After the second day of the semester at Princeton University, Sheila Pontis stays after class to speak to a student. The two spend several minutes sharing stories in the dimly lit conference room of the Keller Center, the innovation hub at Princeton.
Pontis guides the conversation easily, offering tidbits and anecdotes as the student asks for insight. The easy conversation reflects Pontis’s approach to the field of design research — an approach based on field research and people’s stories.
“I like stories,” Pontis said. “That’s why I like field research. It’s interesting how it challenges people’s assumptions and proves that the more you learn about people, the more you realize how the world works.”
The Princeton University lecturer and design thinking expert has spent the past two decades researching and teaching information design and design thinking. Collecting these experiences, Pontis wrote a book titled “Making Sense of Field Research: A Practical Guide for Information Designers” in 2018. Pontis will discuss this book with Charles Kreitzberg, senior user experience advisor at the university’s Office of Information Technology, on Wednesday, February 13, at 5 p.m. in the Friend Center at the corner of William and Olden streets. Visit www.tfaforms.com/4718512 to register. The event is part of the Keller Center’s Creative Mind & Leadership Series.
Pontis approaches information design by analyzing how people think, react, and socialize with each other. When she explored information design and design thinking in her PhD thesis nearly a decade ago, Pontis realized that her advisors didn’t have experience with her preferred research methods. Undeterred, she began reading works in anthropology and sociology to understand information design from a personal perspective.
“If your goal is to design effective solutions that actually help people in real life, information design and design thinking is very important,” Pontis said. “If you design based only on what you think you know about other people, your solution will more likely than not fail to address what you want to address.”
The design consultant’s new book grew out of her PhD work and questions from her students. Pontis said that she would often encounter questions about the value of ethnographic research, the relevance of field research to design work, and the differences between qualitative and quantitative research. Her answers to these questions found their way into “Making Sense of Field Research.”
The author also writes about the importance of questioning basic assumptions when engaging in design research and design thinking. She draws upon her experiences working with clients at Sense Information Design, a New York design consultancy firm, in describing her general approach to information design.
Pontis was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Her parents were scientists who traveled frequently, leaving Pontis by herself to explore her interests in the arts. In high school she was particularly interested in “anything related to hand work” and crafts.
Pontis studied graphic design at the University of Buenos Aires and then moved to Spain, where she received a MPhil from the University of Barcelona and worked as a design editor. After several years of freelance designing, Pontis moved to London, where she completed her PhD at the University of Arts London and ran her own design company. She moved to the United States and began teaching at Princeton University in 2015. She currently lives in Bayonne with her husband.
The information designer was drawn toward Princeton for its progressive understanding of information design and design thinking. According to Pontis, institutions in the United States tend to lag behind their European peer institutions’ design pedagogy. Not many American institutions other than Princeton were willing to embrace a “sense-maker and research expert” such as Pontis when she arrived in the United States.
The design instructor has taught at the Parsons School of Design, Rutgers University and several other institutions. At Princeton University, Pontis has taught Creativity, Innovation and Design, Advanced Design Thinking and Design for Understanding. Her most rewarding experiences involve showing students how to conduct field research. She draws inspiration from teaching and attributes much of her progress in research and design thinking to her teaching experience.
“Teaching has helped me better articulate my practice,” Pontis said. “When you teach something that’s so ingrained in you, it forces you to deeply understand your own process, and I’ve become a better designer in that sense.”
Pontis brings a global perspective to teaching and researching. Her experiences in four countries and three continents inform her emphasis on field research in design thinking. Pontis describes moving between vastly different cultures as a “mind-opening” experience and highlights these cultural transitions as a reason for listening to people and their expectations for design.
“When I was exposed to different cultures, I learned how important field research is for design,” Pontis said. “You just don’t design the same thing in Argentina that you do for people in Spain.”
Pontis also encourages aspiring designers and design enthusiasts to engage with fundamental aspects of field research before dismissing the approach.
“Try it once before you say no,” Pontis said. “So many of my students say that no one is going to answer questions about design, but I’ve always told them to go and try it once before we talk. I would tell anyone interested in design to be truly curious.”