Knowledge Swatches and the Difference Between Cool and Useful

Fraser and Hazel wanted us to make “Knowledge Swatches” for our Food and Sustainability project. A “Knowledge Swatch”, for the unitiated, is a… oh, hell if I know. According to the excerpt from an abstract that Hazel White wrote on the subject, “a hybrid of the textile designers’ ‘swatch’ and the paper prototype (Snyder)–a flexible, visual system where a ‘card’ system of visuals, synopses, and artefacts can be created and reordered dynamically to create new insights and relationships between text, image, and artefact and communicate to different audiences. Knowledge Swatches are a visual means of making sense of and communicating knowledge. Knowledge Swatches are an analogue sketchbook, report, technical notebook, journal and framework for digital presentations, which can be reordered and re-arrayed to create new relationships or connect to new audiences.”

Don’t know what that means? Neither did we. And that was the most informative section of the “brief”. We were told to produce four knowledge swatches: key texts, methods, idea, and reflection. I took that as input, and produced these as output:

Key Text




As much as I chafed at making these, I’m more or less pleased with the result. They’re reasonably slick–I felt that I stood up well to the design competition.

However, I don’t feel they’re particularly useful to the design process. I will certainly agree that they’re useful for communicating information in an interesting way, especially if you’re communicating information to someone who only needs the broad strokes, only the most important information, etc. However, I do not buy that they are useful as part of the design process. I do not believe that they are useful for “[reordering] dynamically to create new insights and relationships between text, image, and artefact”. Maybe some people need that, but thank you very much, I can pull insights and relationships from things without having a sheet of A4 with pretty pictures.

I feel that a lot of the things we have done lately in my design classes are that way. After the really brilliant techniques from earlier in the semester, it’s hard to adjust to something so seemingly lackluster. The various exercises from Strategic Design Thinking in the last couple of weeks have been so tedious and frustrating. Worse than that is that they haven’t produced better design–just headaches. I am beginning to feel that some of our tutors are so in love with their ideas that they mistake what is cool (like the knowledge swatches) with what is useful.

Knowledge Swatches and the Difference Between Cool and Useful

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