Designing for Interdisciplinary Communication

How to Fuel Curiosity by Encouraging Interaction

December 16, 2015

People talk a lot about being interdisciplinary, but it’s not as easy as you might think. First, you need to provide opportunities for paths to cross. Usually, groups are organized according to a single interest and emphasize an inward focus. When designing for integration, instead you’re looking for things that bring people together. For academic projects in particular, I like to encourage interaction and discovery with a variety of approaches.

People doing research often cross boundaries and find themselves connecting to some other field. How about giving them an environment that puts them near each other? Sometimes it is a matter of demonstrating through proximity what people pursuing different challenges have in common so that they can learn from each other. Daylighted corridors with white boards and seating areas easily attract a range of users. Within a shared space, research becomes the common denominator regardless of discipline, and conversations naturally evolve to explore similarities, as well as differences.

Shared technology platforms and expertise are natural attractors within a research environment. Often this equipment is capable of servicing diverse research interests. For example, advanced nanoscale imaging requires enormous capital investment and informs a wide variety of disciplines, from chemistry and biology to geology and material science. These shared resources form a magnet for interdisciplinary science.

While designing an atrium “living room” for one discipline, we also made it attractive to a broad cross section of people from across the campus to create a welcoming environment open to all. Along with seating and a cafe to draw people into the public areas, we located services and other amenities in and around the atrium to encourage a mixing of disciplines and people and ideas. Now students from different backgrounds can meet and gain exposure to opportunities they hadn’t anticipated before, and possibly choose a new major or creatively rethink their current direction.

Tradition has long established faculty offices as a collection of small, confined spaces that provide a sheltered personal workspace and inhibit interaction with colleagues. But what if two professors from different disciplines shared an office twice the size of a typical office? Each would receive a dedicated wall for personal books and files, as well as lots of daylight and views in a gracious open setting. One generous shared table would provide ample workspace and encourage interdisciplinary discussions. Because their schedules would be different sometimes each would be in the office alone, but when they did overlap their shared space could become the backdrop for spontaneous conversations. This could be especially enriching when colleagues drop by, giving them the chance to hear fresh insights into common themes. Nearby conference rooms would be available for private conversations or small meetings as required.

Whatever their interests and backgrounds, lots of people enjoy making things and being truly hands-on. Providing spaces with equipment and resources to serve a cross section of interdisciplinary needs allows them to inspire and complement each other with their diverse passions, knowledge, and techniques. Also, when specialized groups need to focus intensely on a task-such as designing a solar car or net-zero house-well-stocked collaboration spaces create the opportunity to bring in additional expertise and reach higher levels of success. Combining engineering skills with business know-how in these instances has consistently demonstrated that interdisciplinary communication really does pay off!

Food is another powerful way to bring people together. Something everyone needs and enjoys, it can directly influence patterns of movement and interaction. At the University of Puget Sound, we created a campus landmark and gathering place with the new Science Center’s courtyard, including a crystalline gazebo that offers cafe services to the campus and general public. While the Science Center represents a broad range of scientific pursuits, the students in the nearby School of Music and Library also gather there. Throughout the day, this cross section of campus life and unrelated disciplines visit the cafe, and students who would otherwise never interact have a chance to meet up.

In higher-education, where multiple perspectives are the most accessible, it’s especially important to keep reinforcing the idea that amazing things can happen when people come together. The popularity of digital communication and social media shows how much people appreciate communicating beyond their familiar circles. Shared corridors, study rooms, offices, and cafes are all physical manifestations of the same concept. The key is always to be on the lookout for ways to give people with different perceptions the chance to meet and discover unanticipated points of view, fueling curiosity and enlarging each other’s worlds.


(Kent Duffy)