Can Designers be taught to research?

Hello Liz, Sue, Meg,

I am happy to introduce Mark Rogers, Senior Design Anthropologist at Kodak, to the discussion.

I still would like to encourage you all to continue the “creativity” discussion in that string even as another topic is introduced. Readers should continue to check for new postings.

As design research is a fairly new discipline, the question of how and what we teach designers is a hot topic. Some educators are content to give designers video cameras and point them toward a user or users. Is this research? If not, is this better than nothing?

Many design educators have little or no research experience yet want to incorporate research into the process. How should they proceed?

Is research better left to the PhD ‘experts’? Does post-graduate (or even graduate) (or even undergraduate) education really matter that much?

What do you think?


OK, since I’m in now, I’d better post, right? First off, I’d say that anybody, even designers :wink: , can do research. The issue is more to do with what kind of research you do. Research is a process of gathering and processing information. What information you gather and how you process it is a product of the conceptual framework and the information gathering methods you employ. If you go out with a camera and a note pad and no other preparation, you’re going to view and interpret the world based on your own previous experiences, biases, and “common sense.” Being trained in social theory and research methods gives you other ways of gathering (what you “look at”) and interpreting (how you think about what it means) information that arguably produce more powerful (and valid) insights into the world outside your own head.

How do you get this background? Formal training helps, just as it does for other skills. For design education, I think this may be best approached at the level of the program, rather than the individual instructor. Why not have research specialists teach your students design research? Why not make it a full-blown part of the curriculum, an integrated approach rather than an add-on? It seems that the Institute of Design at IIT is doing a good job in this respect.

I’m really more of a researcher than a designer, though, so I’m interested to hear what others think.

Welcome Mark!

I would agree that all designers can and should learn to do research. I have been teaching the required Design Research courses (undergraduate and graduate) for a number of years now at The Ohio State University and have seen the following pattern. I teach the course in a hands-on, team approach.

Most designers enjoy the experience and continue to use what they have learned. They are often surprised that they enjoy the process so much. Some designers learn that they don’t enjoy it or find themselves particularly suited for doing research. But the experience can help them in their later interactions in the “real world” with researchers. A small group of designers will decide to switch fields in order to pursue a research career. My estimate is that about 10% of the designers in an undergraduate design program will later find themselves pursuing a research-related postition. Most of the people who are working and have worked at SonicRim (where I work) were originally trained in design and switched to research.

Design educators who do not have much research experience can consider inviting researchers from the local community to guest lecture and do case studies in their courses.

Mark and Liz,

I think most design educators/administrators would agree with Mark in his comments about integrating research into the courses. Many schools have few faculty and little flexibility in what they can teach. They are competing with other forces that want designers to take more/other foundation courses or more liberal arts. Working it in to an existing course may be the only option for many. Not having dedicated courses could be a bit of an impediment, at least from the perspective of class time.

While I agree that IIT is doing a good job of focusing on research, they do not offer an undergraduate program; I believe that most of their students have a design-related undergraduate degree. Do you think that students should get a grounding in either design or anthropology/social science before they cross over? Is crossing disciplines beneficial?

Mark raised the issue of a grounding in social theory before or in conjunction with learning research methods. I was wondering if Liz had the same feelings about theory and if so how she teaches theory to her designers. I know that her methods are innovative, but this is not enough (right?).

It seems like academia is ripe for not only specialized research programs but perhaps techniques for streamlining pedagogy. Is this a weak compromise? Is the designer-researcher a poor substitute for a designer AND researcher team?


I think this new topic is linked in some important ways to our discussion of creativity.

I think we agree that both researchers and designers are creative – but in different ways. Through education (sometimes years of classes) and experience these “creative” skills are refined and extended.

I believe that designers, and social scientists, should understand and, perhaps, acquire some level of skill through education and experience well enough to form reasonable expectations about what each provides in the entire creative process, and to participate in the work. But researchers and designers don’t have to master the skills and knowledge of the other. For example, as discussed earlier, designers are making efforts to become more familiar with the sociocultural concepts, research design, and methods for data collection and analysis. Similarly, social scientists must do more to train students to prepare for careers in product development.

However, I don’t believe that either can master the others skills and knowledge. Just because I read a book on design, does not make me a designer, and a class or two on research will not make anyone an experienced researcher. Not only does it take years to really develop the craft of the designer or researcher, each brings their own brand of creativity to their profession.

This is a quick note in response to Bruce’s question about teaching research to designers.

With undergraduate design students, I focus on their learning good research skills–how to document observations and data, the ethics of research, how to analyze and report research findings. There will be 9 or 10 teams of students each with a different research topic, so any discussion of theory needs to be general. I find that theories such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is useful in a very broad way.

With graduate students there is more opportunity to cover relevant theory and still provide a hands-on learning experience for them. I find it interesting that the grad student teams are increasingly interested in learning about experimental design.

I am writing in response to Bruce’s question about design education and research. At Parsons, Design Research has become a requirement for all undergraduate programs. But by that, we mean a variety of research skills including those most often used by researchers working in industry, practicing human centered or user experience centered research and design. Like all design schools, we are required to provide 42 credits of liberal arts in each of these programs. It would be ideal, in my opinion, if design schools not only focused on teaching design research but also on a wider variety of research skills and methods in the social sciences. For me, the most relevant discipline would be anthropology. If design schools could integrate courses on social theory and method, both classic texts and contemporary, I think that designers would have a greater understanding of the complexity involved in social research - and in the ‘world making’ that design involves. I also think that it would enable instructors in upper level courses to create far more complex studio projects involving more substantial upfront research and yielding more conceptually complex and socially relevant outcomes.
That said, design students will not graduate with the kind of grounding in social theory that is acquired by a graduate student in anthropology or sociology or cognitive psychology. I think that we have to continue to employ specialists in these fields - people who have a deep understanding of complex social systems and modes of human interaction, people who have developed an extremely high capacity for analytical rigor, people who can identify and solve for complex problems. Giving design students a grounding that enables them to appreciate what these specialists bring to Reciprocally, the growing attention to the anthropology of business and the work done by anthropologists in design fields, will help to educate these specialists prior to their arrival in the design studio. I am thinking here of the excellent work done by William Mazzarella on advertising in his work Shovelling Smoke: Advertising adn Globalization in Contemporary India or Moeran’s work on the Japanese Advertising Agency. These sorts of texts really help to raise the level of discussion in classes addressing advertising and graphic design because they connect this work to social processes in local and global contexts.

Anybody can do research, just like anybody can, under the right conditions, come up with an invention.

Its just that formally trained Academics will be better at documenting the research in written form with the correct terminology and referencing.

3D artists, for example, often do “research”.

Quite often the 3D DCC software doesn’t have the right functionality, so the 3D artist will mix and combine tools in various waya to achieve a new effect.

Some 3D artists who can code actually build their own tools and plugins.

Has it really been more than twenty years since I started work for the Institute of Design in chicago?

I have some opinions on this - now, with the added value of unexpected legacy of time passing amply

Not every designer is a researcher and vice versa. However, from my experience of three years of admissions at the director and head of department level, I would say that those who are good in research or enjoy the insights and strategy work upfront a la doblin et al., should still complete as many product development and design languages courses they can - building visual acuity is a super skill that creative practitioners should never forego. And, the best design researchers - here is an example of what a meta researcher industrial designer degree from Delft can do, given skills development workshops. They taught me how. Diagram of segmentation by innovation diffusion patterns among subsistence farmers in Kenya & India by Jeroen Meijer, formerly with JAM visueldenken

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