Modes of Design Research

Modes of Design Research

by Sep 28, 2014
by 风景园林新青年 Sep 28, 2014

Lecture at the joint doctoral seminar at Tsinghua University Beijing, 2010
Gesche Joost

In today’s research landscape we are seeing new interdisciplinary approaches that focus on design practice as a research instrument. With these approaches the design disciplines are expanding the scope of their own self-image to include scientific and scholarly methods of inquiry and alternative methods of gaining knowledge. At the same time established definitions of valid research in other disciplines are being evaluated and revised with new perspectives. Research through design has been established as a new and prominent paradigm in the past few years, at least in design research. It is a type of research which – through the processes and methods used in design and thus also in the act of designing – exposes new findings that prove relevant for other scientific and scholarly methods of inquiry. One of the central methodological challenges is determining the relationship between design practice and research. For the design disciplines, it is necessary to work out an independent research profile that clearly specifies how a design-specific approach and process should be configured. This has an impact on both the choice of methods and specification of the type of knowledge. When Nigel Cross talks about “designerly ways of knowing,” he makes clear that approaching scientific and scholarly questions or problems through design practice leads to specific types of insights that could not be gained through other methods – whether it is collecting practical knowledge, explicating “tacit knowledge” or simply materializing knowledge into a prototype.

In recent years these research approaches have become increasingly important in the German-speaking realm, while in the Netherlands, Scandinavia and Great Britain design research has been integrated into the disciplinary canon much earlier. There is currently a virulent debate in Germany, Switzerland and Austria concerning the establishment of a separate research category with specific methods, processes and descriptive models. These questions connect a number of different design-oriented disciplines, ranging from architecture and landscape architecture to design and the fine arts, but also civil engineering; but the discussion touches on different traditions and terms in each discipline. These issues also have another frame of reference: on the one hand alternative forms of knowledge production are currently being widely discussed, ideas that extend far beyond the established terms found in the “scientific approach”. On the other hand there is the question of doctoral programs in design and other design-oriented disciplines, given that German institutions of higher education are currently in the middle of a major structural transition from the Diplom and Magister degrees to bachelor’s and master’s programs. This creates new challenges in the professionalization and specialization of the discipline far beyond merely creative competence. This links up with our Chinese colleagues, who are also dealing with the question of how a doctoral program in landscape architecture can be set up. Given the complex requirements found in professional practice, generating highly specialized knowledge in the design disciplines is of vital importance. The multifaceted problems that arise not just in landscape architecture but in all design disciplines require a solid foundation of knowledge, which can be built up through research. Nevertheless, what this actually entails in the concrete projects must be worked out step by step, in order to formulate “designerly ways of research.”

Looking back, we do find precursors to design research in the past, making this not a new phenomenon but rather a rediscovered one with an eventful, fractured history. Some of the first precursors are seen in the theoretical orientation of the Bauhaus school, which, in Germany, was further developed at the Ulm School of Design by Tomas Maldonado and Gui Bonsiepe in the 1960s. The relationship between science and design, between theory and practice was a central theme at the school and had a lasting impact on its teachings. The key approaches to visual/verbal rhetoric and to audiovisual rhetoric are prime examples of design research at that time. Almost simultaneously the Anglo-American arena saw the emergence of the “design methods” movement, headed by figures like John Chris Jones and Christopher Alexander, who advanced the project of developing a scientific methodology for design. The movement was born in 1962 with The Conference on Systematic and Intuitive Methods in Engineering, Industrial Design, Architecture and Communications, which pursued the question of whether or not a transitional, craft-oriented form of design could still fulfill the requirements of an industrialized society and its changed production conditions. It developed a vision of design work underpinned by science, a discipline that is learning to deal with the multifaceted problems of modern society through working in interdisciplinary teams. This context intensified the number of questions regarding standardization, and also provided the background for Christopher Alexander’s “Pattern Language,” a book of recurring figures in architectural design. However, the rigid concept of scientific methodology and the reduction of design work to rational, predictable processes prompted the central protagonists to distance themselves from the movement. Indeed, they considered the project a failure.

Today, design research at large is meaningful in the scrutiny of social, ecological, gender-specific and daily-life contexts to explore how we wish to live in the future. In innovation research and management practice, we also see practices like “design thinking” gaining ground, practices which ultimately are based on the methods and processes of design research – an indication of a wide scope of relevance that extends beyond the discipline. But still the current discourse doesn’t always appear to bear in mind the early precursors or draw on their learning. Fundamental questions are always asked again and again. Is design itself a component and instrument of research? Or is it the subsequent implementation of knowledge that has been gained through established research methodology? Where is the line between a design project and a design research project? How can we comprehend the relationship between design practice and research, between reflection and action? Ascertaining the significance of one’s own idea of research remains a topic of discussion. It is only in the past few years that a common understanding has emerged of how design research can be described as a separate category in terms of its processes and methods. Theoreticians such as Wolfgang Jonas and Alain Findeli have been instrumental in establishing this understanding. Describing the research competency of design does not require an understanding of design as a new and genuine science. Measuring its processes and results according to standardized quantitative methods from engineering disciplines is also not the only way to gain trust in the relevance of design research. Cross states that today’s debate is neither about a “design science,” a term coined by Buckminster Fuller, nor a “science of design” that examines the processes, methods and products of design from a superordinate position. Here the approaches of the design methods movement have clearly been overcome, so that design research in today’s understanding of the term cannot be understood as the systematization and standardization of design. Instead, there is an opportunity to formulate design as a research discipline on a continuous quest to discover information that informs the design process, and also to formulate knowledge for and about design itself. Donald Schön touched on this idea in 1983, when he formulated the concept of the “reflective practitioners,” in which he addressed the situational, fuzzy and uncertain nature of the design process. He described design as “[…] an epistemology of practice implicit in the artistic, intuitive processes which some practitioners do bring to situations of uncertainty, instability, uniqueness, and value conflict.” At the forefront is the question of the insight that lies in the act of designing. Schön does not speak of processes that can be rationalized or put into parameters, but rather of art and intuition, of the uniqueness and ambiguity of the situations in which practitioners intervene.

Here, Jonas and Findeli develop systematic descriptive models of design research that depict the relationship between theory and practice. Originally the three commonly discussed categories hark back to Christopher Frayling. They describe the relationship between design and research as “research about design,” “research for design,” and “research through design.” The first category, research about design, is comparable with what Cross describes as the “science of design,” in which – also based on the other disciplines – design as a phenomenon and field of knowledge becomes an object of investigation. A historical investigation of certain products, their development and significance, would be one example here. Research for design, as described in the second category, is on the other hand intended to inform the design process. Here, too, procedures and methods from other disciplines can be incorporated to support a design project. One example is the use of psychologists to lead surveys in focus groups researching the development of new products or systems. However, a new and central model in design research is research through design. In this context the relationship between research and design is an inherent one. What is currently being discussed and practiced is thus an alternative view of research rather than one based on the connection between the research process, with its scientific methodology, and design practice – the design. Here the scientific or scholarly aspect cannot be separated from the practical context: a type of research whose central element is a design project in which the hypothesis is tested and through which new insights are gained.

Findeli describes the design research process as follows: “Design Research is a systematic search for and acquisition of knowledge related to general human ecology, considered from a ‘designerly way of thinking.’” In other words, the knowledge is generated through the design research process. This refers to a design-specific type of knowledge acquisition and generation that emerges from the joining of research and practice, precisely what Nigel Cross calls “designerly ways of knowing.” In Findeli’s definition, the subject of study in design research is our day-to-day life, with all of the interactions that take place between individuals, groups and artifacts in different social contexts. The location in a social context and the accompanying focus on real-world problems that are context-driven and concrete has a significant influence on the underlying notion of research. Just as in the discussion on the production of knowledge in the Mode 2 concept, the idea here is clearly that research deals with complex problems and that the results should also be relevant for and stand up in society.

Furthermore Findeli defines the “relevance” that design research should have in its own discipline. The results should be evaluated according to three criteria:

  • Design knowledge: what knowledge has been gained for design practice?
  • Design practice: which insights have been gained about the target groups and contexts that inform design practice? How can this design knowledge be transferred systematically into practice so that it serves as more than merely an inspiration?
  • Design training: which insights gained through the design research process can be generalized and taught?

This gives rise to knowledge that leads beyond the practice and the discipline, resulting in knowledge, for example, that is relevant for the social sciences or opens up new, interdisciplinary fields. These areas in particular make evident the interdisciplinary positioning of design research, whose relevance extends beyond mere thematic boundaries and into the social context, complex social issues, and the exploration of how we will live in the future.

These models for design research describe processes and methods of research on the one hand, and derive criteria for relevance and evaluation on the other. A comparison of the two models reveals which gaps remain to be filled. Research practice clearly shows, for example, the central role that thinking plays in the development of prototypes, how research hypotheses can be clarified through the concreteness of the design, how visualization can be used as a method of analysis and a way to represent knowledge. Yet the question of how this interweaving of theoretical reflection and design practice can be depicted in scientific or scholarly research remains open, waiting for an answer from the many examples in design research.

There does seem to be agreement that the process of designing produces specific types of knowledge. The activity of designing, also in its more specialized form of prototyping, is a research tool that clarifies problems, illustrates hypotheses, and explores and forecasts the first approaches to solving future problems. Design-specific types of research and generating knowledge are always connected to a particular situation, they are artifact-oriented, contextualized and often interdisciplinary – the challenge thus remains to grasp this unique feature in a productive manner, to develop an independent idea of research and to try it out in research practice.

To conclude I would like to add a few practical considerations. In design research we observe, as shown, a completely different type of research methods and processes, a different theory of insight and production of knowledge. This difference also draws on alternative formats of evaluation, such as speaking with people in workshops and with experts, and employs evaluation criteria for designing that have long been established in other disciplines. An examination of these forms of evaluation and criteria can also be productive for other academically established structures, because it makes possible new formats for insight, publications and evaluation that answer questions arising in other discourses as well. We are currently seeing the rise of a new generation of design researchers who, as part of their doctoral studies are connecting design practice with substantiated theoretical reflection. This new generation is simultaneously developing job-oriented skills and the foundation for an academic career, in addition to the design competencies, methodological tools of research and empirically inspired, theory-based models used in design research projects.

In the design research community we have the task now to establish an independent idea of research. Therefore, we have to establish the necessary structures to support this at colleges and universities. The discourse within the individual disciplines is thereby just as important as the exchange and friction between neighboring disciplines – and thus with other epistemologies and concepts of science, research and the interplay between theory and practice. To my mind, the widening of the idea of research, as well as the distinctive nature of hybrid research approaches, holds a great potential to help us deal with today’s complex questions of our changing society. To do this requires openness to new things and the courage to experiment, both of which are essential components of the design disciplines.

One thing our community could do is to find and analyze practical examples from design research – do they match the theoretical model of research through design? We should explore these new kinds of research in interdisciplinary teams and combine the different methods and processes. The overall task is to create new forms of research through design! Now we need to make sure that these disciplines get involved in the debate for the long term, to help create and establish forward-looking, application-oriented and real world-applicable interpretations and formats of science and research.

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