Jon Mills, Fall 2019 DM Faculty Grant (Photo by Austin Aubry)

Jonathan Mills is an Assistant Professor and the Social Impact Coordinator in the Multi-disciplinary Design Program at the University of Utah. With a primary focus on design research methods and projects, his studio courses focus on understanding complex ecosystems and identifying strategies for design intervention.


Briefly describe your project and the challenges, lessons learned, and obstacles overcome in the execution of it. What were the professional, academic, and personal motivations underlying your project?


The Project:

At its core, this grant-funded project was a way of exploring emerging technologies and their applications to synthesizing research on complex issues. It was a response to the limitations of existing two-dimensional visual structures and frameworks for inquiry. The contexts we research and participate in as designers are complex, and when we try to represent what we’ve found and what it all means two-dimensionally often, we must compromise on the communication of that complexity. How can we then identify real needs and opportunities for intervention if we aren’t looking at the most honest depiction of a context? Additionally, the visual language we may use to communicate is, to some degree, reliant on our disciplinary dialect — that is, different disciplines likely have different ways of visually communicating discipline-specific information. The promise of this project, then, was that by constructing system representations, in real-time, in three dimensions that are immersive at human scale, we might be able to experience these constructions in ways akin to how humans process information from our real/physical world around us. This way of experiencing — or inhabiting — information might simultaneously force and allow us to engage more deeply in the complexity of our research focus as well as overcoming disciplinary dialect differences by leveraging humans’ associations with physical space.

Photo by: Austin Aubry



A primary challenge in this project is a lack of precedent — while VR has made its way into the design industry, it is used for concept generation (once the design brief has been established) and virtual prototyping (once designs have been generated). I have yet to find an example of modeling complex systems in immersive, 3-dimensional environments. Another challenge in this project was the limited technical knowledge and skill of the instructor and students — we are not computer scientists, developers, or programmers, so we struggled with not being able to execute what would have better expressed the design intent. A persistent challenge to the project was, surprisingly, nausea — as a result of the headsets that were chosen (for their accessibility, wireless capability), slower frame rates induced nausea for many of the students and participants, which also limited working time in VR.

Lessons learned:

There were two key lessons learned throughout this project. First, there are no readily available tools in the virtual reality marketplace for this kind of immersive communication. This absence leads one to believe that to realize the premise of this project requires the development of 3-dimensional diagramming and mapping tools that could be accessed and utilized in situ (in the VR working environment). On the experience side, presentation without engagement is lackluster, and engagement without depth doesn’t capture the design intent: A first exercise (asking students to construct a representation of their social system) focused on systems communication and was, to a large degree, successful. However, as humans, we expect that we can alter our environment (or, at the very least, that our environment is always changing slightly); the static nature of the constructed environments only held attention for a limited time and didn’t encourage “engagement” with the content. Students discussed this lack, with many of them trying to design more engaging experiences during our long-term project (air/water environmental quality issues in the Salt Lake Valley). While we achieved the narrative aspect of these engaging experiences, it came at the expense of depth of investigation into the original premise: complex system representation.

Professional motivations:

There were two primary motivations for this project in regards to design practice as a whole. The first was to question the limitations of existing visual research representation (in the form of frameworks used to synthesize insights from collected information, data, and observation). The second motivation was to explore emerging technology or re-appropriate technology used in the design concept generation phase for the research process.

Academic motivations:

As an educator, I hoped to encourage students to be experimental in their design process and to show the positive outcomes of that experimentation, and to leverage unique or underutilized university resources in the classroom. In some way, I was also hoping to build on conversations with Digital Matters members to stretch their definition of digital scholarship and the humanities.

Personal motivations:

Aside from the previously mentioned motivations, I wanted to avoid stagnation of my process of teaching (research methods or other topics), and to spend some time with my questions about how the future of design looks. As someone who believes that to bring a new thing into the world, we better have some damn good reasons. I often consider how we examine the compromises or trade-offs that inevitably, we must make on the way from an identified need to implementation. This project was a way to expand that act of consideration. On a separate note, and because virtual reality has a long but mostly quiet history, I wanted to know if VR will ever “make it out” of the gaming industry and simulation or training applications. Part of that is really about asking if we’re missing the point with VR: rather than make a replacement for the real world, what can a virtual environment allow us to do or say that we can’t otherwise?

Photo by: Austin Aubry

Photo by: Austin Aubry







How did the Digital Matters Faculty Grant dovetail with your academic pursuits? What interested you in applying for this grant?

I teach several courses in the Multi-Disciplinary Design program related to design research, which often focuses on the methods and frameworks that aid designers in contextualizing a design problem as well as identifying opportunities through the research synthesis process. One of the primary research mindsets that I ask students to practice is to understand a problem as residing within an ecosystem of stakeholders, resources, hierarchies, exchanges, and influences. The result of this exercise is to truly see causes, effects, and impacts of relationships within that ecosystem, which leads to a deeper understanding of the implications of design activity. After developing ways to teach this mindset over the last couple of years, I was increasingly aware of the limitations of constructing these ecosystems in two dimensions (as a drawing on paper or a digital screen) and began looking for ways in which we might break free of those limitations. The Digital Matters Faculty Grant provided equipment and technical support to explore alternative and emerging technologies that might present new modes of research, in this case, with virtual reality technology.


What insights have you gained in regard to your specific field as a result of your project and grant experience?

After running two small projects in this area (virtual reality to construct, understand, and represent complex contexts), it is clear that if we continue to compromise on our representations of information and problem ecosystems, we will continue to enact overly simplistic solutions to such problems. One critical insight in regards to how we might better synthesize our research using virtual reality is that there are no tools currently available to non-technical audiences for this kind of research practice — meaning that there is an opportunity to build such tools. Additionally, a compelling research inhabitation experience (especially when allowing others to inhabit our research) requires engagement or interactivity within the constructed virtual environment; ecosystems are dynamic and always changing, so these virtual ecosystem constructions must also be dynamic if they are to be honest and complete.

On the practical side, we learned that given a myriad of reasons, one could only spend so long in a virtual environment at a time! Interestingly, this forced students to work in different modes and various media (writing, sketching, virtual modeling, etc.), reinforcing the idea that designers can move their process forward by purposefully alternating the methods in which they work (and reduce or avoid VR-induced nausea!).


What would you tell potential faculty grant applicants to help them shape their own digital scholarship project?

First, I would tell potential applicants that the Digital Matters team is incredibly supportive and to call on that support throughout the duration of the grant; they are more than a source of funding for a project, they are an inquisitive and supportive bunch. Second, I would encourage applicants to be mindful of time management and shape a proposal that complements, rather than overwhelms, their available time.


What areas/issues could students and scholars investigate to extend the knowledge in this area?

Design encompasses a wide range of disciplines and focus areas, and generalizations about it often fall flat, so I’ll try to categorize my response. For physical product design, CAD (computer-aided design) programs are always evolving, as are mainstay visual communication tools (Adobe CC); what we don’t often see however is the adoption of digital technologies that drastically challenge the assumptions we have about the hard skills needed to be a product designer. If we want those responsible for proposing and making new objects in the world to have the best tools to understand the systems in which they are designing, we need to create and teach those tools to the next (and current) generation of designers. In design education, we have the opportunity and the space to introduce questions of values, ethics, and impacts of design practice. The tools and processes by which we examine the digital side of these questions is an area ripe for exploration and development.


Photo by: Austin Aubry

As an educator, I hoped to encourage students to be experimental in their design process and to show the positive outcomes of that experimentation, and to leverage unique or underutilized university resources in the classroom. In some way, I was also hoping to build on conversations with Digital Matters members to stretch their definition of digital scholarship and the humanities.

–Jon Mills, Fall 2019 DM Faculty Grant