Prototyping the Exhibition
: a practice-led investigation into the framing and communication of design as a process of innovation

  • Joanna Bletcher

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    A challenge ignited the research outlined in this thesis. Design is increasingly being framed (across academia and industry) as an integral method and strategy for social, cultural and economic innovation. How is this value to be communicated within the museum context, which is more commonly rooted in an object-centric tradition? Temporary exhibitions are a primary means of communication and engagement for museums. The presentation of contemporary design has followed traditions of display stemming from fine art practices, as well being influenced by those in commercial environments. Consequently the thesis argues that there is a prevailing tendency to display the outcomes of design activity, to celebrate aesthetics and functionality, and to concentrate on the personality and talent of the designer. A key concern underpinning this research is that many museum design exhibitions arguably struggle to reveal the complexity of design activity: the intellectual and material processes driving innovation. This arguably risks limiting broader interpretation, and stifles the opportunity to extend audience understanding of design. The aim of this thesis is to question and explore key concepts that constitute the communication and exhibition of design in the museum. Design, innovation, curating, exhibition, audience: in the dynamic, transitioning contexts of design and the museum, all concepts must be scrutinized. In order to navigate this territory, a core method of design inquiry is adopted: prototyping. In this research, prototyping actively puts concepts to work through a dialectical investigation. This involves actively engaging in design to examine the concepts of curatorial practice, the exhibition, and innovation, whilst concurrently exploring concepts of design and innovation through the process of curating exhibitions. This dual-focussed research approach that has been developed, can be described as a hermeneutic, practice-led methodology. Hermeneutics supports a belief in contextually situated, practical action as a basis for developing understanding and knowledge (Bolt, 2011; Heidegger, 1962). The method of exhibition-making is framed and employed as a practical prototyping process: curating exhibitions in order to reflect on the construction of design narratives from within. Prototyping becomes a way to reflexively explore, analyse and question the practice of framing, mediating and communicating design as innovation. Three iterative practical projects act as case studies for the thesis, situated in three concrete contexts: the industry sponsor – V&A Museum of Design Dundee; design in Higher Education; and a national innovation festival. Each can be seen as the exploration and delineation of a design space (Heape, 2007), with all three forming part of the wider design space that is the thesis as a whole. Through reflecting on the acts of evaluating, selecting, editing, juxtaposing, connecting, framing and presenting design practice through exhibition, the research has formulated a curatorial strategy that aims at attending to the complex nature, changing priorities and values of particular design contexts. The thesis names this approach ‘the constellation’: adapting this term from the work of critical theorist Theodor Adorno (1973). The constellation takes the form of a series of visualisations that draw on, combine and develop research on design theory, design processes, and prototyping, by a number of key design researchers (e.g. Buchanan, 1998, 1995a; Dorst, 2015a, 2008; Heape, 2007; Lim et al., 2008; Sanders and Stappers, 2014, 2008). Operating at two levels, the constellation is the manifestation of the reflexive research process, illuminating both design and curatorial practice. It makes an original contribution to knowledge in two ways: firstly as the visual delineation of a prototype curatorial strategy for researching, framing and communicating narratives of design; secondly it offers a conceptualisation of concept development in design practice, shown as the continuous exploration of a design space. This articulates how prototyping, as a key design method, can encourage innovation through the exploration and analysis of concepts at varying levels of detail, with the aim of developing new perspectives. This thesis also makes an original contribution on a methodological level by extending the practice and discourse of prototyping to the method of exhibition, framing it as a strategy for innovation in design research. This adds to current discourse surrounding practice-led research within art and design. It also contributes to nascent discourse in relation to curatorial practice for design, and the growing interest in the specificities of design curation, in the context of the museum.
    Date of Award2016
    Original languageEnglish
    SponsorsEconomic and Social Research Council, UK & V&A Museum of Design Dundee
    SupervisorLouise Valentine (Supervisor) & Sandra Wilson (Supervisor)


    • Design
    • Prototyping
    • Exhibition
    • Curating
    • Innovation
    • Practice-led research

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