That's Just Academic.

Oh, that’s just academic.

From time to time, I like to pretend I’m an academic. I’m only vaguely qualified for that claim. But when I put that hat on, sometimes it makes me feel like I’m on “the other side.”

I’ve taught at four universities, built curricula, and started – and ran – my own school. I think of an academic as someone situated in academia. They spend their time researching, or teaching, or guiding, with an end goal of knowledge production and mentorship. But the word “academic” comes with a lot of baggage. For many, that word implies someone without grounding or practicality – someone who is doing something that is theoretical and without real-world value. An argument described as “purely academic” is seen as one that’s largely a waste of time. It’s an unfair assessment, but in some ways, that reputation has been earned.

Consider the distinction between these situations:

  1. I’ve been hired by a large corporation to understand areas where they can introduce new and innovative products into the market. I conduct research with customers, identify opportunities, sketch them, prototype them, and then help the corporation build them.
  2. I’ve been awarded a grant by the same corporation to understand how ideas emerge and shape the market. I conduct research with the various teams at the corporation, identify the processes they use to create new products by watching them launch new innovations, prototype a model of innovation, author a paper describing my findings, and publish it in a well-known academic journal.

The overlap between them is strong. In both cases, my activities are focused on research, synthesis, and prototyping. In the first case, I’m aiming my process at making a new thing. In the second, I’m aiming my process at making new knowledge. And in both cases, the corporation derives value from the activities. In the first, the value is revenue or market share; in the second, the value is introspection and the projection of thought-leadership.

But the difference is apparent, too.

The tangible output of the first situation is a new thing: something that a mass market uses, relatively quickly. A digital product comes to market within a few months; a physical product often ships in as little as six. In a consumer market, the impact of a successful new product is observable because it is large and consequential. A new innovation changes behavior, and that in turn changes culture. It’s rarely one-to-one – that change is often absorbed into the larger context of all innovations in the market segment – but we only need to look around to see how innovative new products have changed the way we interact with each other and the world around us.

The tangible output of our more academic endeavor is a journal article. It takes a long time for an article to end up in the world. It goes through a process of submission, peer review, revision, acceptance (or rejection), and eventually, publishing. It has a small audience made up of “people who like to read journal articles” and since many journals lock their content behind a paywall, the audience is even further constrained.

Sometimes, that article changes behavior, too. It may act as a cornerstone for further research, acting as a fundamental citation for future work. And hybrid journals, like Harvard Business Review or The Economist, publish academic content to an audience of executives and decision makers. They, in turn, integrate the findings, processes, and ideas into their organizations.

But often, the article does nothing. While 88% of medicine articles are at least cited once, only about 66% of social science articles are cited, and only 18% of humanities papers are ever actually cited at all. [www] Most people don’t read them. And, as described above, if they are considered at all, they are often derided as “being academic.”

I subscribe to a mailing list (they still have those!) called the PhD Design list. It is as named: it’s a discussion about the path towards attaining a doctorate degree in design. A doctorate in design is a strange animal. While most practitioners view design as something you do, a doctorate in design is about researching the practice of design itself. It’s about studying how design works, why it works, the value of it in the world, and most importantly, in generating new knowledge about design. It’s strange to think about creating new knowledge about design without actually doing design, and that’s one of the largest disconnects in thinking that leads to something being “purely academic” in the context of our profession.

Here are some of the most recent themes and ideas discussed in the PhD Design list.

  • How scientists do or do not understand beauty [www]
  • Understanding of human collective ecologies [www]
  • Public discourse based on personal belief will always be contentious [www]

I find the discussions intellectually challenging and curious. But the discussions often lack something simple: recognition of what designers are actually doing in their jobs. Just as some practitioners misunderstand what it means to “be an academic,” some researchers haven’t spent any time observing real design work being done, and even fewer appear to have actually done design work in a practical context. Consider the threads above; would an executive, stumbling across this in the latest issue of Fast Company, see applicability to their practice?

It’s unlikely, and it points to the problem of the divide between academia and real life. If the smartest researchers, who are committed to advancing the knowledge of design, are actually producing knowledge of any worth, they are doing it for the smallest possible audience to see – and neither the authors nor the audience have any real influence on things that are made.

It’s not always without fruit. The idea of “technology transfer” was one of the constructs for bringing new academic research in material sciences, manufacturing, and other engineering practices into corporations; this was typically accomplished by a partnership between an academic institution and a company. Many companies, like Microsoft, Google, and Intel, have respected internal research labs that are positioned in the belly of the beast, theoretically able to influence the decisions made on shipping products. And, some academics are or have been practicing designers. Assuming they are competent at both activities, these people arguably offer the most value to a company, because they can straddle the worlds of making knowledge and making things.

I don’t write this to deride design research scientists, because I find knowledge production to have a more influential and consequential long term value than making “things”. But it’s only going to achieve that with mass adoption, or at least adoption by people in positions of decision making and leadership authority. The onus is not on the academy to share their work; I think the path towards that adoption has to be from the practitioners going out of their way to explore and read academic content. Designers should be able to explore and integrate academic design knowledge into their work with as much ease as drawing, building wireframes, creating service maps, or doing all the other things they do on a daily basis.

And so, to get started, you can subscribe to the PhD Design list here.

Jon Kolko

Modernist can help you apply academic knowledge in a practical context.

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