Welcome // Does research kill creativity?

Welcome designers, design researchers, and the just plain curious!

Core77 has brought together a great panel of people “in the know” to discuss some seemingly big issues regarding social scientific research and its relation to design. Some of you may be new to these (troubled?) waters and some may already be immersed–either way, consider us your floaties over the next month as the conversation should have broad appeal.

There are many types of research that may be involved in the product development process. Here, anthropological research is represented well, though Dr. Sanders is additionally schooled in Psychology and Dr. Armstrong in cultural theory and Divinity. Also, despite their traditional education, Drs. Squires, Armstrong, and Sanders have all pioneered the application of their very academic knowledge to business practice. And this is the name of the game–translating information into something from which designers and ultimately “users” can benefit.

With concern for web brevity (webrevity?), I will forgo the more typical and polite individual introduction of each participant and instead defer to the brief biographies on the discussion home page. Though I welcome them and thank them for their willingness to participate.

Please note that this is a “guest roundtable” directly involving only our three guests and the moderator. If you have specific questions/comments for the panel, it is possible that they might be incorporated. Contact brutha-at- core77.com.

So, getting down to business…
In discussing research with my design friends and colleagues, inevitably the criticism arises that Research tries to tell Design what to do/make:

“Research kills creativity.”
“Why should Design take the back seat to Research’s agenda?”
“How do researchers know what products people want when those products might not exist yet?”
“Design research amounts to the same soul-sucking strictures levied by Marketing.”

How would you all respond to these types of concerns?

Hi Bruce
Welcome Susan and Meg,

I’d like to reply to two of the statements now:
" Research kills creativity"
" Why should design take a back seat to research’s agenda?

Research can kill creativity when it is conducted too late. For example, if the first time that research is introduced to the design development process is after the concept development phase, that may be too late. And creativity may be squelched.

If research is done before the design phase, it can be used to inspire creativity. We use participatory design tools and methods together with applied ethnography in the pre-design phases–what we call generative research. The participatory tools inspire the creativity of the “everyday people” who may become the end-uers. Their ideas then inspire the designers who come up with many creative and relevant concepts.

Generative research is accomplished through the tight collaboration of researchers and designers working together to come up with ways to unleash the creativity of everyday people. Helping other people to become more creative is a new role for designers and one that many of them enjoy. The “agenda” is a shared one for design and research.


I am going to take a slightly different approach to the concern that research kills creativity.

While I agree with Liz that research should enhance creativity not stiffle it, this does not always happen. It is an ideal. And it is not only because the research starts too late. To be really effective designer and researcher must make an effort to understand each other and the creative process. Each member of the team has an important part to play and each should be allowed to play it.The role of research in the creative process is to discover and draw out design implications of real cultural phenomena. To do this researchers must command a sound working knowledge of the concepts and methods that make culturally driven design possible. Since sociocultural concepts like culture, ethnography, and research design are not typically well understood, researchers should take responsiblity for guiding their teammates through these working processes. Every project demands that the team carefully - and quickly - determine appropriate outcomes, project constraints, and research methods. The researher must demonstrate that their conclusions are logical and founded in the data created during the project itself so that the design team can create new ideas and, then, be able to explain the reasoning for the design, execution, and application.

So ideally a good researcher can and should inspire but researchers are not always willing or able to do their part. Not all researchers are equal. Researchers like any of the other members of the design team must be selected carefully.

I agree with Susan that the researcher and designer must make an effort to understand each other and the creative process. That is a good first step but that is not enough.

In practice I have seen that the researcher and designer must RESPECT each other and the expertise each of them brings to the interaction.

I would also have to say that understanding the creative process is good but not enough. Researchers in this situation need to be creative individuals themselves. There are many types and levels of creativity, however. The researcher’s creativity may manifest itself very differently than a designer’s creativity.

Good morning. I am enjoying this discussion very much and agree with much that has been said about the relationship between research and design.

I’d like to push this idea that the creativity of researchers and designers might manifest itself in different ways. Our discussion here has made me wonder more what we mean by “creativity” - is it a set of specific activities? The ability to identify a problem? The ability to come up with a range of solutions?

Is it originality? Is it innovation? A form of a social critique? The seeds of a revolution?

I ask because I think we often imagine research and design in very traditional product design contexts. Someone does some context research, we brainstorm concepts, we do some generative research (participatory design), and then we prototype. All based on the parameters that have been set by a preexisting business problem or model with its own set of assumptions.

But researchers who are trained as cultural theorists (anthropologists, for instance) may be interested in research that questions assumptions about how cultures, socieities and identities are formed. These, in turn, may lead to questions about what should be “created” and put into play in social space. All of these questions could serve as catalysts for new design - solutions that improve the quality of life, enable certain forms of interaction while disabiling others, and so on. But they do so only by changing assumptions.

So what is “creativity” and what role does research that changes assumptions or provides critique play in it?


Hi Meg,

Here is a thought (not backed up by research, but based on observations I have made in practice) about “this idea that the creativity of researchers and designers might manifest itself in different ways”. I find designers to be creative in “domains of space” while researchers who can play in the design development field need to be creative in “domains of time”.

Designers envision things. Researchers envision events and activities that they ask people to engage in. These events can be ways of learning about people and their needs and dreams for the future. Sometimes the researcher must be creative also in determining how to make sense of the data they collect. I think this might be similar to what you describe as " research that changes assumptions or provides critique". But I am not sure.

But I think we are seeing participatory design differently. You describe the process in this way—Someone does some contextual research, we brainstorm concepts, we do some generative research (participatory design), and then we prototype." We do the generative research/participatory design contextually BEFORE the conceptual design phase. Immediately after the ethnographic observations, we invite the end-users to participate in generating ideas/creating concepts with tools we have made for that purpose.


Meg, Sue, Liz,

For some of our readers it might be helpful to offer/incorporate some (more) examples.

It seems as if there is agreement on the importance of the collaboration between designer and researcher. Indeed as Sue responded, not all researchers are created equal–so too with formulas for design research, as Liz mentioned. Meg’s concern for what creativity is also looms.

What are examples from the panel’s vast and varied experiences of good collaborative situations or formulas between Research and Design? What was a ‘creative’ process or outcome–or a missed opportunity?


I am replying to Bruce’s note about “good collaborative situations”. But maybe I should refer to this as “ideal collaborative situations” since these conditions don’t always exist in the the real world.

In ideal collaborative situations:
~ researchers and designers will be involved together at every stage of the development process. Sometimes the researchers lead. Sometimes the designers lead.
~ the primary team members will be highly diverse, i.e, gender, age, nationality, personality, special talents, etc.
~ the client is invited to participate in the process.
~ the “end-users” and other important stakeholders are also included in the entire process beginning with generative research,
~ a space (e.g., physical space preferably) is devoted to the project so that all the “artifacts” of the process can be displayed for use by all, and
~ visual thinking and dreaming tools will be provided so that all the players can communicate in the same language.


Okay I am going to add my two cents to this topic. I think we are in agreement that good products are quite often the result of collaborative efforts. I am not just talking about research and design. Engineers, and product development managers are two other types of contributors what can make a difference. All have different but important “ways of knowing” and different creative abilities. Each “way” is an important ingredient but the “differences” can get in the way. The best collaborative experiences I have also had are on teams where everyone does respect the different type of creativity that a person brings to the process. But just as importantly, can talk about those differences without putting the other team member down.

Here is my example of what I mean. I was working on a team with an interaction designer, Heiko Sacher. We knew we each had a different approach to problem solving and, as a result, contributed different perspective and brought a different type of creativity to the overall project. But what exactly does that really mean??? One day Heiko came in with a diagram to try and explain how he saw the differences. His diagram is below.

Analyzers Creators
Social scientists Designers, engineers
Analyze users Build system
User studies, usability Informed by analysis
Before/after design Before/after analysis

Heiko Sacher, 2003

He explained to me that he thought there were two types of contributors. “Analyzers” are mainly psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists and human factors experts while “Creators” are typically graphic designers, industrial designers, and software developers. “Analyzers” focus on understanding how people perform in the real world. Their focus is on user needs. They make predictions about what a user might understand and might not. Creators focus on producing “stuff” — visual designs, interaction protocols, information architecture, and navigational structures. “Creators” work is based on more or less concise requirements from technology, markets or users. They create designs that address the user requirements within a given schedule and budget. The desired outcome may be a product concept, an interface design or even a functioning prototype of either of those. Of course I pushed back. I was creative too. The useful point of our discussion was to bring some of our beliefs about whom we thought we were and what we thought we contributed. Now we had a model to argue about.


I like your example but the diagram did not show up. The words seem to be there, though. Is there another way to include it? I’d like to see it and it will be nice to be able to include visual content into our discussion.

Hello Meg, Sue, Liz,

Sue invoked the terms “analyzer”(researcher) and “creator”(designer) which seems analogous to the activities of description and prescription, which may be more familiar within research circles.

Indeed many researchers (myself included) would claim to be creative, as they are involved in the process of designing a research project. (Here again might be Meg’s question as to what is creativity.) Similarly most designers I know would claim that they too analyze and are involved in some sort of research–even at the level of investigating competitive products/attributes & related technologies or observation of a less scientific nature.

While there are elements of overlap, it seems as if the roles that researchers and designers play in the product development process are distinct.

What has always intrigued me is the formula that E-Lab (now Sapient) employed in having both designer and researcher conduct research together. It seems understandable that what the designer might observe would be different that the focus of a researcher.

Perhaps Meg, (former project manager at E-Lab and research director at Sapient) could provide some insight into designer as researcher.


Meg is back - sorry for the absence from the board . . . I was travelling last week and did not have access to the internet. This will be a longer post - to make up for absences.

Responding to Liz - I was using a shorthand to describe one kind of research scenario (contextual research, brainstorming, participatory design, etc.), but as a way of asking what sorts of research and design scenarios we are imagining. As you say, there are several and the one you were describing was actually all about doing ethnographic research up front, then bringing in participants to help drive out the concepts.

My question about using the word “creative” and imagining some sort of opposition between research and creativity lies in the fact that we all (researchers and designers) work with constraints, most often driven by the business needs of our clients or the companies we work for. Those needs contain assumptions about what should be created or about the world that should be “made”. If we are engaged in “world making”, we are all creating. So creativity of some sort is always happening in these situations - with our without research.

To Bruce’s query about designers as researchers as ELab and Sapient, I am thinking about how to characterize the difference brought by designers. With caveats about essentializing “the designer” in this, I’d say that designers were generally better able to help teams visualize the research in ways that made it actionable.

An example: I was the researcher on a team with a designer, a project manager, and two client participants (designers by training but participating in research for this project). The goal was to come up with new product/service opportunities in home media for families with teens.

As a researcher, I was responsible for framing (or re-framing) the initial questions so that our clients could broaden their understanding of the contexts in which home media. I first provided a literature review on families and media, and on changes in the home related to media (e.g., the histories that discuss the replacement of the hearth as a site of storytelling and conversation with the TV as the focal point of central living spaces). This research helps us all to think about the role of home media in everyday interactions and served as the basis for thinking through the questions we’d want to ask and the activities we’d want to observe in our in-home interviews. In other words, it helps us to review our assumptions about our “object of study” (families and home media).

The research itself also raised several questions about our own involvement - or our complicity - in making products that would have very significant consequences for everyday living. For me, it raised questions about whether or not these electronic products or electronically enabled services were necessary. For the designers on the team, however, this questions of necessity was not particularly interesting - what was interesting was how to take the research (or misgivings we have about our complicity) and turn them into actionable solutions to existing problems. The designer/researchers were (and I realize I’m essentializing here) much more capable of working with data to imagine or envision new forms for interaction. But none of us were truly capable of changing the starting assumption that new products and services must be made in order to create new revenue - that came from the home office. “Creativity” was also, here, productivity.

But what is important to me here is that in a project like this, the “creativity” is seen both in the models and in the concepts developed from them. The primary creativity is defined and rewarded in relation to the production of new things which can be exchanged on the market. So - creativity seems to be constructed and defined differently in different contexts - the creativity in a design setting that is tied to company revenue is a particular kind of beast. What do you think of this? Is there profit in thinking more about what creativity is in this context? How does this context shape/change the question of how research might ‘cramp the style’ of a designer/innovator in this context.

I’m going to extend the conversation about creativity by proposing that everyone, including the people we observe or talk to in doing research, is creative. We have seen this in practice over and over again. We have identified several levels of creativity which I summarize here. (There is more in a paper that can be found at http://www.ualberta.ca/COMSPACE/coneng/html/finalpapers.html)

The most basic level of creativity is doing. The motivation behind doing is to accomplish something through productive activity. For example, people have told us that they feel creative when they are productively engaged in everyday activities such as exercising or organizing closets. Doing requires a minimal amount of interest. The skill requirements are low as well.

The next level of creativity, adapting, is more advanced. The motivation behind adapting is to make something one’s own by changing it in some way. People might do this to personalize an object so that it better fits their personality. Or they might adapt a product so that it better fits their needs. We can see adaptive creativity emerging whenever products, services, or environments don’t exactly fit people’s needs. Adapting requires more interest and a higher skill level than doing. It takes some confidence to go “outside of the box.”

The third level of creativity is making. The motivation behind making is to use one’s hands and mind to make or build something that did not exist before. There is usually some kind of guidance involved, e.g., a pattern, a recipe, or notes that describe what types of materials to use and how to put them together. Making requires a genuine interest in the domain and experience in it as well. People are likely to spend a lot of their time, energy, and money on their favorite making activities.

The most advanced level of creativity is creating. The motivation behind creating is to express oneself or to innovate. Truly creative efforts are fueled by passion and guided by a high level of experience. Creating differs from making in that creating relies on the use of raw materials and the absence of a predetermined pattern.

So everyone is creative at some level. We are probably all creative at each of these levels across the various domains in our lives.

Hi again everyone,

And yes we are all creative in our own way. The example I gave of the creator and the analyzer was really about the different ways the designer and the researcher can contribute to the creative interaction. So I focused on the knowledge that people bring to creativity. Meg talks “reframing.” Reframing is enormously creative intellectural act. Liz is looking at creativity another way. Liz is more focused on the human - thing interaction. All these creativities are valid but different. I suspect that all our views are just ways of recognizing creativity. Oh no I am going to revive the old story of the 10 blind philosophers and the elephant here. Sorry. However, I think this story is appropriate. It is hard to define creativity. It has so many aspects.

Why is a discussion of creativity important? Well creativity is an abstract ideas but a designer or a researcher is a real person. For me discussing creativity helps make explicit the roles that researcher and designer can play on a team – what they can contribute to the creative process. This circles us back to the question of how Research might kill Creativity. It is not the research or researcher killing creativity but the squabbling over intellectual territory that kills it. Well that’s my opinion

I’m going to try chiming in on this thread too, at the risk of rehashing unnecessarily. I’m seeing something of a theory of “multiple creativities” (a la multiple intelligences) emerging here. I think that both researchers and designers engage in different versions of Liz’s “highest” form of creativity.

Researchers do this by combining bits and traces of users’ everyday lives into a representation of those lives that draws out key guiding principles of those lives. This representation is ideally made in such a way that others (e.g. designers, marketers) can gain empathy, understanding, and even (dare I say it) some degree of predictive capacity for the target population. But, many researchers are primarily trained in using prose to create those representations, and they are often guided to some degree by a general interest in “what makes people tick” that doesn’t necessarily pertain to the specific pragmatic/commercial project they’re engaged in. This creates the risk of unintelligibility and/or irrelevance for their research.

Designers combine bits of shape, color, materials, etc. into objects that embody aesthetic and functional principles. Two metrics I’ve seen for this kind of creativity are whether it evokes the epithet “cool” or is seen as producing a “wow” among the designers themselves or, secondarily, their colleagues. This evaluation seems to be based on whether a design is innovative in either its visual presentation, its functional elegance (how easily and efficiently, and often in how small a package, it accomplishes what it’s supposed to do), or a combination of the two.

Researchers complain that designers don’t listen to them, and designers complain that researchers are trying to tell them what to do. In the first case, the researchers feel their creativity is not being recognized by the designers, and in the second, the designers feel that the researchers are pulling them down from “creating” to “making” by providing a recipe or set of directions. I think both of these reactions stem from different emphases for the creative process: the researcher’s emphasis is on depicting the world of the user with fidelity to the reality of that world, while the designers emphasize difference from the current world in favor of forward-looking aesthetic and technological development.

It makes sense that there should be a sweet spot between these two orientations. New, and especially innovative, products aren’t likely to come from a literal focus on the users’ status quo. Successful innovations that are actually adopted by people aren’t likely to come from a detached exercise in design creativity. Research helps designers know who they’re designing for, while design helps researchers figure out how to translate their knowledge of people into new products. Working together throughout the entire process should help each to become more attuned to the emphases, needs, and strengths, of the other.