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  • Richard Herriott

Do designers do or use research?

Updated: Aug 22, 2022

You´d be surprised to find what what some designers say and do are not the same.

Emma Fisher and Simon Taffe of the Swinburne University of Technology, Australia have surveyed service desigers use of research method. You can find the article here. They found that there is something of a mismatch between the designers´ attitude towards doing research and how they behave. 90% of respondents regarded engaging with research as “highly important” or “extremely important”. That did not translate into systematic research practice: three quarters of the designers said their research was only somewhat systematic or not systematic at all.

What is research? One description is that it´s the systematic investigation of a subject. It means understanding what ways exist to best find out about is going on in the world and people´s heads. The design research of academics is based on this approach and has two aims: to make for better design, and make for better education of designers. I´m a design researcher and I have up to now assumed at least some of what I and my fellow researchers did was exploited to make for improved products and, I suppose, more profitable business. According to Fisher and Taffe, I might be wrong.

For Fisher and Taffe research by designers means conducting their own investigations or making use of research literature. The authors reached out to 212 communication designers in Australia. They wanted to find out 1) How important is engaging with research during practice according to designers and 2) How is research currently engaged with by designers.

Before we get to the results in more detail, let´s look at the conclusions of previous work on the topic of what research designers do. A study in 1996 found “Most designers do engage in some forms of investigations but mostly in very informal ways” (P.J. Nini, 1996). Hannington (2005) looked into the topic and concluded research mattered to designers but didn’t ask how much or how systematic it was. Manfra (2005) found the quality and definition of research varied a lot – meaning it could be a little investigation and not done systematically. Barnes et al. (2014) didn´t get as far asking what designer did but found they thought research was important. And finally, O´Brien (2014) found the majority of building designers (architects) didn´t engage with research. I can add that a few years ago I had a look into user involvement by building designers working on hospitals in Denmark and found the research was pretty patchy and users were not much involved (and that included the patients).

Turning back to Fisher and Taffe. In the first round they wanted to find out what types of research designers did; did they use these methods in the last year; what literature did they read and how deeply did they read it; how systematic were they with their research. They included an option for respondents to pick from the 10 most common investigation methods (on-line searches, archival searches, site visits, focus groups, observations etc). They also provided a list of reading materials e.g. mass market material, academic articles, proceedings and client findings etc). All of that boiled down to the finding that “activities are limited; designers do not typically read or conduct research.” The approximately 20% of designers who did do research did not exactly scrape the barrel of choice when it came to methods: focus groups (23%), cultural probes (17%), focus groups (9%), questionnaires (7%) and experiments (15%) topped the list.

In short, research for designers who did do any amounted to meetings, observations and on-line searches. The last items reminds me of an anecdote about a ritzy Copenhagen furniture design firm whose idea of research was to scan Pinterest and copy what they found.

On the plus side, designers think research is important (the researchers did a lot to try to avoid skewing towards this response). And 16% of designers are reading the literature produced by people like me. Still, it´s more than a little disconcerting that so few designers did their own research and also that it was from such a narrow range of methods available. It´s not as if they have to wade through the sometimes indigestible prose of professional academics. Martin and Hannington´s Universal Methods of Design is inexpensive and very handy. And digging deeper, a mountain of freely accessible design research can be found using Google Scholar. The next step is to find out just what are the obstacles to doing research and to reading free research that exists already. Also, is this behaviour/attitide gap the same in other areas of the world and other branches of design?

Source: Emma Fisher & Simone Taffe(2022)Engaging with research during design practice: A mismatch of activities and attitudes,The Design Journal,25:3,374-396,DOI: 10.1080/14606925.2022.2058681

Herriott, R. (2018). Patient involvement in Danish hospital design. CoDesign, 14(3), 203-217.

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