With Evert Ypma

Research between practice and theory

Catalog Graphic Design Festival Breda,
September 2012


Designers are practitioners, not scientists or theoreticians. Thus, when designers speak of 'research,' it usually indicates the gathering of (background) information needed to ground a design in its proper social, cultural and economic contexts. But can design be a tool, or even a method to rigorously investigate these contexts themselves? 

Over the course of about seventy years, the technological functionalist that the designer once was has acquired methodologies of inquiry and concept production that derive from an ever expanding amalgam of knowledge domains. The investigative designer today needs to be a critical agent, a creator, a catalyst, a sociologist, an economist as well as a flexible entrepreneur operating in permanently changing contexts. But can he be a researcher?

Design research, according to Bruce Archer, is the systematic "enquiry whose goal is knowledge of, or in, the embodiment of configuration, composition, structure, purpose, value and meaning in manmade things and systems," applying verified methodologies of investigation. This somewhat contorted definition would rule out most of what is presented today as 'design research.' As systematically as many designers may work, their methodologies hardly ever produce 'falsifiable' results in the scientific sense of independent verification. Such scrutiny needs robust theories and reasoned inquiry into the means and methods of design – and research. First steps towards developing such theories have been set from the 1960s onward, notably at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm, which invited established scientific disciplines, such as sociology, psychology and cultural and art historical sciences into the design process.

Meanwhile, 'design research' is becoming a discipline in its own right, although it is all but settled. Herbert Simon, author of ‘The Sciences of the Artificial,’ defines the act of designing as a process in which humans "devise courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones." This is where design research sets off. What criteria govern this 'course of action?' Which hypotheses are directing it's development? Many ways to answer these questions have been proposed, but design researcher Nigel Cross offers overview: he distinguishes three main categories of design research, based on people, process and products: design epistemology (the study of designerly ways of knowing); design praxeology (the study of the practices and processes of design); and design phenomenology (the study of the form and configuration of artifacts). In the more accessible terms proposed by Alain Findeli, one might say that Cross' categories boil down to three types of design research: research about design, research for design, and research through design. The latter is a very promising field of practical and theoretical research today, because it actively connects two worlds that in scientific research often remain separated, that of the systemic object of research and the speculative project of design – that of general knowledge production and specific solution finding.

This associative and connective approach can break open traditional research methods and disciplines, and explore different research formats. Currently this understanding of 'design research as design project' is taking a great leap in the merging of academic and professional traditions in practice-based design-PhD programs at design schools and universities. Language and verbalizing are still central to any research: the systemic communication and interpretation of field-specific knowledge. Apart of many unanswered methodological questions, also the type of outcomes from design research is under debate: can a design proposal or an image perform as medium of discovery and can it function as (additional) ‘scientific’ proof or even as substitute for the scientific text in the representation of research outcomes?

Although research through design, practice-based research or project-grounded research still struggle for methodological soundness and scientific recognition, it is interesting and potentially valuable to discover the specific qualities of design research as a strategy and the researcher-designer as personification of a new way of dissecting and re-composing the complex systems of our artificial world.




Archer, Bruce (1981) "A View of the Nature of Design Research", in: R. Jacques and J. Powell (eds.) Design: Science: Method, Guildford, UK, Westbury House

Simon, Herbert (1981) The Sciences of the Artificial, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press

Cross, Nigel (1999) "Design research: A Disciplined Conversation", in: Design Issues Volume 15, Number 2, Summer 1999, 5-10

Findeli, Alain (1999) "Introduction", in: Design Issues Volume 15, Number 2, Summer 1999, 2

max bruinsma & evert ypma