Perspectives on building a foundation for design research

Perspectives on building a foundation for design research

Jeamsinkul, Chujit

Building a Foundation for Design Research Methods is one of the three sections of the Annotated Design Research Bibliography. Design is a hybrid activity that encompasses many disciplines beyond itself, which blend depending on the nature of the research project.To support a range of design research activities, thirty books listed in this section embrace research principles and methods from general to specific research content and practice across three levels of design research: basic research, applied research and clinical research. The content in the book lists demonstrate methodologies from many design research perspectives, from those with a social science focus to those with a science orientation, to those that build method from a design perspective.The research method guidance in these books is useful for both design researchers and design practitioners who are interested in building a body of design knowledge.


Definitions, perspectives and roles of design research

Design is an especially broad field with a mixture of both practical activities and theoretical knowledge overlapping several professions and sciences. Design research is as faceted as design itself, and varies according to what aspects of design are investigated (Sevaldson, 2000). Research is systematic enquiry, the goal of which is knowledge (Archer, 1981). Many perspectives on design research are explored methodologically in this section from those with a social science focus to those with a science orientation to those that build method from a design perspective.

According to Nigel Cross in his article: Design/Science/Research: Developing a Discipline, design research must be the development, articulation and communication of design knowledge. His taxonomy of the field of design research has three categories, those based on people, processes and products. The first one is design epistemology, with is the study of designerly ways of knowing. The second is design praxiology, which is the study of the practices and processes of design. The third is design phenomenology, which is the study of the forms and configurations of artifacts.

One focus of design research is the scientific study of processes and knowledge of design. Another focus is to develop theories, methods and tools to enhance the quality of design practice based on the body of knowledge developed by the scientific study (Sato, 2000). Theory, method, and tool are interrelated; they stand in either weak or strong relationship to each other. For example, methods are implicitly or explicitly based on theory, or in some cases, untheorized observation of practice, while the building of a tool requires a methodological basis. Theory develops abstract principles that explain a set of facts in relation to one another. Method sets a systematic procedure, technique or mode of inquiry, tool is an instrument that assists in the performance of an operation (Poggenpohl, 2000). Theories, methods and tools are all legitimate outcomes of design research.

Classification of design research

From the article Design Research and the New Learning (Buchanan, 2001) and also the conversation in PhD-Design listserv led by Ken Friedman with participation by William Gilles, Terrence Love, Chris Rust, and others, (PhD listserve, 2001), three levels of design research can be identified: basic research, applied research and clinical research. They are defined as follows.

Basic research, also called pure research, is a search for fundamental knowledge. This level of research seeks theories or laws explaining why things operate as they do, or even why they are as they are (Friedman, 2001). The focus of developing the research instrument is to gather information in as generalizable a manner as possible, without taking into account specific applications for the findings.

Basic research produces general theories that must be reworked for use in applied situations (Love, 2001). Because it seeks to establish significant facts and connections in our experience of design, this level is the most difficult and critical to the future of the design field (Buchanan, 2001).

Applied research focuses on how to do things in general (Friedman, 2001). This level of research undertakes to find results that are useable across many situations. The intention of undertaking applied research is to develop theories that can be used to help practitioners predict the future in particular situations (Love, 2001). With the disposition that this applied research could establish connections among many individual cases, this level is critical to advance understanding of design (Buchanan, 2001).

Clinical research is the examination of specific cases (Friedman, 2001). This level of research examines a particular situation to solve a problem in that situation. Clinical research is applied research in a specific context. The findings of clinical research are specific to the particular ‘case’ or project in which it is undertaken. The research instruments are created to gather information specific to the problem being addressed. The findings of clinical research cannot usually be directly applied to other situations because of the specificity of the situation from wihich information is gathered and the limitations of the research instrument(s) (Love, 2001). This research level is most recognized by designers and design researchers and is the most used (Buchanan, 2001)

However those three levels may interact and influence each other. Some research may fulfill both basic and applied functions, or applied and clinical. Clinical problems can suggest basic questions. Basic discoveries can inform applications. Applications feed queries to basic research and to clinical research, as well as provide solutions to problems (Friedman, 2001).

Focus and scope of principles and methods of design research

Even though the design discipline has some design method literature that is largely used to facilitate the creation of a solution or product in practice, there is little literature that establishes methods for design research to use in its construction of design knowledge. Design is a hybrid a ctivity that encompasses many disciplines beyond itself, which blend depending on the nature of the research project. A rich diversity of research methods is available for the field of design, but they are adapted from other fields such as natural science, social science, technology and the humanities; new methods developed expressly for design are under development.

The issue of using research methods developed for and in other fields without examining their transfer to design is a cause for concern among some design researchers. The underlying philosophical perspective, the original research goals of the host discipline and the relation to design research needs are all opportunities to more deeply understand research paradigms in general and design’s research orientation in particular.

This section concentrates on selecting books that contain appropriate methods for design research. Methods for use only in design practice do not appear in this section. However, methods for design research and practice can and do overlap as there is often no clear distinction befween them. The degree to which parctice engages in research is variable; likewise some research quickly seeks practical demonstration of its findings to establish its validity.


The initial books were selected from several sources as follow;

* References from articles in Section 2: Principles and Methods of Design Research, Proceedings of the conference: Doctoral Education in Design: Foundations for the Future 8-12 July 2000, La Clusaz, France, edited by David Darling, Ph.D. and Ken Friedman, Ph.D.

* A Bibliography of Design Research Methods and Applied Methodology by Charles L. Owen,June 1995

* Library search engine at the Illinois Institute of Technology and the University of Illinois at Chicago

* Commercial search engines such as, Barnes & and publisher websites

For the initial list of forty-eight books, the following criteria was used for evaluation:

1. Book content has potential relevance for use in design research activities

2. Both general and specific research methods are covered

3. Books are frequently mentioned and referred to by design researchers

Seventy-five participants in the design community ranked the list of forty-eight books selected for the methodology section. The result of the ranking showed that not many designers are interested in the domain of design research methods. They are more concerned with methods for design practice. This is no doubt why the ranking results are higher for books about methods that could also be used in design practice than methods that focus only on design research. Moreover, particular methods for design research are not well established. Most of the methods are borrowed from other disciplines such as science, technology and engineering, and business depending on what aspect of research is in question. These are possible factors for the results in this section being lower than in the other two sections.

Results from ranking

High ranking involved a positive response to the following four categories: read the book, heard about the book, know the author(s) and recommend the book.

The books that participants ranked highest in this section are:

1. Design Methods by Jones (1970, 1981, 1992)

2. Notes on the Synthesis of Form by Alexander (1964)

3. Developments in Design Methodology by Cross (1984)

4. Contextual Design: Defining Customer-Centered Systems by Beyer and Holtzblatt (1997)

Design Methods by J. Christopher Jones is both the most read and most highly recommended by the design community. He is known as a founder of the design methods movement. This book has been praised and widely translated into Japanese, Russian and Spanish. According to the field-keyword analysis, the fields that would strongly benefit from this book are technology engineering, architecture and industrial design. Intentionally focused on creative projects, the book is applicable to design research as well.

Notes on the Synthesis of Form by Christopher W. Alexander is highly ranked in all four categories: read, heard, known author and also recommended by design community. He explored a method of dealing with complexity in design by organizing structure through relationship and hierarchy. His theory underpins many computeraided design programs. The author also had another high-ranking book, A Pattern Language, in the Theory and Practice section.

Developments in Design Methodology by Nigel Cross, a well known author, is highly read and recommended by the design community. Engaged in design research since the 1960, his lectures and publications have received worldwide attention in the design community. Beside having an outstanding reputation, this book might be highly ranked because it can serve as a guide for researchers who are interested in developing design methodology. According to the field-keyword analysis, the fields that relate to this book are architecture and industrial design.

Contextual Design by Hugh Bever and Karen Holtzblatt is highly regarded in the design community. This book provides underlying principles and methods for how to apply a user-centered approach to business and design by showing how data gathered from one’s work can drive the definition of a product or process. This important bridge between knowledge from researchers and designers and its transfer to practice might be the reason why this book is considered relevant by the design community. According to the field-keyword analysis, the fields that strongly relate to this book are technology, engineering, business and communication design.

From the ranking result, most books that have high ranking are classic with the exception of Contextual Design which is very new, but despite this the authors are remarkably well known and respected in the design community.

keyword analysis

The percentage of the field-keyword distribution in this section is shown below:

Based on the field-keyword analysis, the books in the original list are highly related to social science, natural science and technology. Since these disciplines have a well established body of knowledge, most of the research method books found from a literature reference perspective fall into these fields. Other books included in the original list relate to business, visual communication, architecture, industrial design and education respectively.

The web survey included as participants those interested in design at an advanced education or research level, consequently their reponse was substantial with regard to books related to design disciplines, with less response to books related to science. As a result,

books in the design discipline as well as business and education were intentionally selected in the first round of bibliography development in an attempt ot even the distribution of books among different disciplines.

The books included in the final list relate strongly to social science. Since most of the research methods used in design research, particularly in user-centered design, are borrowed from social science, these books are recognized by many scholars practicing design research. Other selected books are distrubuted among architecture, visual communication, technology, education, natural science, industrial design and business respectively. (See table 2, p. 172-173.)

Observation on the methods

As this section had a relatively low response in the ranking prcess, additional books were needed to complete the list. These additional books were recommended by those actively engaged in design research such as the Ph.D. community at the Institute of Design, IIT and other scholars who work in design research or education. Most of these books relate to social science and education; some fall into the category of visual communication and natural science.

Final book selection

The final selection includes fifteen highly ranked books among a total of thirty books. Few of them are in the design discipline, most are in social research. Another fifteen books were added that are in the design discipline. The additional books came from book recommendations from participants in the original recommendation process on the web and from the Institute of Design’s “Search[re]Search” website ( The final book list was refined by consulting experts in the domain of design research and balancing the entries equally to various design research methods and disciplines. Eleven books in natural science, twenty-five books in social science, ten books in technology and engineering, four books in business, one book in education and seven books in creative and applied art (note: some books are in more than one discipline) are on the final list. Related to Nigel Cross’s taxonomy of the field of dsign research mentioned earlier, some of the books listed in this section can crossover in all three categories: esign episternology, sesign praxiology and design phenomenology. Some books relate more to specific categories depending upon the research content and the levels of dsign research in terms of basic research, applied research or clinical research.


From our study of the book ranking survey and book recommendation process by the design community, the highest percentage-ranking books in this section are in social science. This could be interpreted in two ways; either we have few methods established to directly support design research or those methods are not explicitly published and widely accessible to design researchers. As a result, to conduct design research, we need to borrow research methods from other disciplines that have more expertise in research activity such as social science and natural science. However, different disciplines have different goals and philosophy regarding research and the research methods needed to approach their goals, let alone differences in subject or content. If design researchers rely only on borrowed methods from other disciplines, the knowledge obtained from the research results might not directly be applicable to designers in practice. Some methods might need to be modified and adapted in order to be more suitable to the content and goals of design research.

Therefore, the research methods used particularly for design research activity should be sturcturally established and documented, which can be achieved by the collaboration of designer-researchers with various expertise from different disciplines such as design, social science, natural science or business. In order to develop design research methods that serve this discipline’s particular needs, we need to observe: what research questions design researchers explore and how design researchers structure and conduct their research in order to develop research methods that are more appropriate to design in terms of its context, process and goal. In the end this would unite research with design practitioners more seamlessly.

Furthermore, since each research contains particular goals and processes that lead to different method use, these methods should be developed with contemplation of their appropriateness in different categories of design research activity: design epistemology, design praxiology and design phenomenology, as well as considering their effectiveness as applied to different design research levels: basic research, applied research and clinical research.

In order to structurally establish the principles and methods of design research, this dilemma calls for contribution from both design practitioners and researchers. Understanding this need in design culture, researchers could position their research interest in a direction valuable to the world of practice as also discussed in the Theory and Practice section.


Archer, Bruce. 1981. “A View of the Nature of Design Research.” In Jacques, R. and J. Powell, editors. Design: Science: Method. Guildford, UK: Westbury House.

Buchanan, Richard. 2001. “Design Research and the new Learning.” Design Issues 17:4.

Cross, Nigel. 2001 “Design/Science/Research: Developing a Discipline” The 5th Ass, Nigel. 2001 Design Conference/Research: International Symposium on The 5th Asian Design Conference. Seoul, Korea: Su Jeong Dang Printing Co., Ltd. Design Science. Seoul, Korea: Su Jeong Dang Printing Co., Ltd.

Friedman, Ken. Ph.D. Listserv-, July 2001.

Institute of Design’s Search[re]Search’ website –

Love, Terence. Listserv –, July 2001.

OWen, Charles. 1995. A Bibliography of Design Research Methods and Applied Methodology. Oslo: Nordic Center for Innovation.

Poggenpohl, Sharon. 2000. “Constructing Knowledge of Design, part 2: Questions – an approach to design research.” In Durling, David et al, editors. Foundations for the Future, Doctoral Education in Design. Staffordshire, UK: Staffordshire University Press.

Sato, Keiichi.2000. Constructing Knowledge of Design, part 1: Understanding Concepts in Design Research.’ In Durling, David et al, editors. Foundations for the Future, Doctoral Education in Design. Staffordshire, UK: Staffordshire University Press.

Sevaldson, Birger. 2000. “The Integrated Conglomerate Approach: A Suggestion for a Generic Model of Design Research.” In Durling, David et al, editors. Foundations for the Future, Doctoral Education in Design. Staffordshire, UK: Staffordshire University Press.

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