Reflecting on Drawing-as-Method from our “Design TREE” Experience at DSW 2018

By Rahul Mitra

It’s been awhile since our talk at Detroit Startup Week (DSW) earlier this year, but December is as good a time as any to reflect on some of the interesting and useful things that experience uncovered for us.

To recap: we were thrilled to facilitate a 1.5-hour session with DSW participants on some of the findings from our TREE project, specifically on what tangible and intangible resources Detroit entrepreneurs drew from the ecosystem, and the bottlenecks they encountered. But while that took about 15 minutes of our talk, I was far more excited about the communication-as-design activity that was to constitute the bulk of the session.

Communication-as-design is a research perspective that focuses on how user-based communication and everyday practices that can create new possibilities and arrangements to rethink social structures. Derived from interdisciplinary research on design in architecture, anthropology, information technologies, computing, engineering, and fine arts, it takes design to be “an activity of transforming something given into something preferred through intervention and invention” (Aakhus, 2007, p. 112). Absolutely essential to this process are listening, collective action, and institutional mechanisms for continuous learning (Barbour et al., 2018). At that DSW session, our goal was to work with session participants to use communication-as-design to re-design what the entrepreneurial ecosystem looked like in their sector, and what it could do.

Session participants were broadly in the three categories of technology, lifestyle, and food entrepreneurs, along with several folks who worked with entrepreneurial support organizations. After talking about our preliminary results from the project so far, I asked session participants to self-select into three groups that represented these categories. Each group had an appointed facilitator, who was granted an easel, Sharpies and a set of open-ended questions that would hopefully help group members to share their experiences and ideas. The goal was to engage in the listening stage of communication-as-design, and suggest new ways, metaphors, images, and processes to re-think the entrepreneurial ecosystem in that group category. Essentially, the goal was to “Design TREE,” using conversation and art.

Design TREE Groups were asked to consider…

  1. How do our research team’s findings align with your experiences? What would you add, or perhaps disagree with?
  2. What does the entrepreneurial ecosystem look like in your space (e.g., food, technology, lifestyle)?
  3. Please draw a “collective sketch” to depict the ecosystem:

A. Which are the major entrepreneurial support organizations or programs?

B. What do they accomplish for you?

C. How are they connected to each other?

D. In a 2nd sketch, what would your “ideal” ecosystem look like?

I’m incredibly grateful to the awesome group facilitators — April Jones-Boyle (Build Institute), Matthew Lewis (New Economy Initiative) and Amy Latawiec (Rebel Cycle Studio). While they did their magic, my research assistants and I filtered through the groups, answering questions when asked, but mainly just listening and also asking probes and follow-up questions. Several of the questions asked groups to sketch out their visions — both actual and ideal — of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, stemming from the vast research that notes how such tactile and creative methods help generate new discoveries (Tracy & Malvini Redden, 2016). While several of the groups did in fact “draw” pictures, I also noticed that they were deeply invested in re-defining the questions we asked in the first place, often positing new themes worthy of study, or new challenges to the ecosystem that we honestly took for granted. For instance, several session participants noted that they discovered DSW quite by accident (even though I initially assumed that their presence meant they were closely invested with the Detroit entrepreneurial ecosystem), and several others had not even heard of the term “ecosystem,” showcasing the gap between theoretical literature and practical knowledge, and challenging us to think of new ways to represent it. By and far the most popular frame to understand the ecosystem was as a community — which was also the most normative frame, since session participants ached to feel part of an open and welcoming community, to be a “part of a neighborhood” rather than simply “visit” downtown.

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At the end of the group sessions, each group put up their drawing sheets up on the wall or easel, and the facilitator explained what they drew, why they drew or wrote what they did, and how their group thinking progressed.

While the “Design TREE” session at DSW yielded some wonderful conversation and sketches — all of which are excellent data for our project! — it also provided useful guidance for the larger set of sessions we have planned for early 2019. I’m excited to be working with design anthropologist Siobhan Gregory for this next phase of the project as well! More updates on this later!

Further Reading:

Aakhus, M. (2007). Communication as design. Communication Monographs, 74, 112-117.

Barbour, J.B., Gill, R., & Barge, J.K. (2018). Exploring the intersections of individual and collective communication design: A research agenda. In P.J. Salem, & E. Timmerman, (Eds.), Transformative research and practice in organizational communication (pp. 89-109). Hersey, PA: IGI Global

Tracy, S. J., & Malvini Redden, S. (2016). Markers, metaphors, and meaning: Drawings as a visual and creative qualitative research methodology in organizations. In K. D. Elsbach, and R. M. Kramer (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative organizational research: Innovative pathways and ideas (pp. 238-248). New York: Routledge.