Design representation, contemporary product design practice and research: an interview with Associate Professor James A. Self

In this interview, we meet Associate Professor James A. Self who explores the product design representation, contemporary product design practice and research at UNIST Design. Conducted by Associate Professor Hwang Kim on Wednesday March 27, the interview took place while professor Self and Kim are walking around the UNIST campus.

  • Attendance : James Self with Hwang Kim
  • Time : 2024.03.27(Wed), 13:00 ~ 15:00
  • Location : UNIST campus – 104(EB2) → Lakeside → Library → 104

Hwang Kim (HK) Thank you for agreeing to walk around the campus with me while also doing this interview. Why don’t we start with where you come from academically?

James A. Self (JS) I enjoy walking, so thank you for the suggestion. Perhaps I can offer an overview of my career history. I was raised in the UK, in a small town just outside of London, located in Buckinghamshire. I attended school there and left at the age of 16, which is relatively young. However, my interest in design, which had been evident from an early age, led me to pursue further education in college.

I have always been passionate about creating things, with a particular emphasis on constructing models. This passion guided me to study for a diploma in 3D design. During the late 1990s, when I was studying, Computer-Aided Design (CAD) technology was not yet prevalent, so the course was heavily focused on hands-on work with materials, and projects in 3D design including drawing, sketching, and physical creation. My projects spanned various aspects of design, from interior design to furniture projects.

My fascination has always been with models—scale representations that embody design intentions. This fascination extended to both product prototyping models and architectural models. During my time at a design college in the UK, I observed designers and design students producing these models, which sparked a realization in me. In the UK, there’s a specialized degree course in model design, which is quite rare. Despite receiving advice to pursue a broader design course, such as product or industrial design, I opted to follow my passion and enrolled in the model design course.

HK What drove your particular interest in model “making”?

JS I have always had an interest in doing things with my hands, an inclination I still enjoy today. This preference is sometimes referred to as ’embodied cognition’, the concept that hands-on interaction can potentially enhance understanding and cognition. My lifelong interest in 3D materiality and an innate ability to visualize and express ideas in physical materials have come naturally to me. I’ve observed this while teaching students; I have certain expectations of their ability to visualize in three dimensions, but they often struggle to do so. This suggests that my proficiency in understanding physicality and three dimensions may be valuable things to deliver to the students.

HK My bachelor’s degree was in metal craft, and during my college years, my focus was primarily on creating 3D objects. Metal crafting today has evolved; it’s not merely about having a deeper understanding of metal as a material. Form-giving with modern techniques is now an integral part of the teaching process in craft as well.

Even when I was in college, 20 years ago, metal crafting through 3D printing was emerging. I began to work with various materials in metal craft, so I also can relate to the satisfaction that comes from engaging with these different materials. Past 20 years of the evolution of CAD and 3D printers, the landscape has changed considerably. It’s becoming increasingly challenging for students, especially those at the junior level, to engage with these technologies and materials. What are your thoughts on this development?

JS I agree with Johnny Ive when he points out a significant issue in design education: the loss of physical manipulation with materials to understand their affordances, both in utility and emotional terms, and then applying that understanding to design in areas like CMF design or materiality. He has criticized the somewhat generic nature of 3D printing.

Although I sympathize with his viewpoint, it appears to be a struggle against the inevitable tide of technological change, which is altering the landscape of design. This is not a new phenomenon, but the accelerated pace of change is somewhat disorienting. The latest disruptive force is A.I., with its capacity to generate images that could revolutionize the design process, though its full implications are not yet clear.

Anyhow, after completing my undergraduate degree in making and materials, I spent several years in the industry across London as a model maker and prototyper, working in architecture, product design, and special effects. Despite being competent and employed, I felt unfulfilled and sensed a void in my life. The routine of my craft lacked daily uniqueness and challenges for growth.

Eventually, I moved to Australia in the early 2000s, thinking a change of scenery might help, but I ended up in the same industry role as before. With the advent of rapid prototyping, now known as 3D printing, my craft was disrupted. This led me to pursue a practice-based master’s in rapid prototyping and CAD in the UK.

During my master’s, I met a social anthropologist who introduced me to the world of research and teaching, which resonated with me. I found my calling in academia, and my professor encouraged me to embark on a PhD. During my PhD, which began around 2008, I taught extensively while conducting full-time research. The arrival of my son six months into the program complicated matters, as I was balancing fatherhood with a heavy teaching load and PhD research.

Despite the challenges, I managed to complete my PhD shortly before the birth of my daughter. It was a difficult time, but I’ve reached a point where I can say it’s okay, although, in an ideal world, having more time would have made things easier.

HK Product design is an area that requires significant depth of practical experience. Looking at your interesting career path, it encompasses both practical product design and design research. UNIST, too, with its specialty as a science and technology institute, combines these two aspects of education. It encourages graduate students and even undergraduates to acquire an appropriate level of knowledge in both practice and research. What synergies exist for designers in learning both?

JS Initially, upon my arrival at UNIST, I believed I might have to leave my practical skills at the door and solely focus on my research to thrive within the institute. However, over time, I realized that this separation was unnecessary. My practical experience, especially in making and prototyping, constantly informs my teaching and research. For instance, in my courses, I introduce students to making and prototyping as part of the design process, providing them with a theoretical framework while tapping into my background in making and research.

Design Department, undergraduate 2nd year course: Product Design Fundamentals, a framework for understanding and creating beautiful designs

This natural combination of practice and theory is where I find my best work and most enjoyment at UNIST. Even though there are times when one has to engage in tasks that may not be perfectly aligned with one’s preferences, it’s part of the journey.

In my current research for a government project, which focuses on designers’ use of design representations as a thinking tool, I am able to draw from my practical experience as well as my extensive study in the field from my PhD onward. My research interest aligns closely with the core activities in design education: the design process, design practice, and design thinking. This relevance also extends to design education projects I’ve undertaken.

Eye-tracking study to examine the role and use of sketching during conceptual design as an external aid to design thinking
Eye-tracking study to examine the role and use of sketching during conceptual design as an external aid to design thinking

Research skills can indeed enhance design practice, especially in terms of process. When teaching studio courses, I can guide students not only on what to do but also why they’re doing it, which can be applied to other contexts beyond the course. For my graduate students, I employ a method called ‘research through design’. I aim to blend design and research by implementing them in a particular manner, using the created stimuli in research projects.

I have followed a research-oriented path, which, in retrospect, seems to suit me well. After leaving the industry for academia and coming to UNIST, I appreciate that research is prioritized over education, which is quite rare for a design school and different from the norm in my home country. This unique environment at UNIST design allows for the pursuit of a research agenda, which I find very fulfilling.

I hold the idealistic belief that academia can play a significant role in contributing something novel and innovative that transcends industry capabilities. This could involve leveraging research to inform projects with industry partners, aiming for new and different outcomes than what routine industry practice would dictate. For example, a project with a company like LG might incorporate a fresh approach developed during the research, focusing on identifying design innovation and meaning—something radical for the industry partners.

IKEA design exhibition (re)made. Research-through-design approach to doctoral studies

Though I have some optimism for this kind of collaboration, I’ve noticed that South Korean industry can be risk-averse, which is understandable but also an obstacle if we wish to introduce radical innovations. I see academia’s role as a facilitator in overcoming this aversion to risk, potentially offering cutting-edge research findings to optimize design thinking or to propose new methods in industry projects.

To sum up the answers, reflecting on my journey, my industry experience forms the backbone of my research. Having a history in the industry allowed me to craft a knowledge base in a particular area that I could then apply holistically in research settings. This interest, which started from 3D design and model-making, has continuously flowed into my current research focus. I am currently intrigued by the academic work on representation.

HK I found your recent book is very intriguing. Representation is a quite broad concept. Stuart Hall, a cultural theorist from the UK, said, “Representation is the production of meaning through language.” Herbert Simon stated that “the key to solving design problems lies in how solutions are represented.” Design representation comes in various forms, including diagrams, data tables, and service protocols. However, the book somewhat emphasizes the “visual representation” of product design. Is there a specific reason for focusing intensively on this aspect among the broad range of design representations?

JS Representation, along with semiotics’ emphasis on signifiers and signals, has become an increasingly valuable lens through which to view design, especially in communication design. It’s interesting to note the evolution of design presentations, with more focus on diagrams and flows, reflecting a broader scope of design and representation. In my book, my intention in focusing on product design and visual representation stems from my background in industrial design.

Different disciplines utilize various types of design representations based on their specific requirements and approaches. This diversity in representation is intriguing and has significant implications for design thinking. For industrial designers, these representations often embody the physical aspect of design intent, such as materiality.

In service design, however, representations are less about material objects and more about interactions and experiences. We’re conducting an A/B study that compares different forms of design representation and their effects on the design thinking process. In one condition, participants are restricted from drawing and must use only Post-it notes, employing tools common in service design. The other condition, participants are using drawing or sketching. This study could suggest that the type of representation used can indeed alter the design process and cognitive approach.

Design Thinking Workshop, design ideation to understanding design thinking, NRF-sponsored design research project

The concept I’m exploring is distributed cognition, a notion from cognitive science that suggests our thought processes are shaped through interaction with our environment. This hasn’t been extensively studied in the context of design, and I’m bringing this perspective into the conversation. If we find that different representations lead to variations in design thinking, it could be evidence of distributed cognition at play in the design process.

Ultimately, my goal is to develop a general theory that encompasses various design disciplines, recognizing that they all involve creativity and the development of potential solutions. The type of design representation used may be influenced by the needs of the task and can impact the designer’s thinking.

Now, A.I. is diverting my attention with its capability to quickly generate representations from prompts. This presents a different dynamic from traditional methods where representations emerge organically from the designer’s thought process. AI’s role in design could be a fertile area for research, particularly how it might change our approach to design thinking and creativity, and potentially attract funding due to its innovative nature.

HK Design thinking advocates for the importance of process-centered design such as co-design and user-centered design. Representation-centered design focuses on the authorship of design. The book seems to make efforts to reconcile these somewhat contrasting concepts.

It raises the question of how one can harmonize personal creativity and intentions with user feedback during the design and presentation process. When adopting a truly user-centered design approach, one encounters moments where data must be interpreted and translated into a new form by the designer. Balancing personal design intuition with user input is a delicate task.

This leads me to ponder about design intervention, which is influenced by two contrasting pressures: the need to base decisions on data and evidence, and the desire to break away and create something radically new regardless of the data. There seems to be a disconnect; we possess advanced data, yet when this data is transformed into a representation, gaps appear that are challenging to bridge.

JS We often encounter challenges in integrating user research data into the design process. After gathering extensive user study data, a sense of void can emerge as we transition into the design phase. The challenge lies in harnessing this data effectively to fill the gap between research insights and creative design solutions. There’s a delicate balance to be maintained: innovating something radically new while ensuring it remains practical and market-acceptable. Despite years of grappling with this issue, finding a definitive solution remains elusive. The disconnect between user research and the actual design work is palpable and often leaves designers in a quandary about how to proceed.

Reflecting on personal experiences, I’ve been more drawn to the situated activities of design—where a designer, working either individually or within a team, develops ideas based on a blend of user data and personal creativity. This process suggests that designers’ experiences and the data from user studies should ideally inform and influence their creative output. However, there’s a risk of designers feeling constrained by the data, potentially stifling creativity.

In practice, the key might lie in finding a middle ground where user data informs design decisions without dominating them. Designers need to navigate the space between being data-driven and maintaining creative freedom, allowing for a synthesis of insights and innovation. This approach acknowledges the importance of user-centered design while also recognizing the designer’s need for creative expression and the development of ideas that resonate on a human level.

HK For a long time, philosophers have debated whether the cause of events lies with humans or objects. In existentialist philosophy, this has been debated by distinguishing between humans and objects as Actors and Objects. However, according to the late phenomenologist Bruno Latour, humans and objects are equated as Actants, emphasizing the importance of Networks. This is where the importance of Delegation and Inscription emerges. In essence, the morality of the person making an object becomes crucial when creating something. How should designers approach design with a moral mindset?

JS Designs sometimes have negative impacts on people’s lives. For instance, in a park in Brighton, UK, benches were modified with armrests in the middle to prevent homeless people from sleeping on them. This design choice, intended to keep the benches dry and discourage sleeping, is a clear example of how design can negatively influence societal issues, reflecting a moral quandary.

The ethical responsibilities of inventors and designers are significant. This underscores the need for integrating ethical considerations into education, especially for young students who are the future. In Europe, there seems to be a better approach to embedding these ethical considerations in the classroom, making designers more aware of their social and environmental impact.

However, the challenge extends beyond ethics to sustainability, especially as designers enter the industry. Companies focus on generating revenue and growing economically, which often contradicts the principles of sustainable design. Despite decades of advocacy for sustainable design in education and practice, there has been little significant impact on reducing carbon emissions or changing corporate behaviors fundamentally focused on profitability over sustainability.

I’ve observed efforts to address sustainability at conferences and through academic discussions, but these often seem superficial or ineffective in the grand scheme of environmental challenges. For instance, promoting sustainability while participating in activities that contribute significantly to carbon emissions, like flying to conferences, highlights a disconnect between advocacy and action.

There’s a growing realization that the approach to sustainability in design education and practice needs a more nuanced narrative. The focus on superficial solutions like using paper straws hasn’t made a substantial difference. A shift in the narrative towards addressing the root causes of unsustainable practices is necessary for making a real impact.

HK Reflecting on the 1990s, the approach to sustainability seemed more straightforward, focusing on creating durable and high-quality products that people wouldn’t discard. However, today’s challenges appear more complex, with a noticeable gap between designers’ intentions and the business-oriented goals driven by financial metrics. This disparity suggests that while designers may advocate for sustainable practices, industry leaders prioritize profitability, often at the expense of sustainability.

A potential shift towards service-based offerings, rather than material goods, could present a less resource-intensive alternative. However, rapid technological advancements complicate this transition, as they necessitate frequent updates and replacements, contributing to the cycle of consumption.

Speculative and critical design disciplines highlight the role of societal change in achieving sustainability. They argue that altering consumer behavior and preferences may influence industry practices. This perspective underscores the potential for design to effect change, not just through creating sustainable products but by fostering a broader cultural shift towards sustainability.

People hold power in their purchasing decisions, which can influence industry and company practices. If consumer preferences shift towards more sustainable products, industries will adapt accordingly. Design plays a role in changing people’s perspectives, encouraging a shift towards sustainability. However, industries operate in a competitive environment that is challenging due to economic pressures.

JS Collaborative efforts involving government, designers, industry, and grassroots movements are essential for meaningful change. Despite these needs, the current acceleration of consumption and industry influence appears to be a significant barrier.

For instance, the UK government’s carbon zero agenda aims for carbon neutrality by 2030, but this goal may not effectively reduce global carbon emissions. This is because manufacturing is often outsourced to countries like China, making the UK’s carbon neutrality more about shifting the source of emissions rather than reducing them. This situation suggests that while intentions toward sustainability exist, practical outcomes remain elusive, casting doubt on the effectiveness of current strategies to address environmental deterioration.

HK UNIST is advocating internationalization and also talking about the importance of our future direction as an international research organization. Could you kindly tell us a little bit about your arguments, limitations also, and what should we do to achieve this goal in the next 10 years?

JS UNIST, a South Korean institution, faces particular challenges on internationalization due to the predominant South Korean culture and language, making the goal of global integration a complex task. Despite these obstacles, there is optimism that UNIST has the potential to become a leader in globalization and internationalization.

The founding president’s vision for UNIST was not merely to be nationally recognized but to break through those boundaries and establish it as a globally influential institution. Achieving this requires persistent effort and overcoming challenges, but it’s deemed a worthy pursuit. The current administration’s approach to internationalization has been critiqued for lacking concrete support for the necessary infrastructure to truly globalize the university, despite outward claims of aiming to be “the most global.”

HK Thank you! And this is my last question, regarding young designers and their challenges, what advice do you have for them?

JS I believe our students at UNIST might be able to distinguish themselves somewhat. They should embrace and highlight the UNIST identity, which is centered around Science and Technology. This could become a part of their brand. Whether or not they are directly involved in the integration of design and technology, this unique aspect could define the identity of UNIST students.

They might already be practicing this, but I encourage students to consider their brand and positioning. Perhaps, we could even modify the portfolio course to focus on personal branding, given that the concept of a portfolio has evolved significantly. The way you brand and express yourself is changing, but fundamentally, the advice remains to seize your opportunities and give your best effort, especially since the job market has become more competitive.

Taking advantage of opportunities at UNIST and engaging in activities beyond your classes could be beneficial. For example, participating in design work or submitting for an award could enhance your portfolio or personal identity. This is classic advice that remains valid today, although the competition may have increased with more graduates entering the job market.

However, it’s important for students not to be overly stressed. Everyone is unique, with their own set of skills, and it’s not about being better than someone else but doing the best with what you have. Being true to oneself, while possibly idealistic, is crucial. Let the journey somewhat take its course.

Additionally, I appreciate the current administration’s recognition of the challenges students face at UNIST. Efforts to address student well-being and health, such as opening a healthcare center and bringing a medical doctor to campus, are commendable. These initiatives demonstrate a commitment to improving the student experience in the face of various challenges.

HK Where will the world flow? How will the definition of design change? In such a moment, it seems important to find a middle ground between the old and the new and to do what we can do. It was such a fun interview!

JS Thank you, Hwang, and it was a good walk around campus!

Associate professors James A. Self and Hwang Kim by the end of the interview