Visual thinking and non-linear writing Annotated portfolios as means to log, reflect and write about studio-based design experiments

Author: Maria Høgh-Mikkelsen, Design School Kolding; Aarhus School of Architecture


The visual board or mood board is a traditional and widespread method in design industry and represents a form of visual thinking. It consists of images and words and in some cases also materials or artefacts displayed on a board in order to communicate a certain mood or direction in a design project. The creation of visual boards is conducted as a dynamic dialogue between designer and material when images and words are joined in different combinations generating small changes in the overall expression. The method can serve as a qualitative research tool (Cassidy 2011) and as a navigation tool for the design process (Munk 2010). The ‘annotated portfolio’ has similar qualities; it is a collection of images of designed artefacts and annotations linked to the images and their interrelation. By organising the complexity of visual and verbal data, the annotated portfolio can be used to expose implicit knowledge about the artefacts and thereby create new insights. The annotated portfolio is acknowledged as a research method within design research (Gaver 2012, Hall 2020).

With this contribution to ‘CA2RE Glasgow: Framing and Reframing’, I share how I have applied annotated portfolios as a method in my PhD project to support an artistic research approach. I have made three variations of the annotated portfolio with three different purposes. The volumes of images and text differs depending on the purpose. The portfolios are conducted in both analogue and digital modes and with different working processes. I show examples from design experiments to explain the three types of annotated portfolios with the following purposes:

1- To log studio-based design experiments: a chronological timeline directed by images.
2- To guide reflection-on-action: dynamic combinations of images to unmute tacit knowledge as well as disclose biases.
3- To write from a visual starting point in a non-linear process: from annotations to paragraphs.

Coming from a background in design with no extended training in academic work, it has been a key theme in my PhD project to explore how I can attune a familiar process of designing products and solutions to a process of developing knowledge and in particular how traditional design methods can be adapted to research methods. I apply a constructive design research methodology in the ‘experiential tradition’ which is described as an epistemic practice where knowledge is generated from “experiential insights and objects resulting from design processes” (Gall Krogh & Koskinen 2020 p. 27). The methodology allows the design researcher to deviate from objective scientific measurements and instead apply a first-person perspective and keep an openness in the process in order to capture situated and embodied experiences. This corresponds to the development within artistic research and autoethnography which also acknowledge insights coming from the researcher’s own subjectivity, voice, and experiences (Bartleet 2021). The annotated portfolios presented here serve as means to log, reflect and write about studio-based design experiments and as such they become an auto-ethnographic method.

With this contribution I wish to discuss how we can use design methods and auto-ethnographic methods to bridge the gap between design practice and academic research.

Keywords: annotated portfolio, constructive design research, autoethnography, non-linear writing, visual thinking