jesse Josua Benjamin, and Spyros Bofylatos (2023). Ways of seeing design research: A polyphonic speculation, in Holmlid, S., Rodrigues, V., Westin, C., Krogh, P. G., Mäkelä, M., Svanaes, D., Wikberg-Nilsson, Å (eds.), Nordes 2023: This Space Intentionally Left Blank, 12-14 June, Linköping University, Norrköping, Sweden.

Sasha de Koninck and Laura Devendorf (2022). Objects of care, in Lockton, D., Lenzi, S., Hekkert, P., Oak, A., Sádaba, J., Lloyd, P. (eds.), DRS2022: Bilbao, 25 June – 3 July, Bilbao, Spain.

Lesley-Ann Noel (2020). Envisioning a pluriversal design education, in Leitão, R., Noel, L. and Murphy, L. (eds.), Pivot 2020: Designing a World of Many Centers – DRS Pluriversal Design SIG Conference, 4 June, held online.


Other References

Paulo Freire (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed (translated by Myra Bergman Ramos). New York: Seabury Press.

William Gaver (2012). What should we expect from research through design? Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’12). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 937–946.

Corita Kent and Jan Steward (1992). Learning by Heart. New York: Bantam Books

Dietmar Offenhuber (2023). Autographic Design: The Matter of Data in a Self-Inscribing World. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Elizabeth B-N Sanders and Pieter Jan Stappers (2012). Convivial Toolbox: Generative Research for the Front End of Design. Amsterdam: BIS.