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Communications PhD scholar chosen as finalist in SSHRC Storytellers Contest

AnneMarie Dorland to share how social science research is guiding practical solutions outside of academia


PhD candidate AnneMarie Dorland tells her research story at the SSHRC Storytellers in Showcase Toronto May 29. Photo by Adrian Shellard

By Heath McCoy
April 7, 2017

A PhD candidate in the Department of Communication, Media and Film has turned her doctoral thesis on how designers work creatively to solve problems into a compelling narrative, which she’s been invited to present at the prestigious SSHRC Storytellers Contest during the 2017 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences at Toronto’s Ryerson University (May 27-June 2). 

As her submission to the SSHRC Storytellers Contest, AnneMarie Dorland put forward the idea that better understanding the creative process of graphic and digital designers could be revolutionary for generating innovation in other sectors, from health care to manufacturing.

Dorland’s submission — among nearly 200 SSHRC-funded applicants — won her a spot as a top 25 finalist in the storytelling showcase event, to be held May 29 at the 2017 Congress. At the showcase, judges will select the top five storytellers who will then compete for the number one spot at the 2017 SSHRC Impact Awards.

The SSHRC Storytellers Contest challenges post-secondary students to show Canadians how social sciences and humanities research is affecting our lives, our world and our future for the better. Dorland’s answer for this comes from observing the creative practices of graphic and digital designers.

“Designers are changing the world in a unique way,” says Dorland, “because they have to predict a future and design something that works for that future."

Creative practices not 'airy-fairy' or magic, but solid process instead

“Most industries solve problems by way of deductive reasoning, where you’re dealing with the facts in front of you. But designers have to solve problems using abductive reasoning, where you have to get people to associate with things that are not necessarily connected. They might say, ‘Okay, how do we do we get a certain message across? How about we use a (metaphorical) elephant?’”

Dorland laughs: “There’s a certain creative leap that’s required.”

But she stresses, this creative process for problem-solving is not as “airy-fairy” as some might believe. “People often assume that creative thinking is somehow magic, like a Mad Men scenario with sticky notes and whiteboards and suddenly a light bulb goes off over somebody’s head. But that’s not true. It’s work and there’s a process. There’s a pantry of ingredients that designers will bring to the table and they’ll often talk an idea into life — even when they’re just chatting or having a coffee, they’re molding ideas.”

Dorland has made it her mission to identify “the nitty gritty of creative problem-solving.”

“I’m trying to paint a picture of what design thinking looks like in action. What does it mean when you render it down to the actual doing of it?” she says.

Field research, interviews inform Dorland's view of designer approach to problem-solving

To this end, Dorland has been doing field research in a Calgary-based design studio (which has asked to remain anonymous), observing the working process of a team of about 75 designers from around the world. She’s also been conducting interviews with designers abroad, from as far away as Finland, France, Germany, India and Cambodia.

“I want to know: ‘What is your workday like? How do you solve problems? Where do you get your ideas from? How do you work as a team? How do you turn nothing into something? How do you forecast the future?’ They all love to talk about this, because no one’s ever asked them.”

Dorland adds, “If we can understand what design thinking looks like in an action, maybe we can apply these factors in other worlds. I think if we applied a designers’ approach to problem solving in the world of health care, for example, we might have an entirely different patient-centric model of how you move through the health-care system. If you applied it to manufacturing or at a senior policy level I think you could transform those sectors.”

Learn more about Dorland’s research.