New dissertation from HDK explores the role of ethics in design collaborations

Despite a growing recognition of designing as a social practice, the ethics of engagement often only appear ‘between the lines’ of the accounts design researchers provide about their experiences designing together. In his research, Andrew Whitcomb, doctoral student in design at Academy of Design and Crafts (HDK) at University of Gothenburg, focuses on how expressive forms of communication bring forward the qualitative dimension of human experience, which play a critical role in opening up new avenues for reflecting on the ethics of designing together. On October 14, Andrew Whitcomb publically defends his thesis.

Andrew Whitcomb started his journey into design at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2004. Throughout his career as a graphic designer, and now as a design researcher, he has been drawn to collaboration.

“Practices of designing together, such as collaboration, are often described as a critical part of contemporary designing. Many scholars argue that, by engaging others, design researchers can develop more human-centred, more valuable, and more ethical outcomes, but they don’t often express their experiences of engaging others, which are crucial for learning about ethics,” says Andrew Whitcomb.

In his thesis (re)Forming Accounts of Ethics in Design: Anecdote as a Way to Express the Experience of Designing Together, Andrew Whitcomb questions not only what it means to design together, but also the ways that design researchers communicate about the ethics of designing together. Based on his empirical research from three practice-based design research projects in very different settings – an online social media research campaign; a small cooperative supermarket; and a prestigious design consultancy – Andrew Whitcomb uses creative writing to develop a series of anecdotes that express the interconnections among experience, engagement, and ethics.

“A big part of my research draws on the work of pragmatist philosopher John Dewey. His writings on ethics and artistic communication help me make an argument for the importance of including subjective and qualitative aspects of experience when communicating about ethics.”

To tackle perils that often appear subtly and ambiguously in designing together, the design research community needs to enhance ethical learning, and that begins with communication.

“It is not just about design researchers taking responsibility for new ideas and innovations, but also exploring what responsibility means in each unique situation. It can be a bit problematic. It is so easy to go in with the ambition to be open and transparent in a group project, but at the same time forget that you come from a context that influence your decisions,” says Andrew Whitcomb.

He has done his thesis in part with DESMA, a trans-disciplinary network that bridges academia and practice to rethink the relationship between design and management, which is funded by the European Commission’s Marie Curie Actions (FP7).

“I relish my position between academia and professional practice. In the long-term I plan to continue blurring lines among disciplines, institutions, and environments, Andrew Whitcomb says,” and continues:

“Ultimately, my research contributes a tuning of how design researchers communicate about ethics. Rather than only describing their experiences, design researchers also need to express them – and that applies whether they practice in companies, universities, governments, or communities.”

Title of dissertation: (re)Forming Accounts of Ethics in Design: Anecdote as a Way to Express the Experience of Designing Together
Prof Clive Dilnot, the School of Art and Design History and Theory, Parsons, New York
Examining committee:
Prof Johan Redström (Umeå University), prof Mats Rosengren (Uppsala University), PhD Kristina Lindström (Malmö University).
October 14 at 13:00
 Art Library, HDK, Kristinelundsgatan 6-8, Gothenburg
Review copies:
Do you want a copy of the thesis sent to you, please contact: Carina Kauppi, 031-786 4883, 0701-463 996. The thesis can also be downloaded here.

For more information about the thesis, contact: Andrew Whitcomb, PhD,

For more information about HDK and participation in defence, contact: Helena Bäckhed, communicator,, +46 31-786 48 83, +46 766-184883

University of Gothenburg is one of the major universities in Europe, with about 37 000 students and a staff of 6 000. Its eight faculties offer training in the Creative Arts, Social Sciences, Natural Sciences, Humanities, Education, Information Technology, Business, Economics and Law, and Health Sciences. The University’s unique breadth in education and research provides an interdisciplinary environment conducive to collaboration with private enterprise and public institutions. The quality of the University has earned recognition in the form of numerous awards, including a recent Nobel Prize, and a steady stream of applicants at all levels.