Putting the humanities into human centred design

When it came time for social research designer and Raydon Scholar Kate McEntee to bring together her dream PhD panel at Monash University, she knew that she needed experts from a broad range of fields to help her challenge the meaning of ‘human’ in human centred design.

Beginning her career as a storytelling and presentation consultant for trial attorneys in the United States, Kate completed a Master of Fine Arts at Parsons School of Design before moving to Melbourne to pursue a PhD at WonderLab at Monash Art, Design and Architecture (MADA) where -  with the help of an Alex Raydon and Nina Narodowski PhD Scholarship - she has committed to examining how human centred design can be challenged to hold equity at its core.

In addition to securing Professor Lisa Grocott (Director of WonderLab) and Dr Jess Berry (MADA’s Senior Lecturer in Design History Theory) for her PhD panel, Kate decided to take a fascinating sidestep out of the design space by reaching out to Professor Stacy Holman Jones from Monash Arts’ Centre for Theatre and Performance.

For Kate, Stacy represented the perfect voice to help her understand the human identities informing her project – after all, over the course of a 20-year career, this internationally renowned academic has explored the ways in which performance practitioners can integrate theory and creative practice to critique and transform lives, relationships, ways of living and communities.

We caught up with Kate and Stacy to talk about the ways in which design and the humanities intersect, and how securing a PhD supervisor from a different faculty can add volumes to a research project.

Kate, can you tell me about your particular project? Why is human centred design so important?

Kate: Human centred design is something that we can find in a lot of fields, and it’s proliferating at a really fast rate. Ironically, it can often be adopted without a lot of critical thought on what it means to put people at the centre of the process.

For example, government and hospitals love human-centred design, but understanding humans at the centre of a process is actually quite complex. Designers must be equipped with critical capacities and work with stakeholders to be aware and responsible for this complexity.

It’s important to understand who has the power in different situations, and who has been given the authority and the agency to make decisions. Are the systems set up to allow for agency and choice? Are the people using them able and empowered to communicate their own stories?

A lot of my work involves conducting workshops to understand who we’re designing for and how we can learn about them and ourselves in the process. Ultimately, I want to create stronger supports for people who are using human centred design in complex and socially sensitive spaces.

And Stacy, how does your expertise contribute to this kind of design project?

Stacy: My work is storytelling focused, but always with the power dynamics in mind.

One of the things about just articulating in language, is that you miss huge parts of the puzzle. I really love Kate and the way that she works because she facilitates immersive experiences – in her workshops you bring your whole body, mind and heart, as well as your words and non-verbals.

There are huge benefits to working across faculties when it comes to PhD projects, especially when it comes to the humanities because the field is so broad with so many applications. I have a lot of appreciation for the embodied, practice-driven work conducted by social research designers. As a theatre maker and storyteller, it makes a whole lot of sense to me, and I can lend a different lens to a design project.

How do you work together as PhD candidate and supervisor? What are your favourite things about working together on this particular interdisciplinary project?

Kate: I love working with Stacy. She brings a lot of expertise in writing about practice-based research, and leads with strong theoretical grounding. In her work, there are great examples of how to work with very complex issues of identity and what it means to be human. She’s the perfect person to talk to about what it means to translate things that are incredibly complex – like experiences and relationships – into something useful and meaningful for the research.

Stacy has the rare ability to create connections between my ideas. I might have multiple ideas that are all just floating around, and she helps to pull them all together and build a structure to connect them.

Stacy: A PhD is essentially a really great conversation. I work with Kate to figure out complex dynamics and how to understand, theorise and talk about them, and decide when to intervene in various contexts.

Kate’s a delight to work with, and I enjoy working in collaboration with Kate’s other supervisors as well. Because they have diverse expertise – different to mine – it makes the conversation that much more juicy and energised.

Professor Stacy Holman Jones is currently accepting PhD applications from exceptional candidates looking to start higher degree research at Monash Arts in 2020 and beyond.

Find out more

PhD (Arts)

Centre for Theatre and Performance

Scholarships and grants