Why this, why now, and why not something else.


A reflection on my research interest and its relevance to contemporary practice. The interest for proposing and conducting this research project at academic level grew out of a need found in practice whilst working on the communication design of social enterprise Doi Tung in Thailand in 2011.  As a communication designer, I felt that my expertise and skills tailored mostly to design within market-driven contexts were not entirely applicable to the particular scenario I was dealing with.  Working in such a space required a more specific understanding of how communication design should be addressed within projects of social innovation for sustainability.  How it could play a significant role in the process and not as a last stage of ‘image-making’.

At the time of writing an initial PhD proposal, guidance generally available and accessible to communication designers interested in this sector focused greatly on how to make their practices more sustainable, e.g materials and production as ‘sustainable communication design’, or on how to better ‘communicate sustainability’ information, such as traceability of supply chains through visualisation.  It focused greatly on the outcome product of communication design and not the process of designing communication design in this very interdisciplinary space.   Since then and over the last three years we have seen great development in the areas of design for sustainability, design for social innovation and a growing interest in systems thinking, also within communication design.  Some of this knowledge has gone beyond academia and become more widely available for designers to apply in practice.

As this PhD develops through time within the fast-paced research environment we work in, communication design within social innovation and sustainability will undoubtedly gain importance and momentum.  However, today, I find that specific knowledge on this subject is absent.  More specifically, and regarding the questions this research addresses, what I find to be absent is guidance relating to the ways in which the development of the communication design itself can catalyse participation in initiatives of social innovation for sustainability.

The initial question proposed for the PhD project in this specific context addressed how communication design might generate more empathy between the producers and consumers within a given social enterprise.  This question emerged out of the challenge I had faced in my practice.  However, as the academic research developed in the first year of the PhD it became apparent that empathy was an underlying subject and should not be the focus point of the academic investigation.  Generating empathy is one of the mechanisms employed by communication design, clearly seen in many social and environmental campaigns.  Questioning empathy in itself would not answer the primary proposition of the research nor contribute to knowledge in the field of communication design within social innovation and sustainability.

Having a good understanding of the wider contemporary landscape of sustainability communications, the research came to a point where it was important to identify what area it would be conducted in, who exactly where the producers and the consumers.

One of things I learned from my valuable experience with the Doi Tung project was also one of the main challenges at the time.  The coffee produce of Doi Tung is its main income and also the one product which the community is extremely proud of.  My struggle at the time faced creating communication design ‘experiences’ that would clearly convey this passion of the producers for their coffee plantations (and therefor generating empathy with the consumer).  I lacked the skills and tools to articulate through communication design the importance of the biological understanding and relationship between coffee producers to their environment.  Their relationship to their ‘material’, the soil and the trees, was a different kind of relationship from that of the ceramic artisans and silk-weavers to their raw materials.  The poetics of food growing was extremely difficult to “communicate” through other than “to experiencing it yourself”.  Somehow it seemed quite important to explore this because thinking around food allows for a better understudying of what sustainability is, the networked and interconnected systems we inhabit in and contribute to.

To situate this research further, from the beginning there was a predisposition to ally it with small-scale initiatives.  Perhaps given my background and experience as a designer with small-scale projects, local brands and social enterprises are what is most familiar to work with.  In this sense, the research never intended to look into or collaborate with large-scale sustainable brands or established fairtrade organisations although it acknowledges many of its best practices in communication and strategy.  Another relevant point in this sense is the cultural context of the research.  It was questioned whether it should focus on emerging and “developing” markets (given my experience with Doi Tung in Thailand) or whether to focus on “developed” markets such as the western context.  The questions asked in this research could have been investigated within both scenarios and have different outcomes.

Whilst looking into design and social innovation I noticed the apparent interest in the food sector particularly within the urban environment.  Food access being one of the key challenges for sustainable development of the urban context, it is an area that is being researched by many designer researcher across the western world.  I came across the recent research on alternative food networks and the different types of initiatives which support a sustainable development of urban food provision and culture; such as local farmers markets, box delivery schemes, food surplus innovations, community supported agriculture.  Another aspect of this growing dynamic sector was the interest in the social implications of these upcoming food initiatives; how they contribute to general wellbeing, social cohesion and even an economy of happiness.  With much ground to explore in terms of possibilities for communication design research this became the chosen area for conducting this project.




* Research content:  Joana Casaca Lemos under Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivs 3.0 Unported