What is design research? That is a common question for many when they first hear the about the concept. It is difficult to offer a simple answer, as design research covers a wide range of topics and research traditions. Mind Design tries to offer an answer through interviews with three Danish design researchers who have attempted, with different approaches, to analyse and document the field and provide an overview. The three researchers also offer some advice as to how designers and companies can gain access to the knowledge generated by design research, and they explain why that is important.
By Anna Krarup Jensen
BACKGROUND Associate Professors Per Galle and Ida Engholm from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Design and Project Director Thomas Leerberg from the consultancy firm Rambøll all have several years of experience as design researchers. This has given them all a good overview of the state of design research in Denmark.
“Design research is characterised by involving multiple disciplines and taking a holistic approach. The researchers often address topics that are relevant to society, and at the same time, design researchers are not afraid of the marketplace,” is Thomas Leerberg’s general assessment.
Ida Engholm is convinced that any company could benefit from learning more about design research. She compares the development in design research with the development that the communication profession has undergone.
“In the 1980s, communication went from being a journalistic craft to also being an academic discipline. Today, most self-respecting companies have a communication department or communication workers. I think that companies would benefit if more of them also had designers on their staff, who could help make products and services more user-friendly and culturally meaningful,” she says.
Ida Engholm expands on what she thinks design research specifically has to offer companies:
“Staff with theoretical insights into design processes, design methods and design analysis can be very valuable for companies. They can take part in internal processes, such as processes aimed at developing business goals and setting goals for the companies’ products, communication and services. Design research can contribute to the company’s efforts to identify market needs and opportunities for expanding the existing product portfolio and services,” she explains.
“This makes design knowledge relevant even on the strategic corporate level.”
At the Danish Centre for Design Research, Ida Engholm developed and was in charge of the Master of Design study programme until March 2012, when she took up a position as associate professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Design. The master’s programme provides design practitioners with academic tools, and among other contributions Ida Engholm has developed a model that provides an overview of the various positions and disciplines that conduct design research.
On a general level, she divides design research into three main areas, which are conditioned by their respective research approaches:
Ida Engholm’s model also illustrates how different disciplines and professions have given rise to different directions of design research at different times, and how the different disciplines are influenced by different mindsets over time. Her model therefore also features a timeline.
“Even though the model is extensive, it still offers a very simplified view compared with the real world,” she emphasises.
“Nevertheless, this sort of overview has been useful to the master’s students. It gives them an idea about the sorts of insights they will find useful and need in their work.”
|Charting research positions. Ida Engholm’s model is an attempt at charting the different positions in design research. The timeline illustrates when the various research directions emerged and the disciplines they sprang from. Finally, the circles indicate the distribution of the different directions within the three main areas of design research: design method and process, market and distribution, and design and meaning.
Source: Engholm, I. (2011). Positions in contemporary design research. Swedish Design Research Journal, #2.11, 48-62.
Per Galle is a researcher and lecturer in the field of design philosophy, and his work involves efforts to develop common concepts across disciplinary boundaries in design research. He has also developed a model to illustrate the different types of design research and how they affect each other and the design discipline.
“I hope to contribute to a common understanding of design research and a terminology that is consistent across disciplinary boundaries,” he says.
In Per Galle’s model, design theory is divided into four categories:
|Classification of theory. In his model, Per Galle divides design research into practice-related theory and metatheory. Practice-related theory consists of three elements pertaining, respectively, to design processes, design products and the context of the design. Metatheory is theory about theory, which includes Per Galle’s own research into the theory of science and design philosophy.
Source: Galle, P. (2010). Elementer af en fælles designfaglig videnskabsteori. FORMakademisk, 3(2), 51-76.
Per Galle explains that metatheory mainly contributes to additional research, while the practice-related theory also contributes to design practice in the form of new knowledge about materials, methods and markets.
“Students are the main link connecting research and companies. The research-based education gives them a terminology along with a certain mindset and a confident grasp of research literature. That makes them very well suited as designers in private companies,” he says.
“Of course, occasionally a researcher will develop a patent that forms the basis of a business endeavour. But it’s also important to make room for basic research, which mainly serves as the basis of other research,” he points out.
One example of meta-research is Thomas Leerberg’s latest project at the Aarhus School of Architecture Research design in design research. Here he examined the structure of design research and what methods design researchers use in different countries, including Denmark, East Asia and the USA.
“My goal was to document the methods that the researchers applied to see whether there is a particular Danish design research. It turned out not to be quite that simple, however,” he says and explains that he had expected a higher degree of consensus about the practical approach to design research in Denmark.
Thomas Leerberg was head of research at the Kolding School of Design in 2007-2009. He was also active as a researcher at the Kolding School of Design and at the Aarhus School of Architecture, where he earned his PhD. This background has given him in-depth insight into the Danish design research environment.
Some of the Danish design researchers have a background as design practitioners. Thomas Leerberg looked at three research method strategies that designers are in fact already familiar with from their creative practice. The three strategies are specificity, materiality and construction. By articulating and explaining these strategies he aims to help bridge the gap between the creative practice that designers are so familiar with and the scientific practice that is the researchers’ home ground.
Specificity means being specific in one’s choices and results.
“Designers are specific about what they deliver to a customer. One example might be a chair designer: He is specific in his choice of materials and form. He knows that the different media have different properties. It makes a difference whether he chooses wood or plastic,” says Thomas Leerberg and adds,
“The same is true of scientific practice. Researchers are specific with regard to their results and their scientific method. Specificity is about condensing and making the right choice.”
Materiality refers to the balance between qualitative and quantitative properties, among other aspects, says Thomas Leerberg. Qualitative aspects are soft and cannot be measured, while quantitative aspects can be measured and verified. Thomas Leerberg underscores that both aspects are important, both in research and in design practice.
“In design practice, the qualitative elements include aesthetics and values, for example. But designers also have to address a wide variety of quantitative elements, such as functional requirements, legal requirements and material properties,” he explains.
“Designers are not supposed to give up the things they bring with them from their creative practice when they engage in scientific practice. They have a flair that gives them a head start in the field of research,” he says.
Thomas Leerberg points out that scientific constructions – the constellations of knowledge that create the conceptual structures which contain the theory that underpins research – are not static but manmade. They are left open and unsettled. That is a well-known approach for designers, who keep their design processes open for a long time.
“A research contribution can be just like a prototype. We know that it’s not finished yet, but it can offer an indication of the end-result,” says Thomas Leerberg.
Exactly because design research is linked with professional design practice, Thomas Leerberg argues that design researchers have an easier time working with the private sector than researchers in many other fields. In his current position as project director for the consultancy firm Rambøll Thomas Leerberg sees the benefits of working alliances between researchers and private companies.
“At Rambøll we work with a group of researchers and organise joint events. Companies should not just buy knowledge, they should engage in cooperation with researchers in order to generate knowledge. That creates a win-win situation,” he says.
In his experience, researchers are generous about sharing their knowledge and networks. And companies should do the same in the context of a partnership, he says, because if they keep their experiences and their knowledge to themselves they will fail to develop the best possible products.
One of the conclusions in Thomas Leerberg’s project is that the demand for knowledge in private companies far exceeds the rate at which research institutions are capable of generating new knowledge. He sees this as a further, important reason for companies to cooperate closely with the research field.
“If you walk in off the street you have to accept the knowledge that’s available off the shelf. In a long-term partnership, however, you can influence the choice of topics. And you can learn about topics that are on the horizon, which you would not otherwise have been aware of,” he notes.
Ida Engholm’s, Per Galle’s and Thomas Leerberg’s models and studies all confirm that design research is a complex research field. That makes it difficult to provide a simple definition of design research. But the fact that so many professions and disciplines converge within the same field of research also makes design research holistic, relevant to society, problem-solving – and a good partner for private companies.
“Researchers can handle cross-disciplinary contexts and issues, and they typically have a broad network to draw on,” says Thomas Leerberg.
Ida Engholm points out that research knowledge also benefits designer practitioners.
“Designers are better able to apply their own knowledge and experience in interactions with other professions and disciplines. That makes them more efficient, facilitates their work and holds potential economic benefits for private companies,” she says.
Per Galle is an associate professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Design, where he teaches design theory. As a researcher he works with the theoretical basis and theory of science that underpin design research.
The relatively new research field of design philosophy is central to Per Galle’s work. Among other issues he has studied design decisions and their knowledge base as well as the argumentation forms that are employed within the field of design.
Per Galle graduated as an architect from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture in 1975 and earned a PhD in computer science at the University of Copenhagen in 1987.
Ida Engholm is an associate professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Design and a researcher of design theory, design history and digital design with a particular emphasis on user experiences and aesthetics in web design development.
In her research into design theory and history she focuses on historical and current developments within design practice and the design concept. In a number of books and articles she has discussed the disciplines, perspectives and research basis of the design field.
Ida Engholm was a research associate professor at the Danish Centre of Design Research from 2004 until March 2012. Here she developed and was in charge of the Master of Design education programme from its inception in 2005.
She graduated as an MA (Danish and art history) from the University of Copenhagen and holds a PhD in digital design from the IT University of Copenhagen.
Thomas Leerberg is currently a project director in the consultancy firm Rambøll, based in Aarhus, Denmark. His research has focused on design methods and the use of digital media as tools in creative practice. The projects have often been network-based and involved a large knowledge base, for example the project Virtual Platform, which involved universities in the Middle East and Russia.
In Thomas Leerberg’s latest research project, the focus is on the method of design research itself and on the ‘research design’ constructed by the individual researcher and institution – a constructive epistemology. The project also focuses on design research as a ‘driver’ of regional and urban development.
Thomas Leerberg graduated as an architect from the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles and the Aarhus School of Architecture, the Department of Urban Design in 1996, where he also earned a PhD in 2004. In addition, he has 16 years of experience as a professional design practitioner.