Paper submitted to: Pierce, J., Andersen, K., Boucher, A., Chatting, D., Desjardins, A., Devendorf, L., Gaver, W., Jenkins, T., Odom, W., Vallgårda, A. (2019). Doing Things with Research
through Design: With What, With Whom, and Towards What Ends?, Workshop Organized at SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Glasgow
Reifying Through Design(ing)
Dan Lockton, Imaginaries Lab, School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University, Pi!sburgh, PA, United States
What could someone else’s sense of dread look like, if you could
hold it in your hands? Could you build a model landscape
representing your own career path? This paper illustrates
projects using participant-created artefacts to materialise
abstract concepts and externalise thoughts, concretising or
reifying intangible phenomena, and argues that this kind of
work, using design methods as a form of enquiry, could
contribute to Research through Design.
USING DESIGN TO MATERIALISE ABSTRACT
CONCEPTS AND EXTERNALISE THOUGHTS
Designing and creating artefacts as a way of generating
knowledge is central to Research through Design (RtD);
very often these artefacts are essentially materialising
ideas: putting ‘things’ into the world that only previously
existed in the mind’s eye of the designers, to explore and
understand their role and presence, effects and
effectiveness, in the ‘real’ world.
But what about using similar approaches—and similar
methods, drawn from design practice—to materialise not
just envisioned things, but abstract or otherwise invisible
ideas, concepts, and relationships? How can we use
methods inspired by (o"en participatory) design and
facilitation processes from user experience, service design,
social design, and systemic design [1, 4, 13, 14]—or the
a!ention to novel translations of abstract concepts
emerging in data physicalisation , synaesthesia
research , children’s sandplay, constructive projective
techniques in psychiatry and even art therapy—as a form
of conceptual RtD, a way to communicate otherwise
intangible or inaccessible ideas and private worlds? #ere
is no ‘right’ way to externalise thoughts: as Jonassen and
Cho [5, p.152] put it, we need “visual prostheses” to share
our mental imagery with each other.
#e potential for Research through Design to help people
capture, express, and communicate the qualitative
dimensions of their experiences, to make them rei$ed,
palpable, to enable discussion or peer support, or even to
facilitate group or team sensemaking, seems worth
exploring, and has plenty of precedents but does not yet
seem to have been delineated as a speci$c $eld of
research. #e Convivial Toolbox of Liz Sanders and Pieter
Jan Stappers  gets close, but does not speci$cally
emphasise the dimension of materialising the invisible,
conceptual, elements of participants’ thinking.
Figure 1: A 'project landscape' built and annotated by a group of undergraduate design students to represent a collective
ntal model of a group project they had worked on, with its ups, downs, and emotions.
#rough a series of projects with colleagues over the last
few years, I have become increasingly fascinated by how
we, as designers, can apply methods from design practice
as a form of enquiry into the imaginaries, mental imagery,
intangible and invisible aspects of people’s understanding
and personal, subjective experience of concepts and ideas
which are otherwise hidden or only describable through
spoken or wri!en language. What started in 2011 as an
a!empt to get people to draw their mental models of
heating systems  using Post-It notes led through
various drawing-based modes including asking people to
create instructions for others  and to draw or paint
their mental imagery around energy  or construct
visual storyboards about imagined hierarchies and
structures in local government. But it is a move into actual
physical model-making, using card and then other
materials to enable people to create their own artefacts,
which seems to o%er a particularly exciting and rich set of
My intention is to present to the workshop two projects
which embody the idea of the research participant-
constructed physical artefact as a way for people to
embody—to reify—abstract concepts, feelings, and
emotions.1 I would welcome the opportunity to explore
and discuss how this kind of work $ts with (or doesn’t)
other kinds of RtD, and the importance of aspects such as
aesthetics, ease of construction, and the life of the artefact
once it has been constructed, and dynamic (rather than
static) versions of these kinds of artefacts.
Mental Landscapes,  developed by Delanie Ricke!s,
comprises a kit of laser-cut card parts embodying a
particular set of metaphors based around stylised
landscapes and features within landscapes, such as hills,
roads, $elds, and weather. We have explored the kit’s use
through workshops where participants assemble and
arrange a variety of elements to make abstracted model
landscapes which on some level represent or translate
their mental models of concepts. Landscapes are a
common type of metaphor in speech, particularly for
talking about relations between parts of a whole, or
mapping the structure of one concept onto another. Our
60 participants have built models representing their own
career paths, life journeys, and group projects (Figures 1–
4). Some activities were individual, while others were
group-based to try to examine the collective imaginaries
1 As I write this, I realise that it probably describes much modern sculpture.
Figure 3: An undergraduate group project landscape
including a stormy 'hell' phase
Figure 2: Master's students build a collective 'life
landscape' representing their different career paths, their
vergence, and their potential future divergence.
Figure 4: A group life landscape where students, together
n a raft, approach a
job market beset with whirlpools,
rocky rapids, deserts and lus
jungles, as well as some
substantial hills to cli
of a particular theme or idea. Aside from gaining insights
around the topics being explored, the primary aim of the
workshops at this stage has been to help scope
possibilities for the kit’s development and to explore how
this kind of metaphor-based constructive projective
method could be used in user research for design and HCI.
(#e project also $ts with other work we are doing on
exploring and generating novel metaphors as a creative
method for visualising abstract concepts [REF]).
#e kit2, comprises elements representing:
•!Hills, mountains, and raised ground, of many sizes
and colours—both 3D cones and &at elevations held
vertically using slo!ed blocks
•!Lakes, ponds, and rivers, of many sizes and colours,
plus ‘whirlpools’ or eddies
•!Fields/areas of land, or ‘roads’, of many sizes and
colours, including a ‘ground’ sheet, lengths of brown
•!Trees and cacti of di%erent shapes and sizes
•!Silhoue!es of people of di%erent sizes
•!Weather elements: sun/moon, clouds (cirrus-esque
and cumulus-esque), clouds with rain, clouds with
snow, clouds with lightning bolts, held vertically
using crocodile clips on rods. Whirlpools could also
be used as ‘cyclones’
•!Sticky notes for use as labels or annotations
•!Generic shapes, modi$able in di%erent ways
Our design process aimed to maximize the ability of
participants to express their thinking, while not
overwhelming them with sheer quantity of pre-made
elements. We wanted to preserve the a%ordance of being
able to think through how seemingly disparate
experiences might relate to one another over one’s life,
without prescribing a particular narrative format. Laser-
cut thin card enabled annotation and also rapid alteration.
Part of a larger project  developing a wide range of
methods for ‘materialising mental health’, including an
‘empathy rock garden’, personalised potions, and a new
lexicon of compound words to describe hard-to-describe
emotions, Emotional Modelling (Figures 5 and 6),
developed by designers Laura Rodriguez, Katie Herzog,
Josh LeFevre, Nowell Kahle, and Arden Wolf,is a kit of
parts which people can, individually (in private or with a
researcher), assemble in di%erent ways to represent
particular self-described emotions. Initially, we gave
people a wide variety of cra" supplies including clay, pipe
2 The files are downloadable at http://imaginari.es/mental-landscapes/
cleaners of various sizes and colours, &u%y balls, wooden
skewers, fabric and balloons, but through discussion with
participants we found that while the materials a%orded a
great deal of freedom, many felt overwhelmed by the
variety of materials provided. We thus evolved the kit into
a restricted pale!e of elements: a set of geometric volumes
in six di%erent colour and material combinations,
including wood, felt, raw 3D-printed plastic, and weighted
3D-printed plastic which we $nished to resemble stone.
Within each shape we created a series of holes to
accommodate two di%erent types of connectors (wood and
silicone rods) allowing participants to connect the objects
together in a variety of ways.
A"er they had constructed their models, we asked
participants to talk us through their thought process and
how they had made the material and structural choices
they had. Most of the 30 participants had li!le trouble
explaining their representations; common threads
emerged in the ways certain materials were most o"en
used (echoing the general $ndings of some other projects
around emotions and materials [e.g. 1]).
For example, many participants were drawn to faux stone
volumes to describe “heavier” emotions and frequently
used the silicone rods to convey emotional &exibility. We
were pleasantly surprised by the breadth of potential
meanings assigned to each piece; for instance, while we’d
imagined that the felt volumes could prove useful in
illustrating so"ness and perhaps even passivity, one
participant piled a collection of the felt volumes together,
creating what she described as “cosiness” and “warmth.”
DEVELOPING THIS DIRECTION
#ere are people in disparate areas of design, art, and HCI
research doing work which $ts with this kind of approach.
It would be interesting to consider how framing this as a
Figure 5: The Emotional Modelling kit of parts
form of RtD, or how this kind of RtD could intersect with
a growing interest in design methods and ‘inventive’
methods in sociology [2, 9], could bring design research
into new areas of application in domains which have
hitherto only had limited engagement with ‘artefacts’ as
generators of knowledge.
#ank you to Delanie Ricke!s, Laura Rodriguez, Katie
Herzog, Josh LeFevre, Nowell Kahle, and Arden Wolf for
their work on the projects (and their descriptions of the
work) used as examples in this paper.
!Manuela Aguirre Ulloa and Adrian Paulsen, 2017. Co-designing
with relationships in mind: Introducing relational material
mapping. Form Akademisk 10(1) 1–14.
!Kirsten Boehner, Bill Gaver, and Andy Boucher. 2012. Probes. In:
Celia Lury and Nina Wakeford, eds. Inventive Methods: #e
Happening of the Social. Routledge, London
!Flora Bowden, Dan Lockton, Rama Gheerawo and Clare Brass,
2015. Drawing Energy: Exploring perceptions of the invisible. Royal
College of Art, London..
!John Fass, 2016. Self Constructed Representations: Design Research
in Participatory Situations. In Proceedings of Cumulus 2016, 21–24
November 2016, Hong Kong.
!David Jonassen, and Young Hoan Cho. 2008. Externalizing mental
models with Mindtools. In Understanding Models for Learning and
Instruction. D. Ifenthale, P. Pirnay-Dummer, and J.M. Spector, eds.
Springer, Berlin, 2008, 145–157
!Chang Hee Lee, Dan Lockton, John Stevens, Stephen Jia Wang,
SungHee Ahn. 2019. Synaesthetic-Translation Tool: Synaesthesia as
an Interactive Material for Ideation. Proc. CHI EA ’19.
!Dan Lockton. 2011. Mental models of HVAC systems: ethnography
sessions at DECC. Report, Brunel University, London.
!Dan Lockton, Devika Singh, Saloni Sabnis, Michelle Chou, Sarah
Foley, Alejandro Pantoja. 2019. New Metaphors: A Workshop
Method for Generating Ideas and Reframing Problems in Design
and Beyond. Under review.
!Deborah Lupton, 2018. Towards design sociology. Sociology
!Michal Luria, Jennifer Brown, Katie Herzog, Laura Rodriguez,
Supawat Vitoorakaporn, Josh LeFevre, Suzannah Mills, Carlie
Guilfoile, Nowell Kahle, Kailin Dong, Jessica Nip, Aisha Dev, Katie
Glass, Zhiye Jin, Soonho Kwon, Arden Wolf and Dan Lockton.
2019. Potions, Rocks, Models, and Lexicons: Materializing Mental
Health Using Design Methods. Under review.
!Robert Phillips, Dan Lockton, Sharon Baurley, and Sarah Silve.
2013. Making instructions for others: exploring mental models
through a simple exercise. Interactions 20(5).
 Delanie Ricke!s and Dan Lockton, 2019. Mental Landscapes:
Externalizing Mental Models #rough Metaphors. Interactions
!Karianne Rygh, 2015 Value Pursuit. Design Academy Eindhoven.
!Liz Sanders and Pieter-Jan Stappers, 2013. Convivial Toolbox:
Generative Research for the Front End of Design. BIS, Amsterdam.
!Alice #udt, Uta Hinrichs, Samuel Huron, and Sheelagh
Carpendale. 2018. Self-Re&ection and Personal Physicalization
Construction. Proc. CHI ‘18.
Figure 6: Collecti on of photogra phs taken during participants' model-making, with handwritten participant descriptions