Brad Tober, Boston University

While design researchers continue working to carve out their individual roles within the larger university context, institutions increasingly demand the forging of productive, cross-disciplinary collaborations of all sorts. To those academics unfamiliar with the work of their design researcher colleagues, a joint endeavor might present itself as an appealing opportunity to obtain professional / commercial design work in service of an otherwise design-irrelevant project. There are also instances of large science / engineering grant solicitations (such as the National Science Foundation’s 2013 Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation program investigating engineering applications of origami folding techniques) requiring a creative researcher to participate as part of the investigative team behind a given proposal—although, with little to no direction as to the specific role that individual should assume.

Of course, there are bound to be anecdotal accounts of designers’ successful cross-disciplinary collaborations, and while there are various models of collaborative design, there does not appear to be a generally accepted model of design-inclusive cross-disciplinary collaboration in academia. In response, this paper discusses the foundation leading toward such a model for a particular definition of the design researcher—one which reflects the shifting role of professional practitioners from that of merely executing processes in which the objective is producing finalized creative output to engaging directly with the development of tools and frameworks facilitating the creative processes of others. This concept of meta-design is itself a response to the increasing democratization of design, but it very much relies on designers’ communicative aptitude and diverse skill sets to, in the context of academic collaborations, effectively coordinate the members of a team. Indeed, while meta-designers can still bring design-specific knowledge to such a cross-disciplinary collaboration, the added value they bring in this model is the ability to fully leverage the unique contributions that each team member can provide as part of the collective effort. This recognizes that a cross-disciplinary academic collaboration is actually a designed system (with its individual components unable to function alone) and, in fact, very closely reflects the way specialized designers approach professional practice.

This paper will, in particular, discuss a case study of a cross-disciplinary academic collaboration that occurred over approximately four years, culminating in late 2015, at a major American research university. Assembling librarians, curators, computer scientists, publishers, designers, and others, the team engaged in this digital humanities-focused effort could not have been more diverse. As a design researcher, the author was initially tasked with the design of a publishing platform highlighting a series of rare book facsimiles and other associated media, but later transitioned out of that role (one that focused on “producing finalized creative output”) and consulted on larger issues related to design strategy; a design professional specifically handling visual / aesthetic concerns later joined the team. The author’s knowledge and ability to facilitate intra-team communication was critical throughout the course of the project, ultimately enabling a greater level of understanding among collaborators regarding the viability of various project directions.


Brad Tober is a designer, educator, and researcher whose work investigates the potential
 relationships of emerging code-based and interactive visual communication technologies to both design practice and pedagogy. His practice-led research is characterized by a speculative approach to design that recognizes that forms of and methodologies for contemporary practice that spans design and technology are best developed through flexible and exploratory processes. Prior to his current position as Assistant Professor of Design + Visual Analytics at Boston University, Brad spent five years as Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Brad holds an MDes from York University (Canada), a BFA in graphic design from the Savannah College of Art and Design, and a BA in mathematics from the University at Buffalo.