When I arrive at the Concordia’s Grey Nuns Residence in Montréal there is a guy in jeans and slip-on vans lounging on the steps enjoying the sunshine from behind mirrored sunglasses. We look at each other and simultaneously nod and say “Design Inquiry”. This is DI Board member Ben Van Dyke. He greets me warmly and directs me to the lounge where more people are gathering.
Others are preparing dinner in a communal kitchen. There is music playing. Large sheets of paper display a proposed schedule with brief abstracts of people’s interests on the wall. This is the start of DesignInquiry a week-long research intensive exploring what makes Montreal a UNESCO City of Design.
I put my bag and cardboard tube in my room. I take few deep breaths. Outside in the hall I see more people collecting in the kitchen introducing and reuniting. When everyone has arrived we eat dinner together – purple potatoes with blue cheese, steamed artichokes, fiddleheads and sausage.
The framers for the event Emily Luce and Christopher Moore welcome us. They encourage us to “document everything”. There will be a journal to publish and an opportunity to submit work to the Portes Ouvertes a city-wide design open house and art show. They spark a round table ripple of hellos. People start to discuss their research interests amongst themselves. To my right is a professor from the UK who studied at Yale, he tells me about his inquiry into marginalization of the typographer. To my left is a neuroscientist about to take up a new post of Dean at a college in Toronto.
After dinner we gather in a common room. Co-Founder Margo Halverson gives a brief history of DesignInquiry. Her co-founder Melle Hammer sits Buddha-like nearby. She describes its evolution over the last 19 years from a formal summer institute providing workshops delivered by teachers for students to an independent organization for peers. Along the way the events became design retreats in a country farmhouse in Vinalhaven, Maine organized by Halverson with Hammer and collaborator Peter Hall.
The rural setting empowered participants to create the inquiry themselves based on the ideas people brought to the Inquiries. Halverson uses theatre terms to describe the unconventional format that allows participants to take turns being “on-stage” in “the-wings” or being part of the “audience”. It’s a method that creates a setting for people to “facilitate their own growth.”
Halverson sums up her dedication to developing DesignInquiry by saying: “We all give, we all get, rather than sitting back and be told, shown... DesignInquiry is about being a teacher and student at the same time and everyone taking turns with this.”
Later on, I ask Christopher Moore, Assistant Professor Design & Computation Arts at Concordia University, why he decided to do this project.
“You have the opportunity to build relationships over a period of time as opposed to staring up at a presentation at the end of the result of a line of inquiry. Here you present a question and work through it in front of a group of people. That's the philosophy I appreciate,” says Moore.
Bringing DesignInquiry to Montreal will test the flexibility of the structure. This is the first one in a metropolitan area and the first outside of Vinalhaven. “This is a real experiment how, and if, the collective invitation or production can translate in an urban environment and still have that sense of collaborative spirit,” explains Moore.
The collaborative spirit is evident in the series of participatory literary ‘designwrite’ workshops introduced by Gail Swanlund and Denise Gonzales Crisp. They will facilitate writing and reading exercises. As they talk I draw a tree with a floating bunny in the branches. The exercises sound loose and poetic. They explain it’s a process that leads to alternative critical design discourse.
At the end of the day I go back to my room and tentatively trace a thin outline of Montreal on two of the sheets of Stonehenge I brought from Thunder Bay. I write ‘Group Doodle’ in the corner. This is a concept inspired by Len Kendall’s Project: Doodle in Good magazine. Tomorrow I will hang it on the hallway wall across from the suggested schedule and invite collaboration. I apply one of the temporary tattoos that were made for the event along my wrist and lay down on the narrow single bed. I’m asleep before the tattoo is dry.