Design research, design practice, design thinking and professional practice (with added graphic design)

So much has been written and summarised about design research, practice and thinking. This post is an attempt to frame this very traditional academic topic in a clear and concise manner, with a nod toward professional practice, as well as an acknowledgment of the (often omitted) peculiar relationship of graphic design to the subject. So if you come from a professional graphic/communication design background and have previously found yourself reading existing summaries and thought ”what about us?”, this may make things a little bit clearer.

There is little consensus on the relationship between design and research (Stappers, 2007). Within academic scholarship, design often refers to the practice as a discursive pedagogy. Nigel Cross, for example, has argued that design should be harnessed to help develop a third pillar of educational discourse, separate from the existing disciplines of art and science (Cross, 2006). Theorists such as Peter Downton, Donald Schön and Bryan Lawson tend to frame design practice as a mode of activity or a generative thought process from which knowledge can be produced, the aim being to channel that knowledge back into the discourse of academic design research (Downton, 2003; Lawson, 2004, 2006; Donald A. Schön, 1983).

Cross’s core contribution to design research is in trying to identify and establish design as a discipline, in its own right, within educational discourse. Due to designers possessing unique “designerly ways of knowing”, Cross argues that design should be included within education, as a culture of discourse or, indeed, thinking in itself (2006). Design, Cross argues, as a third culture of educational thinking (alongside art and science) is not as easily recognised as the two established discourses, because it has remained unidentified for so long and, as a result, has been inadequately articulated (2006). Moreover, Cross argues that it is this difficulty in articulating design which is holding back its acceptance as an equal, alongside yet distinct from, science and art. Like Schön (1992), Cross argues that what designers know is largely tacit, that knowing being automated in the form of a repeated skill (2006). Again like Schön (1983), Cross argues that designers “find it difficult to externalise their knowledge” (2006, p. 9). This is something which appears to extend to graphic designers, according to (Brumberger, 2016), who illustrated that, in contrast to other disciplines, graphic design students not only struggled to explain their design decisions but were seemingly unable to even “understand the question” (2016, p. 388). Procedurally, this is something which Richard Buchanan alludes to when discussing professional designers in systems of human interaction within the fourth order of design (Nylén, Holmström, & Lyytinen, 2014), designers having personal awareness of the influence of systems and environments that affect their working lives, yet finding it difficult to actually visualise or experience the wider aspects of the system itself (Buchanan, 2001).

Design research remains an emerging methodology, still establishing itself apart from other disciplines (Kilbourne, 2015). The methodology can inform professional graphic design practice when identifying and analysing ways in which designers think and act while in the process of designing. It can be used to identify and intervene in what is described as the automated and tacit unknown knowledge among design practitioners (Schön 1992; Cross 2006). Design research is an approach that constructs design as a broad philosophical method, allowing academic researchers to apply reflective methodologies and processes across a wide spectrum of (non-design) professional practices (Gruber, de Leon, George, & Thompson, 2015). Within industry, it is has often been interlinked with the term ‘design thinking’ (Beverland, Gemser, & Karpen, 2017) and popularised as a method for transforming business practices (Brown, 2008; Tim Brown & Katz, 2009). This is a debated practice, with some arguing that repurposing design methods into external professions may be a culturally flawed objective (Kimbell, 2012), hyped by unrealistic expectations (Barry, 2017), lacking input from design researchers (Badke-Schau, Roozenburg, & Cardoso, 2010) and ignoring the diversity of design practices (Kimbell, 2011), and has even been dismissed as a myth (Norman, 2010). Others point out that much design research is largely located outside of professional design practice (Grocott, 2010) and, in the case of graphic design, largely overlooked (Meron, 2021; Walker, 2017).

Design research, design practice, design thinking and professional practice (with or without added graphic design), are on an unfinished journey. Much of the founding theory (and indeed practice) behind these discourses are dated and, along with an aligned and increasingly diverse series of design disciplines (and contexts and industries within which design is used), require constant revisiting and redefining. With that in mind, one persisting aspect that must be challenged, is the use of the word ‘design’ without defining what we mean by it and what kind of design we are referring to.

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Barry, D. (2017). Design sweets, C-suites, and the Candy Man factor. Journal of Marketing Management, 33(3-4), 305-311. doi:10.1080/0267257X.2017.1282727

Beverland, M. B., Gemser, G., & Karpen, I. O. (2017). Design, consumption and marketing: outcomes, process, philosophy and future directions. Journal of Marketing Management, 33(3-4), 159-172. doi:10.1080/0267257X.2017.1283908

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Meron, Y. (2021). Terminology and Design Capital: Examining the Pedagogic Status of Graphic Design through Its Practitioners’ Perceptions of Their Job Titles. International Journal of Art & Design Education, 40(2), 374-388. doi:10.1111/jade.12353

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S. Grand, W. Jonas, R. Michel, & B. Schneider (Eds.), Design Research Now. Basel, Switzerland.

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Walker, S. (2017). Research in Graphic Design. The Design Journal, 20(5), 549-559. doi:10.1080/14606925.2017.1347416