Demystifying ‘Design Research’

Response and reflections to Demystifying ‘DesignResearch’: Design is not Research, Research is Design — by Trygve Faste and Haakon Faste, Human-Computer Interaction Institute, Carnegie Mellon University.

An ‘idea’ in the literal sense of the English language, is born with an ideal scenario. However, it is research that actuates or moves this ‘idea’ from an ideal scenario into a practical one. In this process of ‘design’, the idea may change its form, or even be diminished by the curbs of reality. Proceeding or ‘designing’ with an idea, without research would, in my opinion, lead to failure or dissatisfaction — immediate or in the future.

Surprisingly, I am delighted to note that Charles Eames definition of design “A plan for arranging elements in such a way as to best accomplish a particular purpose” almost coincides with my own definition of design as I had stated earlier this year in my Statement of Purpose — “Order is Heaven’s first lawDesign to me, is about creating specific order and organizing elements within it, which best accomplishes a task and establishes a framework for future improvements.” I would not agree with Krippendorff’s (2007) argument ‘in actuality, design research is an oxymoron’ because it’s just that, one needs the other, and we designers can understand that the research for design happens within “cultural nuances and contextual differences across subdomains”.

The best example that comes to my mind when I look at design as a ‘kind’ of research is prototyping. When we prototype, we must do it with a full heart as much close to the final product as possible to identify loopholes, discover new ideas, probably even force us to go back to the drawing table. Therefore, we need to build or ‘design’ our prototype which is essentially our ‘research’ into ‘designing’ the final product. Yep, lots of ‘quotes’ in this article.

This is obvious indeed - prototyping (as stated above), surveys, live samples, etc. I find a very valuable point here: “…while the results of design research activities are always new knowledge, they may not be intended for generalizable use or application beyond the project for which they are performed.” As part of the design community, I feel this is our foremost responsibility to generate, preserve and even propagate (unless bounded by law or IP) the knowledge that arises from any research, irrespective of what it was intended for.

The author mentions that the differences in design research methods can be significant, and I want to point out one of them. Speculative design, for example, would according to me, tend more into the scientific and theoretical quadrant, although it would not seem ‘basic’ and also would not be comprehensible to a common man. The ease with which the author mentions “designers’ indifference towards clear and thorough scientific justification” as a ‘process’ is worrying to me. Also, just because such methods might be successful, it should be emphasized that the deductions cannot be dismissed as coincidence or practice, but the scientific relationships must be established as much as possible, otherwise we are not doing our own future a good favor.

With the authors' view above, I do not see significant differences in defining design research, except that in the yellow (crossed) circle, we are isolating design research from the entire field of design itself, while we still know that the design research is for good design.

It is not clear from the author’s four-quadrant diagram above if the left or right are subsets of each other or only one of the other.

  • As mentioned above, I’m glad that my understanding and example of prototyping perfectly fits in the ‘Design Through Research‘ quadrant.


The author mentions “the lack of common vocabulary to help clarify” design, research, and design research which I think needs to be acknowledged more importantly, and not with a passing glance. “This paper, based on a review of recent literature…” is also an indication that vocabulary and the literary aspects of these design and research definitions play a pivotal role. How would these be defined in an Asian language, European or African? Would there be any differences at all? Will we be able to derive only four quadrants? This is not just to point out literary differences, but the vocabulary can pull the idea of such definitions into different quadrants or blurring the axes more.

Product Designer @intuit, Alumni @ParsonsDesign, ex@Akamai. Storyteller, Singer, Traveller, Entertainer, Dreamer. he/him/his