New Voices: The new and the young - Kuhn revisited

Claire McAndrew with the latest in our series for budding writers (see for more information)

We are on the cusp of a new era for applied psychological research. It has been claimed by Research Councils UK (RCUK) that ‘[n]ovel, multidisciplinary approaches are needed to solve many, if not all, of the big research challenges over the next 10 to 20 years’. The ‘poverty of imagination’ is an increasingly prevalent view across the arts, humanities and sciences, and it has been cast as an imminent crisis (Brown et al., 2010). This article critically reflects on the role psychology and communication design can play in assisting with these challenges and why emerging researchers are best placed to contribute.



It would be wrong to suggest psychology to be in a state of absolute crisis. However, the complex problems we find in nature and society today – e.g. global uncertainties of terrorism, environmental change and the emergence of digital economies – are increasingly calling for interdisciplinary exploration (Beers et al., 2006; Inns, 2007; Massey et al., 2006). As Kuhn noted in 1962:

Confronted with anomaly or with crisis, scientists take a different attitude toward existing paradigms, and the nature of their research changes accordingly. The proliferation of competing articulations, the willingness to try anything, the expression of explicit discontent, the recourse to philosophy and to debate over fundamentals, all these are symptoms of a transition from normal to extraordinary research. (pp.90–91)


In periods of ‘normal science’, research communities operate within a system of shared beliefs and established boundaries. When disciplines join forces, fundamental changes in thinking shift these parameters. These new paradigms change the rules of the game, expanding the boundaries of exploration to enable new ‘ways of seeing’ and novel opportunities for solutions (Crilly, 2010). This process requires continual translation and negotiation between disciplines to create a hybrid of language, knowledge and boundaries (Klein, 1996).


But what happens when seemingly disparate fields unite?


Integrating communication design

Communication design is defined as ‘the action of conceiving, programming, projecting, and realizing visual communications that are usually produced through industrial means and are aimed at broadcasting specific messages to specific sectors of the public. This is done with a view toward having an impact on the public’s knowledge, attitudes, or behavior in an intended direction’ (Frascara, 2004, p.2). Whilst connections between communication design, experimental and social psychology have been noted anecdotally (Frascara, 2004), these have not been examined in detail. Indeed, the arts and sciences were once considered ‘ostensibly distinct branches of human activity’ (Crilly, 2010, p.57).

However, the synergy between communication design and social psychology can be found in Sanderson’s (2010, p.4) definition of social psychology as ‘the scientific study of how people’s thoughts, attitudes and behaviors are influenced by factors in the social world’. Communication design might be considered the strategic act of impacting these attributes. This reciprocity is also reflected in mounting appreciation that our relationship with the designed world determines how we shape and experience life (Brown et al., 2010). Accordingly, the value of psychologists joining forces with communication designers lies not simply in novelty or informational exchange, but in the opportunity to use psychological insight to design the world differently and bring about attitudinal and behavioural change.


How might collaborative research between psychology and communication design address the most pressing issues we face in society today? The EPSRC have been instrumental in fostering collaborations of this type, recognising the value of multiple perspectives in driving lateral thinking and radical approaches in contemporary science. They have spearheaded residential events, or ‘sandpits’ as they are more commonly known, as one forum for thinking of this kind. Sandpits involve a formal application and selection process for researchers across the spectrum of academia to partner with stakeholders and develop research-led approaches to societal challenges. See Bharat Maldé’s (2011) article on sandpit psychology and Jump’s (2011) critical review of collaborative research funding for further detail.


Science Team: The Public View of Uncertainty, led by Dr Emma Soane (London School of Economics), is one example of a sandpit-inspired project drawing specialist expertise from fields as diverse as biology, oceanography, psychology, engineering, statistics, business and economics. Seeking to help people make effective decisions about complex hazards that involve risk and uncertainty (e.g. food, health and the environment), this project aimed to better understand and predict hazards, and to increase engagement between the public, scientific community and governing bodies over the science of uncertainty. This is to be achieved in part through the commissioning of a television documentary based upon research results.


So how might collaboration with communication designers both extend and further innovate this type of work? One such sandpit, Countering Terrorism in Public Places, was a £2 million initiative supported by the AHRC, ESRC, EPSRC and Centre for Protection of National Infrastructure. The sandpit aimed to unite researchers with a common interest in understanding and deterring terrorist behaviour, and designing and developing technologies and environments to combat the impact of terrorist activities in public places. Arising from this, Safer Spaces: Communication Design for Counter Terror (led by Professor Teal Triggs, University of the Arts London and Professor Mike Press, University of Dundee) was a project grounded in the psychology of risk perception that focused on the design of interactive counter terror communication to reduce fear and re-engage awareness in public spaces.

Safer Spaces innovated by combining focus groups and design-led methods of inquiry. This approach emerged from a belief in the power of the visual in creating new types of understanding. Using transport and urban spaces as a case study, this provided insight into public perceptions relating to the threat posed by terrorism and the effectiveness of existing counter-terror communications and security technologies.


Considering communication design as a vehicle for the propagation of new modes of information and engagement in public spaces opened a variety of possibilities for interaction, such as the subversion of existing messaging systems: for example, behind a digital billboard, a camera films the person facing it, turning the advertising space into a mirror. This projection is accompanied by mirrors of visual activity streamed from other locations, enabling peer-to-peer surveillance and the ability to anticipate activity in other seemingly ‘unconnected’ spaces. The resultant prototype invited visual engagement as a tool for re-engaging awareness and reducing anxiety in public spaces, and offered a multi-functional platform for addressing public information requirements depending on the severity of security alerts.


Fusing psychology with communication design and physical prototyping (Triggs & McAndrew, 2009a, 2009b), projects of this nature have been instrumental in highlighting the potential of hybrid approaches in tackling the research challenges of today. What is unique about this approach, and in the contribution of communication design as a set of processes, is that it creates a powerful tool to engage with members of the public and induce behaviour change through action. This work in particular, demonstrates the importance of messages in creating a dialogue and building a sense of community to alleviate fear.


Collaborations of this type have been noted to both foster creativity (Levine & Moreland, 2004) and promote innovation (Cummings & Kiesler, 2005), but actually the thread runs much deeper. If our relationship with the designed world determines how we shape and experience life, then perhaps the key to addressing challenges facing society today lies in the use of psychological insight to design the world differently.


The new and the young

New voices have much to contribute in the generation of alternative perspectives to societal challenges:

‘Almost always the men who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change. And perhaps that point need not have been made explicit, for obviously these are the men who, being little committed by prior practice to the traditional rules of normal science, are particularly likely to see that those rules no longer define a playable game and to conceive another set and replace them.’ (Kuhn, 1962, p.90)


What frameworks might be put in place to better nurture thinking of this kind? EPSRC’s sandpits are almost exclusively aimed at ‘established’ academics that bring to the table a wealth of expertise. This choice loses the insights of the new and the young who are free to think and experiment outside the boundaries of normal science. Now is the time to think about how we can harness collectives of emerging researchers across disciplinary divides for enhanced scientific discourse. Now is the time to revisit Kuhn.


Of course, there is concern that a pure hybrid approach might ‘weaken the psychology field’, producing postdoctoral researchers with broad backgrounds, that ultimately run the risk of ‘shortchanging future innovation’ (Novotney, 2010). Perhaps the crucial debate for the future is not absolute integration, but one of timing. When is it appropriate to interject another discipline into the discourse? What mechanisms might support this? The time is now to begin this dialogue.


Claire McAndrew is with Information Environments, London College of Communication, University of the Arts London



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