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DesignNet: Transnational Design project work at a distance

Stephen AR Scrivener

The Design Research Centre,
University of Derby
Britannia Mill, Derby



In Design, computers are often seen as offering news forms of media, image making, and information resource, for example virtual reality, three dimensional modelling, painting systems and databases. Working with computer-based media is different to working with pen and paper, paint, models or the like, and design practice is bound to change as practitioners learn to deal with both its limitations and possibilities. This is understood to the extent that most design courses now include modules dealing with information technology, computer aided design, computer-based image making and design databases. Important as these uses of the computer are, there are equally important applications of computer-based technology that should be considered by both designers and educators.

Although design is often taught as individualistic activities, in practice it usually involves collaborative work of some kind. Computer-based technology can assist communication about work, and can be used to organise group work; in other words computers can provide an infrastructure for mediating collaborative design. When computers are used in this way the final artefacts, even their visualisation and representation during the design process, may be largely non-digital and produced using conventional media and tools.

Computer systems that support team communication and collaboration are usually called Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, CSCW, or Groupware systems (see Scrivener and Clark, 1994a, for a review of CSCW systems). This application of computer-based technology is likely to have as great an impact on design practice as digital media, modelling, and database tools and yet at present there are few instances where this technolon is used in practice or in the curriculum.

As noted above, in practice design is often a collaborative or collective activity in which individuals with different skills and expertise work towards a shared goal. Furthermore, design is increasingly an activity with a global dimension; products are being designed for international markets. A future can be envisaged in which designers work as part of international teams supported by computer- and electronically-mediated communication and CSCW tools. It will be important to prepare designers and students to work in this way. Indeed, we hope to demonstrate how this technology is not only something that students should understand and know how to use, it is also actually a way of making it possible for students to work together as part of multi-national and multi-disciplinary teams; educators can use the technology to bring such students teams together. Very importantly, the students do not have to be brought together in a given country - it is the technology that brings them together.

This case study report describes the DesignNet project where computer- and electronically-mediated communication was used to enable multi-disciplinary, transnational students groups separated by distance to work together on a shared design project in order to produce an agreed outcome.

Experiences of computer-mediated design at a distance

Does design by computer-supported dispersed teams offer any benefits? Scrivener and Clark (1994c) argue that there are at least five potential benefits (see also Scrivener et al., 1993b):

However, the geographical isolation of team members may incur problems, such as (Scrivener et al., 1993b; Scrivener & Clark, 1994b):

Before proceeding to describe the DesignNet project, we will briefly describe three earlier studies of design-at-a-distance undertaken to explore some of these issues and the primary learnings obtained (a fuller account of the collected learnings from these projects and a number of others can be found in Scrivener & Clark, 1994c)

The ROCOCO Project

The aim of the ROCOCO project was to establish the communication requirements of designers working at a distance (Scrivener et. al., 1993b). The project began by studying the communication between six design students dyads working with pen and paper on a design brief for an hour in a studio-like environment . Verbal, non-verbal and graphic communication was coded and the results were used in the design of a CSCW workstation called the ROCOCO Station. In its full, All-on, configuration this workstation allowed designers to see each other (via a video link), to talk to each other (via telephone), and to share drawings, using a synchronous (same time) shared drawing system, called the ROCOCO Sketchpad.

The pattern of communication between designers was then observed under four different ROCOCO Station configurations: All-on; Video-off, being the same as All-on but without video, hence the designers couldn't see each other; Speech-off, being the All-on condition minus the telephonic link; and finally Drawing-surface-only, where they could only cornmunicate using the ROCOCO Sketchpad.

Two ROCOCO Stations were used for the studies, each located in a separate room in the same building. The Sun-SPARCs were connected by Ethernet, and high-quality audio and video was sent over cable.

Each condition was tested using five different product design student -dyads, twenty pairs in all. Each pair completed a questionnaire designed to assess both the usability and the task-appropriateness of the configuration used (see Scrivener et. al., 1992,1993a,and b for details of the project and results).

All the ROCOCO configurations used synchronous computer- and electronically- mediated communication. No other forms of communication were used by the designers during the design sessions which, as noted above, lasted around one hour.

The Loughborough-Adelaide Link

The ROCOCO Station configuration was later exploited in a study that replicated the Video-off condition, but this time linking workstations sited in Loughborough, in the United Kingdom, and Adelaide, Australia. Each workstation was connected to a local Ethernet network, in turn connected to each other by basic-rate ISDN (i.e. two 2B+D lines - 128K bits per second). Telephone was used for the audio link, the only unusual feature being that the designers at each end were provided with head-set telephones.

Again, product design students took part: two pairs each taking part in three one-hour sessions over three days. Obviously, in this case the design students had not met each other. This study allowed us to test the ROCOCO Sketchpad using standard narrow bandwidth (compared to the ROCOCO project proper) communications (see Scrivener et. al., 1992 and 1993a,and b for further details).

The Derby-Sydney Link

The ROCOCO and Loughborough-Adelaide studies lirnited the design work to one hour. Clearly, this is not a very realistic test of this kind of working since an extended period is usually required to complete a design project. The primary aim of the Derby- Sydney study (Scrivener and Clark, 1994b) was to investigate the use of both synchronous and asynchronous computer- and electronically-mediated technology to carry out a project requiring an extended period of work.

Six fashion designers in Derby volunteered to work with six fashion designers in Sydney. The twelve students are organised into three groups of four (two Derby students plus two Sydney students). The brief was designed such that the UK students were required to design for the Australian market and vice versa for the OZ students. Synchronous-remote, or real-time communication, was mediated between the students in two ways: by a telephone connection for verbal communication and via a groupware package produced by Group Technologies Inc, called Aspects, that allows users at both ends of a link to simultaneously write and draw on a comrnon worksurface. The groupware package runs between a pair of Apple Macintosh computers - in the case of the Derby-Sydney study, between one computer located in the UK and the other in Australia. The Macintoshes were connected via a second telephone line and standard computer modems.

For asynchronous(different time) -remote communication a number of channels were exploited. In the first place overland mail was used to exchange contextual information such as degree show videos, fashion magazines, newspapers, drawings and letters. Fax machines at each site were also used for similar purposes. Images were transferred electronically using FTP and email was available for support staff. A number of single user software packages, such as Photoshop, were available at each site. There was a scanner and printer at each site for image capture and display. Unlike the ROCOCO studies, where only the ROCOCO Sketchpad was used for design work, in the Derby- Sydney link only proprietary single user and groupware applications were used; in other words the link used off-the-shelf computer, communications, and application technology.

Primary Lessons about User Behaviour

These studies - representing four years of CSCW system design, test, and evaluation experience - revealed a number of insights.

In terms of medium and method of communication, the ROCOCO project All-on condition was far richer than the Drawing-surface-only condition. Indeed, we anticipated that some users would find it impossible to complete the design task in this condition. However, somewhat to our surprise, none of the pairs using the ROCOCO Station in this configuration complained about the inadequacy of the system for the task. Indeed, no significant differences were found between these conditions (i.e. when the usability/task-appropriateness questionnaires completed for each condition were compared). This result strongly suggests that if a task can be completed with the resources at hand, then users will do their best to complete it, irrespective of the quality and diversity of the CSCW tools at their disposal. Indeed, users will radically and rapidly adapt their working methods in order to compensate for basic inadequacies in communication medium and method (as evidenced by the users' performance in the Drawing-surface-only condition).

The least favoured condition in the ROCOCO project was the Speech-off condition, the condition where users could see each other via the video-link, but couldn't talk. Non- verbal communication in collaborate work helps to accentuate and illustrate verbal communication. In this sense, non-verbal communication facilitates the verbal discourse. In the absence of a verbal channel video is largely redundant. The fact that this Speech-off condition was least preferred was perhaps due to frustration arising from an inability to coordinate non-verbal and verbal communication (Scrivener et. al., 1993c). This suggests that the complete absence of a method/medium of communication may be more satisfactory to the user than an insufficient one.

The Loughborough-Adelaide Link subjects were more positive about the system than the Video-off ROCOCO subjects. This was a surprising result given that the communication channels were of higher bandwidth in the ROCOCO project, and hence the Loughborough-Adelaide setting was more impoverished in comparison. We put this down to the greater realism of the Loughborough-Adelaide trial in that the system allowed the distance designers to work in a way that would otherwise have been impossible by virtue of the distance between them. This suggests two thing: first, that we should be cautious about the results of trials in which users carry out artificial tasks, or tasks that the users are not truly excited by or cornmitted to; second, CSCW systems should be evaluated in conditions that mimic as closely as possible the conditions under which the system will be used and the environment in which it will be used (Scrivener et al., 1992).

The ROCOCO project seemed to indicate that video was not necessary (although the All-on condition was preferred to the other computer-mediated conditions) the task- focused nature of the interaction made the shared drawing surface the main focus of attention. However, it became clear early on that the design students would have liked a video link as a means of achieving some intimacy with their distant partners. In fact we got round this problem in a number of ways. We captured video clips of the UK designers and transferred them to the OZ computer for display. The OZ designers sent photographs to their UK partners. This indicates that users will employ any methods and mediums of communication at hand in order to satisfy what is perceived as being a necessary task requirement(Scrivener and Clark, 1994c).

Although the designers had a shared drawing surface at their disposal this was hardly used. We concluded that the design brief did not require work that necessitated the use of this facility. This suggests that users of a CSCW system will only use those components of a systems necessary for a task.

Summary of User Behaviour Learnings

In summary these learnings about CSCW system usage lead us to postulate the following:


The DesignNet project was partly funded by the Commission of the European Community's, Task Force Human Resources, Education, Training and Youth, as part of the preparatory phase of the Arts Education and Training Initiative. This initiative will seek "to enhance transnational cooperation between education and training establishments in the European Union Member States in the field of the Arts, to increase mobility of students and teaching staff in this field, to promote the use of innovative techniques through measures to enhance dissemination of information and good practice, to encourage international masterclasses and the production of special modules and courses which add a European dimension to education and training in the arts, and in general to support activities which, through the medium of European cooperation, enhance the quality of education and training in the arts throughout the European Union". The Commission prepared for the initiative by commissioning a number of demonstration oroiects. DesignNet was one of these projects (No. UK/M/Des 0047/48: Interactive Design Work Using Electronically-Mediated Open- and Distance-Learning Techniques).

Primary objectives

The aims of the project, as set out in our proposal, were:

Other objectives were to test further our postulates (listed above); to develop further our ability to organise and complete this kind of project; to obtain research data; to gain additional insights into the problems, and educational/learning benefits arising from distant-design projects; to gain insights into the benefits of computer-based technology, as compared to, say, fax and phone; and to identify costs.

Much data was collected during the project and in due course this will be analysed in detail and reported. The conclusions presented in this report are based on observations during the project, and student and staff feedback at the end of the project

Project overview

The Partners and disciplines

DesignNet involved four institutions: Applied Arts, School of Art and Design, University of Derby, Derby, UK; the Ceramics Institute, Bergen College of Art, Bergen, Norway; Faculty of Industrial Design, TU Delft, Delft, The Netherlands; and The Centre of Art and Design, Escola Massana, Barcelona, Spain. Ceramics, industrial design, jewellery, and graphic design staff and students took part in the project.

The project

As noted above the aim of the project was to set up a number of links that would enable students in one country to work with students in another on a common brief using computer- and electronically-mediated communication tools. Six teams were formed linking Derby with Derby, Delft, Barcelona and Bergen, and Bergen with Barcelona. In all but one case, Derby-Derby, the links were transnational All six links are shown in Table 1, together with the number of students (S) involved at each end. Two teams were all female, the remaining four being mixed gender; seventeen female and eight male students took part in the project, making a total of twenty five.


A Derby 2 Derby 2
B Derby 2 Bergen 2
C Derby 2 Barcelona 3
D Derby 2 Barcelona 2
E Bergen 2 Barcelona 2
F Derby 2 Barcelona 2

The media and technology

The technology available to each link is shown in Table 2. The first three columns identify the kind of communication offered by each medium, where S means synchronous, SS semi-synchronous, and AS asynchronous. Some media can be used in either asynchronous or semi-synchronous mode . For example, fax is generally used asynchronously, meaning that a user can send information when they want, whether or not the intended recipient is actually there to pick the fax up or not. Alternatively, a fax machine can be used semi-synchronously if the parties on each end of a connection have agreed to be there at the same time. In this situation, a fax can be considered by the recipient while the sender waits, the recipient producing a faxed reply there and then. In this way, a kind of dialogue can take place.

The last six columns of Table 2 show the communication technology available to each link. "Talk" is a computer application that allows users present at the same time at each end of a link to "talk" by means of typed messages. Several users can simultaneously enter messages or simultaneously contribute to a single message. "Talk" can therefore either be used synchronously or semi-synchronously depending on the protocol adopted by the collaborators. As noted earlier, Aspects allows users at both ends of a link to simultaneously write and draw on a common worksurface. The video connection was achieved using CUSeeMe which allows multiple users to share video. In the Derby-Delft link, the pair in Derby were able to see on a separate monitor from that showing Aspects and "Talk" a copy of the image of themselves seen by their Delft partners and an image of the Delft partners: in other words they could see what could be seen of themselves and they could see their partners. Eudora was available for electronic mail and file transfer; and additionally files could be transferred by FTP. The other communication resources need no explanation. From Table 2 it is clear that some teams had more resources to choose from than others. Fax and telephone was the primary communication resource in four of the six links. The other two links were computer-supported: Derby-Derby and Derby-Delft. In the first case the connection made by means of a 14.5k modem link, in the latter by Internet. The Derby-Delft link was the richest in terms of communication and shared-working resources.


Fax - * * * * * * * *
Telephone * - - * * * * * *
"Talk" * - - - - - - - *
Video * - - - - - - - *
Aspects * - - * - - - - *
Email - - * - - - - - *
File Transfer - - * - - - - - *
Post - - * * * * * * *

The brief

Appendix 1 is a copy of the brief distributed to students. The brief was open-ended, identifying a set of concepts, materials, and physical properties. The students were instructed as follows:

The brief permitted two ways of working to be explored:

By chance it turned out that three groups chose to work together using method 1 and three using method 2. Three requirements of the brief are worth noting here: three- dimensional design; fabrication of objects; and installation.

The Process

In practice, the DesignNet project began on September 8th 1994 and finished on November 29th 1994. All activity between the beginning of February, when information on the Arts Education and Training Initiative demonstration pilots was first received, was directed towards gaining the funding needed to carry out the project. In this respect the Commission's support was crucial; the prospect of this funding made it possible for us to consider a scale and set of activities that would have been impossible otherwise. Project proposals had to be submitted to the Commission by 28th February 1994, the Commission anticipating final reports by the end of September 1994. However, since the University of Derby was, quite naturally, unwilling to formally commence the project before the receipt of an official announcement, which was not dispatched from the Commission until July 1st 1994, completion of the project during the 1993/94 Academic Year proved impossible. Hence, taking the vacation period into account it was not possible to start the project before September.

Overall, the project comprised three primary stages: the planning workshop; the design and fabrication process; the final exhibition and feedback workshop.

The planning workshop, Derby, 8th-lOth September 1994

The planning workshop ran over a three day period. Participants arrived in Derby on Thursday 8th of September. Friday 9th and the morning of Saturday 10th were used for the business of the meeting. The workshop provided the first opportunity for all design, research and technical staff to meet and get to know each other professionally and socially.

From experience, we knew that it would be necessary by the end of the project to agree: the brief, the number of links, the technological resources available to each link, the project task and schedule, and the final project event. We also knew that it would be important to have detailed these things to a high degree as there would be little opportunity and it would difficult to obtain details from the partners once they had returned home. This detail went to the level of determining fax and phone numbers and their accessibility to students. In this type of project it is important for collaborators to cross as many Ts and dot as many Is at the first face to face opportunity, since it is not good practice to be working out the details of the project while the students are engaged on practical work, and it takes longer to work out these details when the "stake-holders" in the decisions are separated by distance.

Following the workshop, a report was written documenting all the agreements reached and the information obtained and circulated for approval to all partners. The major noints agreed were (Scrivener, 1994):

Major considerations in decision making were: Is the proposal likely to work, do we know how to achieve it, and how much is unknown? It is worth explaining how some of these decisions were influenced by these consideration. The decision to only establish point-to-point links was partly due to lack of multi-point experience but also concern that the students would find it difficult to manage a three- or four-way link. In theory, computer-mediated links could have been established with Bergen and Barcelona. Each college had the necessary equipment and probably the expertise to configure and use it. However, given that the project planned to go "live" in early October we concluded that time did not allow us to consider computer-mediated links with Bergen and Barcelona.

Experience of previous group project work indicated that problems can arise with student groups of three or more unless the project is designed such that each group member has a clear role and contribution to make in respect of the group as a whole. This implies student selection; again given constraints of time this did not seem tractable. On the other hand, the Derby-Sydney link had involved pairs at each end of the link and we had found that a co-located pair was self-supporting when problems arose. Taken together these factors led to the decision to have student dyads at each end of a link. The decision to hold an exhibition at the end of the project was expensive but offered many positive benefits, inter alia: it would enhance the social experience for both staff and students; it would motivate the students, particularly those travelling to Derby; it would allow extra activities, i.e. the shared preparation of the installation; it would provide an opportunity to see, document and evaluate all of the work; to obtain feedback from both staff and students; and would provide a fitting conclusion to the project.

One overriding consideration was that we should not be over-ambitious. Given, the short duration of the project, Table 3, it is perhaps clear why we needed to contain ambition. The project schedule was prepared with costs and accessibility of resources in mind. Since five projects would be running from Derby using only one fax machine, we thought that it would be necessary to schedule and limit the use of this resource. Essentially we were agreeing in the plan to guarantee access during the weeks 2 and 4. During weeks 3 and 5 communication would be permitted, but not guaranteed.


0 10th October Test links
1 17th - Initiate project, preparation, student briefing
2 24th - 3 hours on-line/communication per pair
3 31st - Off-line preparation work
4 7th November 3 hours on-line/communication per pair
5 14th - Making up objects and travel preparations
6 21th November Meeting and exhibition at Derby

What happened in practice?

Broadly, the schedule was adhered to. The start date of the final workshop was shifted to 25th November for logistical and not project-slippage reasons - although obviously the extra week was beneficial. However, it did not prove necessary to rigidly prescribe the communication technology usage. As two of the Derby teams used computer- mediated communication, this meant that only three of the Derby teams made heavy use of fax and telephone. In practice, each team was able to organise resource usage as dictated by the dynamics of the project. Generally speaking, the students used the technology for both synchronous and asynchronous exchanges throughout the project. Although cost was in our minds at the outset of the project, in the event no constraints on the use of telephone and fax were imposed on the students; they used them when and as they needed to.

The Final workshop: exhibition, evaluation, and feedback, Derby 25th-29th November, 1994

Non-UK students, and most staff, arrived in Derby late Thursday 24th November. Prior to their arrival, two metre steel-frame cubes had been constructed, one for each team. On Friday 25th each team installed their exhibit in a cube. On Monday 28th each team was asked to give a presentation about the work and the experience of the project. They were briefed for the presentation as follows:

Each presentation lasted around an hour and took place in the presence of the students' work. These sessions were video recorded. In each case, following and initial report by the team, a discussion followed in which members of the audience asked questions to which the students responded.

On the morning of the 29th November the staff met to exchange their views on the project and to begin initial discussions on a future project. Two questionnaires were also produced for the students to complete on the 29th: the first dealt primarily with the technology and collaboration; the second with cultural factors. The final session was used for a collective feedback and discussion session involving all staff and students. Following this the students dismantled their exhibits and a final social gathering took slace to round off the whole event.

The Costs

At the moment of writing the full direct costs of the project are not known. Table 4 lists the primary sources of direct costs (additional to those normally incurred for a student project).


Fax calls
Telephone calls

We estimate that the project costs were in the region of 6,000. We know that travel, subsistence, and hospitality costs were in the region of 4500; the fax and telephone costs are unlikely to have exceeded a further 1500. If these predicted costs turn out to be close to actual costs, this means that the project cost around 240 per student.

The outcomes

As indicated above, the DesignNet project has generated a considerable amount of data. For each team we have the following data: all the drawings produced and faxes exchanged; a feedback/evaluation video; and questionnaire's. In addition, the exhibition was documented. Our plan is to analyse this data at a later date. The following sections are based on observations of the projects, the exhibits and the feedback sessions.

The electronically- and computer-mediated communication

All teams were satisfied with the media available to them. This evidence supports Postulate 2 above; users adapt their behaviour to accommodate for technological impoverishment in order to complete the task in hand. For example, the students who only had fax and telephone did not express more or less dissatisfaction with the technology than those who also had video and email. Some students commented that while installing the work for the final workshop they came to realise that some misunderstandings had occurred as a results of communicational impoverishments but they also agreed that they did not, at the time, associate these problems with the communication media. In other words, in all cases, the student were able to exploit the media in ways they perceived satisfactory. Put another way, users will accept communication impoverishments if they can find ways of completing a task to their satisfaction. What is remarkable is users' robustness; they seem to be able to accommodate verv severe impoverishments.

Adaptation of working method was clear: the teams developed protocols and practices geared to their conditions of working. For example, one group described how they pre- prepared for a synchronous meeting (i.e. of fax exchanges), how they made a telephone connection to agree the agenda for the meeting, and how at the end of the meeting they would summarise the agreements reached during the meeting. It appears that each group devised different strategies for coordinating their activities (closer scrutiny of the data should reveal the details of these strategies).

Given the analysis to date, it is too early to state categorically that the addition of computer-mediated communication resources led to qualitative enhancements in either process or outcome as compared to those obtained using only electronically-mediated communication. However, the Derby-Delft students displayed a strong sense of team commitment and identity. Of all the projects, this was probable the most integrated and unified. Had one not known otherwise one would have thought that the work was produced by a single hand.

Some caution needs to be exercised because there were many factors that might have influenced outcomes in the DesignNet project: communication media; language; method of working; interpretation of the brief. The Dutch designers were fluent English speakers, and this group chose the first method of working, object - space, from the brief. One other group that chose this method also made a conscious decision to emphasise cultural differences; thus although they produced a highly integrated piece it was also designed to reveal differences. Thus, we should be cautious about drawing conclusions at this stage. However, on the evidence of the exhibition and presentations, its reasonable to hypothesise that computer-mediated communication of the kind used in the DesignNet project offers positive advantages over electronically-mediated communication, such as fax and phone.

Observation would suggest that the Derby-Delft communicated more than the other groups. For them, video was very important as, although of very low bandwidth and hence poor visual quality, they were able to gauge gesture and facial expression. Interestingly, they didn't use the telephone very often, although one was available. First indications are that this reflected a strategy rather than a preference: it seems that they decided to do as much as they could using the computer. Neither did they use Aspects, but this is hardly surprising as the network latency of Internet makes drawing difficult.

To summarise so far, design at a distance mediated by electronic and computer technology is perfectly feasible. Students are able to adapt both communication and working strategies to accommodate technological impoverishments. Initial evaluation would suggest that computer-mediated resources, such as video, synchronous text exchange, email, file transfer, and shared worksurfaces offer positive benefits in comparison to fax and telephone.

The method of working

The brief permitted two ways of working. The first required a team to work together to develop what was essentially an agreed installation; the second required the designers to agree on an object to be produced by each individual. Three teams chose to work in one way and three in the other. The different methods of working were clearly represented in the outcomes: the agreed-installation method leading to single, unified pieces; the agreed-object approach to mini-exhibitions of individual pieces, the obvious connection being a common starting point. Perhaps not surprisingly, the teams (apart from one group which we will come to later) adopting the agreed-installation method appeared to have a stronger sense of team identity than those choosing the latter . When they presented their work they did so as a team, each member speaking for the team and seeking agreement from other team members about statements made on their behalf. Teams adopting the agreed-object method tended to report as two national teams. Interestingly, the agreed-installation teams appeared to be more positive about the whole experience overall.

Task meaningfulness

Perhaps, the reason for these apparent differences in the value attached to experience by different groups is related to the purposefulness of the task. If you are being asked to work as part of a team perhaps the production of an agreed-installation seems more purposeful and more valuable than being asked to work on an agreed-object. Clearly, if the intention behind the latter case was perceived by students as being to see what different individuals produced when given the same starting point, initial agreement about the starting point is not really essential - the agreed-object could just as easily have been defined in the brief. In the agreed-installation case teamwork is unavoidable.

Perceived purposefulness and value (Postulate 1 above) perhaps explains why the Derby-Derby link, an agreed-installation project, worked less successfully from the team working point of view than the other two agreed-installation projects. Obviously, things could have been arranged such that the students in Derby worked together, for all or part of the project. Both options were essentially prohibited as students were asked not to work face-to-face. Postulate 2 predicts that users will be less tolerant of communication impoverishments when they lack motivation; Postulate 1 suggesting that the perceived purposefulness and value of the task is a strong motivational factor.

Multi-disciplinary and transnational team working

Generally, students found the experience of working in multi-disciplinary and transnational teams rewarding. Where problems arose between teams this seemed to have little to do with the communication media or language. Indeed students seemed highly tolerant of problems of this kinds. Personality seemed to be an important factor in deterrnining successful group dynamics. One student found it difficult to work with other people, and this caused problems for the group as a whole. Generally, students were able to give and take, even when they wanted to retain a strong individualistic element in the work. Interestingly, when questioned about the quality of the work produced by groups with good team dynamic, the highly independent student admitted to being very impressed. One feature that did emerge in support of multi-disciplinary teams is that team members found it easy to accommodate another team members contributions when they concerned experience and skills not possessed by the others. Finally although individuals agreed that compromises had to be made they regarded this as generally enhancing rather than diminishing the outcome.


Generally speaking teams were able to overcome language problems (although in the case described above, the team did not share a common language and this may have exacerbated matters). In the Derby-Derby link English was the natural language; in the Derby-Delft link fluent English was the common language; in the Derby-Bergen and one of the Derby-Barcelona links, at least one of the non-UK members was fluent in English; in the other Derby-Barcelona link there was no common language - however, as indicated above this was probably not a cause of major problems. The Bergen- Barcelona link was interesting with respect to language. This team chose English as the common language as each member of the team had some English; in this sense they were equally disadvantaged by choosing to communicate in English.

The work

It is difficult to say whether transnational multi-disciplinary team work leads to better outcomes. What we can say with reasonable confidence is that the work produced for DesignNet contained elements that reflected both the combination of different skills and different cultural viewpoints. It is tempting to believe that these conjunctions and unifications enhanced the quality of the work; they certainly produced interesting and novel results

The final workshop

During discussion it became clear that the students placed a high value on the final workshop. Clearly, this can be partly explained by the fact that it provided an opportunity for travel (for some students) and socialising. Students also valued it as a natural conclusion to the task, i.e. the construction of the installation, and a necessary aesthetic experience. In particular, the Spanish students expressed the need to see, sense, and touch the objects produced by the team as a whole. For them, the experience would have been too cold and clinical without physical and human contact. It may be possible to design projects that don't include collective meetings of the DesignNet kind; however, a satisfactory project "closure" will remain a key element in the student experience. One other benefit of the final workshop was that it determined an immutable termination to the design and fabrication work - students in Bergen, Barcelona, and Delft had to complete these activities before they left for England. This fixed deadline focused minds and prevented drift.

Conclusions and future work

We have suggested that design at a distance involving multi-disciplinary, transnational teams is likely to be an increasingly common feature of design practice. Electronically- and computer-mediated communication and collaborative work technology may enhance design practice - this remains to be determined. However, what cannot be disputed is that this technology enables design at a distance. It has to be recognised that collaboration using this technology is impoverished in terms of media, communication, and work pattern possibilities as compared to working in the same place at the same time. On the other hand, design at a distance offers potential benefits that may counterbalance of override these impoverishments. The primary aim of our previous studies of design at a distance and the DesignNet project was to investigate the problems and potential of this way of working with a view to establishing ways of minimising the problems and maximising potential. The DesignNet project extended our earlier work in a number of ways, the most important being the differences in culture, language, and discipline of the collaborating individuals.

The overall aims of the DesignNet project were successfully realised. Both staff and students found it a purposeful, meaningful, valuable, interesting, and enjoyable work and social experience. The students gained experience of unfamiliar technology, communication and work methods; and multi-disciplinary, transnational group- working. Feedback indicates that students were able to overcome the problems of technology, language, culture, discipline and group-working, and to draw out positive learnings and insights from the experience. Indeed, many expressed the view that they would like the DesignNet project to continue - and we will be doing our best to ensure that at the very least students can maintain computer-mediated comrnunication by email. Staff also gained insights into the benefits and limitations of this kind of working.

Initial analysis of DesignNet project data supports and enhances earlier findings about the desirable features of a design-at-a-distance project, such as a purposeful, valuable, and meaningful task; valid, task-related reasons for collaboration; cooperative individuals; good group dynamics; and a shared goal.

We would like to suggest that there are additional educational benefits to be derived from an electronically- and computer-mediated design-at-a-distance project. In the first place, student resistance to new technology may be reduced since a design-at-a-distance project cannot easily be completed without it. Thus students can gain experience of new technology in a non-threatening and meaningful context. Having used new technology in this context they way be motivated to explore its potential in their day to day activities. Secondly, computer-supported communication and work may provide a means of maintaining regular interactions with linked institutions, especially if technology is available to support routine project work forming part of the curriculum.

Often, the success of institutional links depends on the enthusiasm of staff and the available of resources to enable staff and student exchanges. Staff mobility and fluctuations in resources can cause collaborative links go into abeyance. Routine design-at-a-distance projects, of the DesignNet kind, would enable an on-going and constant level of interaction to persist as the foundation of other perhaps more changeable forms of interaction. Furthermore, such projects may provide a sensible precursor to staff and student exchange as they allow staff and students in each collaborating institution to gain some prior knowledge and practical experience of the people, place, values, and working and learning methods of their partners. We might expect that this would assist the assirnilation of exchange staff and students into the host organisation. At present, transnational projects between electronically- and computer- mediated- communication may prove to be too expensive to run on a routine basis. However, the Derby-Delft project, which used Internet, demonstrates that once the equipment is in place the cost of running projects is minimal - this must be the way forward.

Concerted Europe-wide effort will be needed to run and evaluate computer-supported communication and work projects in order to establish educational and practical benefits and limitations and guidelines on good practice. However, none of this will be possible unless the technology is in place to carry out the work. As noted earlier, throughout Europe the computer-base in Art and Design schools, academies, colleges, and institutes is underdeveloped, and the art and design community has largely missed out on the national computer and computer network infrastructure available to other academic disciplines. Concerted action is needed to rectify this technology-resource imbalance so that art and design can also benefit fully from the possibilities offered.


Thanks go to all those who contributed to the success of the DesignNet project: Sue Vernon, co-grant holder, Raghu Kolli, Richard Launder, Joan Sunyol, Lindon Ball, Nigel Billson, Paula Bourges, Sean Clark, Gail Ferriman, Tim Willey, Quinten Drakes Joan Ainley, Gemma Carcaterra, Joost de Keijzer, Marjolein Rams, Irene Osborne, Amanda Simes, Elisabeth Fornas Dos-Santos, Cora Egger, Paul Rodriquez, Sarah Matthews, Nicola Williams, Anneli Belsvik, Heidi Bourgan, Carol Cooling, Roger Davies, Nacho Garcia Del Rio, Franscisco Juan Tent Petrus, Robin Reeves, Lynn Butler, Raakesh Nath, Howard Dean, Elin Andreasson, Anna Maria Jacobsdottir, Lluis Serra, Anna Aibar, Wendy Proctor; to all those who contributed behind the scenes; and to the Arts Education and Training Initiative that partly funded the project.


Scrivener, S.A.R., Clark, S.M., Smyth M., Harris,D. & Rockoff, T., "Designing at a Distance: Experiments in Remote-Synchronous Design", Proc OZCHI '92, Goldcoast, Australia, November, pp 44-53, 1992.

Scrivener, S.A.R., Clark, S.M., Clark, A., Connolly, J., Garner, S., Palmen, H., Schappo, S. & Smyth, M. (1993a) "Real-Time Communication between Dispersed Work Groups Via Speech and Drawing", Wirtschafsinformatik, 35(2), pp 149 - 156.

Scrivener, S.A.R., Harris, D., Clark, S.M., Rockoff, T. & Smyth, M.(1993b) "Designing at a Distance Via Real-Time Designer-to-Designer Interaction", Design Studies, 14(3), pp 261-282.

Scrivener, S.A.R. & Clark, S.M. (1994a) "Introducing Computer-Supported Cooperative Work", in Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, Publ: Avebury Technical, Ashgate Publishing Ltd, England, ed. S.A.R. Scrivener, pp 51-66, 1994 (Chapter 1).

Scrivener, S.A.R., & Clark, S.M.(1994b) "The Derby-Sydney Link: Utilising Design Expertise at a Distance", Cybernetics and Systems 94, Proceeding of the Twelfth European Meeting on Cybernetics and System Research, ed Robert Trappl, pp 483- 490, Vienna, April.

Scrivener, S.A.R., & Clark, S.M. (1994c), "Experiences in Computer-mediated Communication", Information Systems Architecture and Technology Workshop, Szklarska Poreba, Poland, September.

Scrivener, S.A.R. (1994d), "DesignNet: First Workshop Summary", Design Research Centre Report, October.


The Design Net project is based on interactive design work using electronically- mediated open- and distance- learning techniques.

Overview of the project

Participants: University of Derby, UK Bergen College of Art, Ceramics Institute, Norway. Delft University of Technology, Netherlands. Escola Massana. Barcelona.

1 . Links will be point-to-point.
2. Derby will have a point-to-point link with all sites, and also an internal link.
3. Bergen and Barcelona will also establish a point-to-point connection.
4. Real-time links will be phone/computer- or phonet fax-mediated depending on the resources available at each link point.
5. Four students will make up a team: two at one site and two at another.
6. The practical work will run over four weeks: in the first week students will be able to use the links for scheduled real-time communication, in the second for fax exchange and impromptu real-time communication, the third week for scheduled real-time communication and the fourth week for site-independent making-up of objects.
7. The project will result in an exhibition and meeting at Derby, attended by both staff and students .

The project Brief

The project will focus on life-style, cultural factors and the interaction of design influences and objects.

Keywords are:


As a group select 4 from the following concepts and materials list:

As a group communicate your ideas and design an obje xcV objects/ installation using these elements. Consideration should be given to colour and objects that are ready- or self-made, transportable and ready for assembly. The 'objects' will then be fabricated to be displayed within a 2m cube defined bv strina or wire. Obiects may be suspended.

Either of these methods of working may be explored:

1. OBJECT AND SPACE - where four students make four different objects which are inteqrated when they come together within the defined spatial cube.

2. OBJECT - where students make four objects from the same 2D design brought together and displayed in the defined spatial cube.

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