‘Design as a bridge’: The value of design-science collaboration


Some weeks ago, I had a great opportunity to speak of the potential and benefits of collaboration between design and science for a group of FinnCERES researchers. I was proudly highlighting interesting cases and sharing my own experiences from previous projects. When it was time for questions, the FinnCERES Research PI at VTT, Tekla Tammelin, asked how good we are in Finland in cross-disciplinary materials research when compared with other countries. Without hesitation, I answered that we are doing fine, we are at the forefront. Only later on I recognized that the question had really hit me – is it really so? (By the way, this is the beauty of cross-disciplinary collaboration: people with other perspectives challenge your thinking constantly.)

After some consideration, I was ready to admit that true design-science collaboration is still rare in Finland, and much more could be done. Personally, I have had the chance to take part in materials research in one way or another since 2011. With my colleague, Professor Tapani Vuorinen from the Aalto University School of Chemical Engineering, we have been running courses to teach students about bio-based materials, especially wood-derived materials. Our educational CHEMARTS activities have inspired research projects and raised plenty of interest from our peer universities internationally. A couple of design-driven projects, such as DWoC and Trash-2-Cash, have been completed, some others are ongoing. Some designers or design researchers are part of fundamental or applied material research projects, but to be honest, only a few. In some countries, research funding providers and science institutions have already set up mechanisms to enhance the collaboration and to enable design experts to get involved.

Design is often understood as product design: design for artifacts. However, the broad field of design expertise includes several other sectors, such as service and process design, interaction design, visual design – or recently also materials design. But why are designers increasingly interested in materials research, a realm traditionally dominated by scientists and engineers? The key driver is the need to find more sustainable solutions for our material world, especially now when new design methods like ecodesign and design for a circular economy have to be adapted. In addition to materials development itself, some designers and artists use speculative design methods to raise critical questions often related to sustainability and ethics.

Does cross-disciplinary design-science-technology collaboration really make sense? Well, in many cases it does. Designers can speed up materials development with their design tools and methods, and they can bring their holistic and user-focused way of working into research projects. Designers also have great tools for communication: prototyping, visualisation and exhibitions, for example.

However, cross-disciplinary collaboration is never easy, and success requires extra resources and efforts from all parties. It is always a learning process and has to be beneficial for everyone. In addition to an individual’s willingness for collaboration and respect for each other, a shared vision, language and working methods have to be developed. IPR issues and crediting have to be attended. Funding for all team members – also for designers – has to be secured. To enable all this, designers should be involved already when framing research questions and writing funding applications for collaborative projects.

As Matilda McQuaid, curator at Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York states:

‘The challenges to our planet are so complex that they cannot be solved by one discipline. Design is a bridge. It translates scientific ideas and discoveries into real-world applications.’ (C. Condell et al. 2019. Exhibition catalogue: Nature: Collaborations in Design)