Demarcating Design Research

I’ve been thinking over these last few days about just what we mean when we say “design research.” Does saying we do design research or that we are design researchers imply that we do a different kind of research? Does it mean that as design researchers we make a unique intellectual contribution to the realms of scholarship and practice that couldn’t be made by psychologists, sociologists, linguists, or cognitive scientists?

I want to make sure I’m not being misinterpreted here, and so I need to clarify that when I say “design research,” I do not mean, “design inquiry.” I think these are two different things. Design inquiry is unique. It is distinct from other kinds of inquiry. If design researchers practiced design inquiry, then perhaps their contributions (in terms of methods or methodics) would be a unique contribution to the intellectual landscape.

But to my knowledge doing design inquiry is not part and parcel of design research. In fact, it’s maybe only essential to research-through-design, which currently enjoys a kind of pariah status (at least informally) in the design research community. So, is design research writ large just a lot of scholars working “on a common theme but [from] different disciplinary perspectives” (Gibbons et al. 2006 on p.28)? A cursory look at the TOC of some design conference proceedings might support an answer in the affirmative. And if so, then what are the implications for the field?

Gibbons, M., Limoges, C., Nowotny, H., Schwartzman, S., Scott, P., & Trow, M. (2006). The New Production of Knowledge: The Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies. London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Knowledge Claims in Design Research

One of my summer research projects has to do with knowledge claims in design research publications. The question stems from an interest in understanding the similarities and differences between how knowledge claims are formulated in design research publications as opposed to natural and/or social scientific research. One would expect there to be some overlap as there is scientific work done in design research. In fact, there are lots of different kinds of researchers publishing in design journals so one might expect to see a variety of kinds of knowledge claims (claims with different ontological and epistemological underpinnings) being made in a given journal or conference. But what (if anything) sets a knowledge claim in design research apart from knowledge claims in the natural and social sciences? A preliminary observation is that within some articles there are a variety of different kinds of knowledge claims that have conflicting epistemological and ontological underpinnings. How do we account for this variety? And what are its implications for publishing in design research?

Summer Research Projects

The academic year is over, and after having taken a few days off, today is the day I launch into several really exciting and interesting projects.

Following are summaries of each major project. Hopefully, writing about each of them on the blog throughout the summer will provide (1) a modicum of accountability to the anonymous readers who may be checking in with me and (2) an opportunity to play a bit with the ideas in a public forum. This latter provision stems from a perceived need to achieve a greater comfort level with playing with ideas “out in the open” instead of waiting to share them in a more final, polished format.

For each project, I provide the “framing question,” and some amplification.

  1. What form do knowledge claims take in design research? This project is a comparative analysis of three different kinds of research publications: design publications, natural science publications, and social science publications. Random samples of each type (e.g. papers from Design Studies, Nature, and the American Sociological Review) have been preliminarily analyzed in order to gain a deeper understanding of the practice of making knowledge claims in design research by comparing a sample of its claims against other kinds. This is part of a larger project aimed at explicating the practice of design research.
  2. How do design researchers cite Donald Schon? Schon is probably one of the most frequent citations in design research. When researchers cite Schon, how are they citing his work? Are they demonstrating their familiarity with the “canon,” or does the citation have broader implications for their research questions or analysis? This paper is a first step towards a broader project of understanding the practice of design research. This project is being done in collaboration with Laureline Chiapello, from the University of Montréal.
  3. How is theory used in ToCHI publications? A similar study currently in review for publication in Design Studies asks how design researchers use theory in their texts. We distinguish between theory use in a written texts and theory use in a research project. We make no claims about how theory functions in the broader research project–only about how it functions in the text. This paper asks the same question, but focuses on publications in a leading HCI journal: ToCHI. **Another paper follows this same pattern in analyzing papers published as CHI, the leading HCI conference.**
  4. What possible (presents and) futures does the design research community imagine for itself? One way to approach this question is to inquire as to how we characterize it now. When I say “design research,” I mean “research through design,” as opposed to the scientific, humanistic, and historical (among other) kinds of research being conducted in the field. I use discourse analytic techniques to explicate a lengthy discussion on the PHD-Design listserv in order to suss out the generative metaphors that writers use to (1) characterize the current state of design and (2) imply (particular) possible futures.
  5. How have design theories progressively deepened our understanding of designing? Building off of a current project that adopts methodological falsification as an analytical lens, this project departs from Lakatos’s notion of sophisticated falsification and asks how a sub-set of design theories (theories about design) have deepened our understanding of design. In Lakatos’s words, referring to scientific theories, “… a theory is ‘acceptable’ or ‘scientific’ only if it has corroborated excess empirical content over its predecessor (or rival), that is, only if it leads to the discovery of novel facts.” (Lakatos and Musgrave, 1970) Using CK theory, the FBS framework, Figural Complexity, and Bounded Rationality, we ask what “novel facts” each theory provides.
  6. Can there be scientific theories that do not scientize design? This question served as the foundation for a paper recently presented at the European Academy of Design conference in Paris. It uses Karl Popper’s criteria for scientific theories as an analytical framework to argue that there can be scientific theories of designing and, importantly, that these theories do not “scientize” the design process, which is to say that they do not provide us with an understanding of designing as a scientific activity. We are in the midst of overhauling the paper in order to submit it for publication in a leading engineering design journal.

Aside from preparing for my qualifying exams in the fall, this list describes how I’ll be spending my summer days (save for a week off in August before the semester begins). Now the only thing left to do is get started…