Status of Design Research

Am heading to a Design Research Roundtable hosted by the Design Research Lab at the Berlin University of the Arts. To brief participants, the organizers sent round a useful set of questions. My responses follow.

In all of the following, I am assuming that PhD Design Research is aimed at either:
• creating new knowledge that is significant to the professional practice of design
• creating new knowledge about the human condition in relation to interactions with designs

I am assuming that academic design research is different (even if related) from the research involved in research-based professional (or speculative) design practice.

And I am assuming that practice-based design research involves not merely that:
• it is done by an experienced, studio-trained practitioner, with critical evaluation by other experienced, studio-trained practitioners (practitioner research)
• it generates findings that are relevant to, if not transform, the practice of other desigers (practice-oriented research)
but also, sine qua non,
• completing a design to some resolution is part of the researching (research by practice)


1. Between Text and Object
PhD-projects in Design Research often (if not always) move in between textual and thingly forms. What is your attitude on this hybrid identity of scholarly artifacts in design? What sorts of text-artifact relationships do you consider appropriate, possible, useful in PhD-level research? If possible, please exemplify your thoughts through a concrete example.

It is important to differentiate between

  • i) researching,
  • ii) communicating that research to (academic) peers, and
  • iii) disseminating that research (to non-academic audiences)

    re: i)
    Design is often characterized as a non-verbal activity, a kind of mute material making in the craft tradition. However, this is a caricature if not a nostalgic fantasy. Whilst there are clearly non-verbal forms of visual thinking and material thinking involved in design, Making is Connecting (the title of book by David Gauntlett, Polity, 2011 – though see instead Madeleine Akrich, Michel Callon, Bruno Latour, And Adrian Monaghan “The Key To Success In Innovation Part I: The Art Of Interessement & Part II: The Art of Choosing Good Spokespersons” International Journal of Innovation Management Vol.06 No.02, 2006). To make requires conversing with others (clients, customers, collaborators, manufacturers, accountants, lawyers, etc). But as Donald Schön identified, it also involves conversing with the materials and the design situation. This is not only metaphoric. Design is always a kind of languaging, receiving briefs that name the kind of thing to be designed, and then, hopefully, developing new kinds of things distinct enough to deserve new names.

  • An essential aspect of academic design research is causing all that tacit conversing and languaging to be articulated. So text is necessary (but not sufficient) for a design PhD.

    re: ii)
    Interacting with designed artifacts can involve experiences that might be part of new knowledge, but that, as experiences, are not well communicated verbally. However, a designed artifact does not speak for itself, despite the traditions of how designers present their work. There are two aspects of any designed artifact that demand supplements. Firstly, Good design withdraws into its use. Or as Chris Alexander characterized the situation: design is about fit, but you can only ever perceive misfit. That means that whatever is significant about the experience of designed artifact may not be apparent, precisely because the designed artifact works. Secondly, the experience of designed artifacts is by definition multi-dimensional. As only certain aspects of those experiences will be significant for what the research concerns, researchers must find ways of isolating those experiences. For both reasons then, if the experience of artifacts is a part of the research’s findings, then that experience needs to be curated (with comparative experiences) and framed (with textual instructions).

    re: iii)
    Being mostly research by and through practice, the outcomes are invariably if not necessarily relevant to practitioners. Contrary to popular caricatures, designers do read, but not normally academic dissertations. To have an impact on the profession, it is important that practice-based research be designed after evaluation into forms that make its findings more likely to inform practice. In some cases, this can and should occur for textual materials submitted for evaluation. Communications of research designed for practitioner (or related stakeholder) audiences are in these cases hybrids of text and artifact: i.e., text as artifact.


    2. Between Theory and Practice
    Practise-based Research, Artistic Research, Research-through-Design: We are happily dancing along the borderline of design and research practice. Or is there a borderline? Please share your thoughts on this discussion.

    Design is: planning the making of useful things. This is ontologically different to art, which aims to create things whose value derives from things other than use, and even from deliberate uselessness. There are clearly overlaps in the design art space, but when it comes to the epistemology of research, the practices of art and design are radically distinct.

  • There is dangerous tendency to claim that the difference between research-based designing and design-based research parallels that between applied and basic research. In other words, if the designing is speculative or critical, then, qua not being instrumental, it is considered to be research, that is, inquiry-based. This is not the case; curiosity is only ever a part of the research process, but research is more; it involves more extensively framed research questions and considered methods and pre-specified evaluation criteria.

    There is also an important difference between design-based research, research-through-design and practice-based design research.


    3. Negotiations
    Like in any other community, some things are discussed quite heavily. At the same time, design research is as much a discipline as it shares similar problems and issues with all research disciplines. What are the pain points/the most discussion-worthy points of Design Research out of your perspective that we do NOT share with other disciplines? What are the sides, and which one is yours, if any?

    Literature Review
    Design-based academic research must engage in literature reviews to identify existing knowledge and gaps in relevant fields. However, designers must also engage in precedent reviews. Bryan Lawson amongst others, especially in the area of knowledge management in design firms, has made clear the extent to which design problem-solving involves pattern matching a current situation with a precedent – though this matching can be creatively analogical. There are few models for what critical reviews of precedents should look like: how many, of what sort, conceptualized in what ways, critiqued to what extent.

    Experimentation
    There is some discussion of the relation between (social) science models of abductive hypothesis formation followed by experimental testing, and design’s experimental interventionism. The latter differs from the former by
    a) often involving experiments prior to the formulation of a hypothesis; an intervention is made to learn about the situation in the first place
    b) abduction of a design concept is a more creative process, often analogical
    c) experiments are far from variable controlled
    d) evaluation criteria for experimental success are rarely articulated and often personal (though, on science as personal knowledge, see Karl Polanyi). Donald Schön’s account of design experimentation as a type of action research cycle might be phenomenological accurate – hence its popularity – but it does not explain how a successful design experiment takes place.

    Reflexion/Reflection
    As just mentioned, much practice-based research claims Donald Schön’s theory of professional expertise as reflection-in-action as its framework. However, that ‘creative practice via micro-reflections on creative moves’ is often blurred with a more general self-reflexive perspective. Whilst design is inherently subjective, practice-based research qua new knowledge generation and dissemination, must attain intersubjectivity. There are many approaches in social research that could help design research shift from the reflexively subjective to intersubjective critical reflection: auto-enthnography, reflexive sociology, critical theory (arising from discourses of ‘the personal is political’).

    Peer Review
    Designing is a process subject to constant critical evaluation by peers in the studio. Whilst (social) science project usually occur within teams deciding collectively on the problem-statement, data analysis and even write-up, a design project usually moves beyond these types of collaborations to formal sessions of critical review, often by outsiders. Can the ‘crit’ be considered a type of process peer reviewing?

    Most design projects conclude with a presentation/exhibition of the design propositions that are then subject to feedback by a formal jury, community stakeholders or a client. If these responses are made durable, do they compare to peer review?

    What would be needed of design criticism (in terms of form and criteria) for a review of an exhibition to count as peer review?

    Materialist Disposition
    The most central aspect to design – that it creates material forms that can influence users to interact in particular ways – remains poorly understood by other disciplines. The concept of affordance remains marginal in perceptual psychology; use value is under represented in economics; the properties of designed artifacts are of interest to only few in philosophy; and until recently, products and technologies were practically absent from sociology (see Bruno Latour’s complaints).

    As a result, a discourse around what constitutes knowledge in the realm of the interface between material forms and everyday human dispositions remains inchoate.


    4. Friends and Relatives
    Design Research adapts and transforms theories and methods from other research areas. We would love to map out the most useful theoretical and conceptual influences of some of the most important influencers in the Design Research landscape. What are yours? Why are they useful, how have they been adapted?

    Grounded Theory
    The (interview and observation) content analysis process of Grounded Theory is very like the ways in which designers make sense of their social research data. Card sorting the results of a brainstorm or target group parallels iterative thematic coding in Grounded Theory.

    Ethnomethodology
    An attentiveness to the way everyday activities are done and spoken about lies at the heart of design research. Design prototypes and cultural probes are direct heirs to Garfinkel’s breaching experiments.

    Practice Theory
    The emerging practice turn in anthropology and sociology, which takes inspiration from Heidegger, Bourdieu and Giddens, adding the sociomaterial perspectives of Latour and STS, is how the social sciences seem to be finally arriving at a more comprehensive understanding of the significance of design. The descriptivism of actor network theory, and the attentiveness to sociotechnical constellations as constituting distinct timespaces (Schatzki) are all important for design research.

    Ecosystems Theory
    Understandings of the interdependencies between species, and between species and their environments, whether symbiotic, parasitic or competitive, provide rich models for understanding designed artifacts as never-isolated-entities. How design innovations happen and diffuse and can lead to radical transitions in these artificial ecosystems can all be informed by ecosystems research techniques and models.


    5. Merits and perspectives
    Design Research has achieved a lot, but can still do better. Here you have some room for strong statements. Please complete the following sentences:


    Design Research has accomplished …

    significantly increasing the quantity of publications not only on designs, but on designing, and by designers. This has given design a capacity to be recognized as a discipline distinct from its profession, even when those publications are practice-based and so connected to the profession. There seems to be an emerging feedback loop between this research and the teaching of design; though less through formal uptake of research findings and more through the fact that educators increasingly have PhDs and so have encountered the research. There is not however yet a substantial enough feedback loop developing between this research and the profession.


    Design Research completely lacks …

    a capacity to engage forcefully in debate with other disciplines. Design researchers collaborate with other disciplines, but are yet to turn their research into critiques of what other disciplines lack – materiality, making, intervention, etc. This is perhaps because design research has been to date emergent, and so centripetal in focus. It is now time that design research move beyond its emergent status and became more assertive about the knowledge it generates; it is not only valid, but invalidates approaches to similar concerns by other disciplines.


    in 10 years Design Research will be …

    a true third to the natural and social sciences. Or more ambitious, design will have displaced the calculative thinking of hegemonic STEM, with more materialistically phronesic approaches to research such as exemplified by design.


    Design Research would be better off if …

    paid more attention to the substantial body of ‘research of design(ing/ers)’ when doing research by design. The work of the Design Thinking Research Symposium over the last two decades, and the research published in Design Studies are rarely cited in more practice-based design research, especially by those undertaking more ‘creative’ research by design projects. Yet, a better account of what is distinctive about the way designers approach situations, is crucial when undertaking research by design, and even more so when trying to account for how significant new insights are generated by research by design. And of course, this body of work should be central in ‘reflective practice’ based work, though it rarely is.


    Design Research is/could/should be a role model for …

    sustainability. The incapacity of our societies, and especially our households (though less so in Germany) to undertake, by design, transformations toward more sustainable ways of living and working, seems to derive from approaches that have ignored or underplayed the role of sociotechnical systems that lie at the heart of design. Attempts to inform or persuade populations to undertake change in their habits, in the absence of technofixes, have not succeeded. Design research, with its proactive epistemology and focus on the material ecologies of our built environments are crucial if progress is to be made.


    Design Research could learn a lot from …

    distinguishing its sub-disciplines:

    > contra architecture
    the difference between the design of meso-scale artifacts and the design of building and urban environments; a key difference being the extent of interactions possible and necessary

    > contra HCI
    what has been adopted from design by digital artifact user experience design is more than has been appropriated by design thinking, but less than all that is entailed in the material practice of crafting plans for the mass production of meso-scale products; there is a literalism to HCI based interaction design that seems to occlude analogue body-thing relations

    > product vs fashion
    though fashion is considered a kind of designing, the practice of fashion design has many aspects that distinguish it from other meso-level artifact designing; different relations to end-users and manufacturers; pace; focus on outside-in meaning over inside-out use; etc

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