Xinyi Li, Princeton University
Rebecca Sutton Koeser, Princeton University

As the boundaries of the design disciplines are blurring, the emphasis of design has shifted from need-driven tangible products to facilitation of the intangible exchange of information and knowledge production. Design has been desired as a method of inquiry into intellectual challenges and a tool of investigation of complex problems. Design does not have to always solve problems — it can also propose questions and probe thinking. As design always involves problematics in conjunction with other fields, this paper reflects on the merit of design in interdisciplinary collaborations including several practical examples and case-studies from in-progress Digital Humanities projects.

With the speculation of positioning design as a medium or as a tool, we call for more investigations on how to better embed design to the research process as a tool. When the professional field of design is not the central focus of the research, the role and value of design in interdisciplinary collaboration lies in the application of design thinking as a facilitative tool during the process. Design of systems and tools for learning and thinking can help make information visual, clarify ideas, and facilitate diagrammatical thinking.

By using examples of in-progress Digital Humanities projects, where collaboration between design, development, and scholarship is constantly happening, this paper investigates how design can facilitate scholarly collaboration activities with a process-oriented approach and service-based model. This paper discusses the question of ownership of interdisciplinary collaborative projects, advocates co-creation of content, and encourages instillation of design thinking to the research approach and production of synthesis. As a particular case, this paper discusses an in-process workflow for integrating design processes with software development for Digital Humanities projects. Like design, software development is an external discipline often brought to bear on digital research, and raises similar questions of ownership and co-creation.  This new workflow aims to integrate the two approaches in order to make the most of what each provides: the bigger picture of communication design and user interactions alongside the discrete pieces of functionality that can be implemented and tested in software.

This paper then envisions more significant convergence of design and research by discussing transdisciplinary research methods, and possibilities of digital projects beyond current prevailing digital libraries. Designers have been unconsciously borrowing tools and methods from other disciplines, such as grounded theory and ethnographic research. This paper encourages study and adaption of methods and tools from other non-design disciplines, and brings about awareness of the limitations of oversimplified “for-designer” methods. For researchers, digital tools could be utilized to not only preserve and exhibit abundant raw materials, but also help spread scholarly work in new and more meaningful ways. Finally, it addresses the importance of visual literacy and visual epistemology, and appeals to meaningful visual production of abstract, relational, and ephemeral humanistic knowledge.


Xinyi Li is a multifaceted designer working within the realm of visual communication and interactive experience for both informative and speculative projects. She currently designs user experience and visuals for the sponsored projects of the Center for Digital Humanities. She obtained Master of Fine Arts degree in Communications Design from Pratt Institute, where she engaged in design projects, research, and teaching activities. She regards design as a method of inquiry to intellectual challenges and complex problems, and enjoys working across disciplines. She is into the precision of systematic models and embraces ambiguities of subjective experiences. She has lectured about her work at Pratt Institute, AIGA/NY’s Fresh Grad 2016, and has conducted workshops at Pratt Free School and the Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton University. She updates her work at

Rebecca Sutton Koeser is the Lead Developer at the Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton University. Rebecca has degrees in both English Literature and Computer Science, and many years of experience with software development in an academic environment. Prior to working at Princeton, she was a senior software engineer with Emory University Libraries and IT Services, where she contributed to a diverse array of Digital Library and Digital Humanities projects and open source tools. Previous projects include Belfast Group Poetry|Networks, Serendip-o-matic (as a member of the 2013 One Week One Tool team), and Readux. In 2016 she published an article on software and scholarship in the Digital Humanities entitled Trusting Others to ‘Do the Math’; blog posts and updates are available at .